“I don’t mind telling you, Mrs Wadsworth, that I made a special effort to get this assignment,” says Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) near the beginning of The Baby. “It was impossible not to be interested.”
Rubbernecking viewers who have sought out this film are likely to agree. For if it was directed by Ted Post in the same year that he made the hyper-masculine Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, by contrast The Baby sidelines all its male characters and foregrounds its women as the power players in a bizarre battle of wits. This is the tale of two matriarchal families fighting for custody and control of a baby – except that ‘Baby’ (David Mooney) is an infantilised 21-year-old manchild, still crying and crawling and crapping his outsized nappy as though he were an early toddler. The formidable Mrs Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) lives with her adult daughters Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor) – all her children are by different partners – and while Mrs Wadsworth’s son might have given the film its title, his lack of agency or even character makes him like all the men in this film, dominated as they are by the strong, self-willed women around them.
The Wadsworths are “a pretty strange family”, living off Baby’s disability cheques, deliberately restricting his development, cruelly disciplining him when he shows any signs of improvement, and even abusing him sexually – but they do not count on the determination of Ann, a social worker newly assigned to Baby who recognises that his condition is in part a product of neglect and negative reinforcement. Where Ann’s predecessors only checked in on Baby twice a year – or in one case disappeared without trace – Ann herself is constantly visiting, and getting closer to the boy. Meanwhile at home, Ann mourns the loss of her architect husband Roger in an accident, and shares her grief with live-in mother-in-law Judith (Beatrice Manley Blau). As we learn more about Ann’s own peculiar domestic set-up, the social worker’s motives regarding Baby start seeming less than entirely professional – although just what they are will not become clear till the very end.
“Can you think of anything more horrible than being buried alive?” Ann asks a doctor (Tod Andrews). “Well that’s what’s happened to this client.” Suffocating home situations and live burials are key themes in The Baby, as all these women try to make the best of the cards that fate – and the men once in their lives – have dealt them. Ann and Mrs Wadsworth may spar over Baby, their class differences accentuating the gulf between them, but really they are very much alike in their ruthless capacity both to use and to discard others to their own ends. Accordingly The Baby, though marketed as horror, plays out as a deranged women’s picture, its melodrama modulated to the rhythms of errant maternity. It’s impossible not to be interested.
© Anton Bitel