In the opening credits of the delectably creepy 1973 curio The Baby, a social worker thumbs through pictures in a case file on a young adult male who never matured past infancy. The scene plays out like a horrific piece of time-lapse photography: First, shots of an ordinary infant and toddler in his crib or out in the yard, followed by shots of a long-limbed, kindergarten-aged boy squeezed into a wooden high chair, and finally a grown man in a billowy oversized diaper, staring through the slats of a playpen. There are far more disturbing incidents in The Baby, to be sure, but this simple primer should be enough to trigger the fight-or-flight instinct: You’re welcome to stick around and witness the psychosexual hysteria that surrounds a crib-bound man-baby, his deranged mommie dearest, and his coquettish older sisters. Or you can run away and never look back, lest you turn into a pillar of salt.
Like a sleazy drive-in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?—albeit PG-rated, in spite of “adult situations” so adult that today’s ratings board would surely stamp it an R—The Baby sustains a high dramatic pitch while following the residents of an old two-story that looks like it hasn’t been updated in decades. And much like Joan Crawford in Baby Jane, the matriarch taps into the camp quality of a Hollywood starlet gone to seed—in this case, Ruth Roman, who starred two decades earlier in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train. Anjanette Comer co-stars as a go-getting L.A. County social worker assigned to look after “Baby,” a mentally disabled man (David Manzy) whose infancy Comer suspects Roman and her nasty sexpot daughters (Marianna Hill and Suzanne Zenor) have artificially prolonged. As Comer persists in lobbying for Baby’s development, his keepers grow far less hospitable.
Though The Baby’s shock value sometimes seems overly calculated, writer Abe Polsky and director Ted Post (Magnum Force, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes) commit to their demented vision as fervently as they can, right up to a twist ending that attaches an exclamation point to a mass of sick psychology. Beyond the startling scenes of Baby getting disciplined with a cattle prod or having an adult encounter with the sitter, the film does well to make such an outlandish situation dramatically credible, at least on its own terms. By the end, the sum of all its twisted developments begs for a therapist, not a critic, to sort out.
Key features: Separate interview features with the nonagenarian Post and Manzy (now David Mooney, a teacher) were done over the phone, but they’re worthwhile, and both men recall the experience fondly. There’s also the theatrical trailer, which has been haunting the Internet for years.