The imprudence of Man is a common culprit in cinematic storytelling, leaving a mass of victims, human or otherwise, in its wake. Whereas the word ‘Man’ is often a truncated reference to all humankind, Baby – the eponymous character of The Baby – is specifically the victim of Woman; an adult male systematically abused by his mother and sisters, suspended in such an advanced, Bad Boy Bubby-like, infantilicised state that he hasn’t even reached the neurological development of a toddler.

Key art examples promoting the film The Baby often show a coy-looking, young woman holding a teddy bear while standing beside a crib that has over-sized feet and an arm with a hatchet hanging from its confines. A subconscious reading of this art immediately suggests this could be a slasher film, similar to the Halloween brand of promiscuous-babysitters/teenagers-getting-murdered, with the backstory of the horribly mutated stalker-murderer – in this case, a monstrous baby – playing out alongside a surprise physical reveal at the climax of the film. This could not be further from the truth.

Baby is not an anomaly to be discovered. He’s not hidden in the attic or lurking in the shadows; he’s even known to the authorities and has a babysitter who doesn’t bat an eye at changing the diaper of a twenty-something, fully formed man.

From the title credits, Baby (David Mooney, credited here as David Manzy) is established as the benevolent victim, never the aggressor. Upstanding social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer – note the elitist positioning of her character’s name), flicks through photos of her latest case, which affords us a potted history of Baby ‘growing up’ and provides instant familiarity with our titular man-child ‘monster’. In the opening scene, Ann makes her first visit to the Wadsworth home where she meets Baby, Mrs Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) and her oddball daughters, Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor) – who recall the sisters in another degenerate film family, Spider Baby (1967). Here, she gleans the details of their male-free existence: “We got used to being without men,” Mrs Wadsworth admits when recalling the desertion of Baby’s father following his birth.

Baby is not an anomaly to be discovered. He’s not hidden in the attic or lurking in the shadows; he’s even known to the authorities and has a babysitter who doesn’t bat an eye at changing the diaper of a twenty-something, fully formed man. All of these behaviours are early indicators that Baby is part of a normalised landscape, which means, while we may be tempted to consider him as a monster – and, in fact, we may even hold onto that possibility until the finale of the film – he is an accepted part of this cinematic world, more like any other developmentally impaired child. Another example is when the Wadsworth family holds a birthday party for Baby. Trussed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, he crawls among the dancing ‘adults’ like any other pre-verbal infant, attracting very little attention.

In effect, Baby serves as the red herring of this film. He is a victim, yet he is hardly monstrous – unusual maybe but not monstrous. You could say he is even loveable at times. The genius of The Baby is, having dismantled our presumptions of horror, writer/producer Abe Polsky now leaves us rudderless wondering where the true evil lies and where the storyline could be heading. While the Wadsworth women are posited as the obvious villains, nothing is as it fully seems in this film.

Ultimately, The Baby is a horror movie, and it is pitched as one, but you may be excused for thinking that pitch is another red herring until the film’s unsettling conclusion. It resembles a ‘70s telemovie in its aesthetics – straightforward and unpretentious – with director Ted Post almost blatantly sidestepping horror tropes for most of the film. Given Post’s masculine filmmaking pedigree, working with the likes of Clint Eastwood (Hang ‘em High and Magnum Force), assigning him to a project heavily centred on women was a curious decision, although one that works to both the film and the screenplay’s advantage. As previously mentioned, Post avoids drawing attention to his direction and, additionally, shoots his women without making overt gender statements. Even the perverse sexuality that underscores the film feels genderless.

This approach to the direction is a clever counterpoint to the narrative. We have a film that is about women taking control of men and assuming power in a distinctly non-patriarchal way. They keep their men as babies, refusing to allow them to grow up. Baby’s diaper is effectively his chastity belt. But, given this point is made so explicitly through the writing, it would be crass to emphasise it further in the direction. Additionally, let’s not forget that The Baby was produced at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement so many aspects of the sub-text were instantly registered by its audience of the time. While important, lines from the likes of lascivious party guest Dennis – “You must be president of the Women’s Lib” – did not need to be hammered home.

The aspect of Ted Post’s oeuvre that most significantly influences The Baby is his work in the western genre (he also directed episodes of Rawhide and Gunsmoke). In The Baby, the referencing starts with the soundtrack – a melancholic western-styled ballad (from composer Gerald Fried, also responsible for Kubrick’s The Killing) featuring symphonic strings and horns. The track conjures imagery of a high plains drifter against an expansive landscape but, instead, plays out over Ann Gentry in a suburban house flicking through photographs in her new case file.

Ruth Roman as Mrs Wadsworth perfectly embodies John Wayne – from her gruff vocal phrasing to her swagger and stance – which is most identifiable when she stands on her porch in denim and red boots warning Ann Gentry to stay away from her family. It’s hard not to imagine her resting her hand gently on a gun holster at her hip. To detract from the maternal, she functions more as the protector of Baby – a father in the absence of one – and fails to show any genuine, demonstrable affection towards him. Even the horror at the end of The Baby comes swathed in western wrapping. There is an assault on Ann Gentry’s grand home – a house contrasted to that inhabited by the lowly Wadsworths living off Baby’s social security payments – that could be compared to the siege of the Alamo or the climactic moments of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

Once ascertained that Baby is no threat, we, as the audience, may have pinned the Wadsworths as our central monsters but, while far from innocent in their actions, they are not the true monsters of this tale. They may have physically and mentally enforced the surrender of Baby – the only remaining male in their family – into a state of arrested development but their actions are eventually terrifyingly trumped. In many ways, this is a film about the monsters that hide in plain sight.

The Baby is a film made by men. As such, it could be discounted as being misogynist, portraying The Mother as Monster who devours her sons, an Oedipal succubus. On the other hand, another reading – one that appears more appropriate – could see it as lampooning patriarchy. In order to assume any semblance of agency in their lives, these women have little alternative but to become monsters. Patriarchy, as always, is the winner because the women are pitted against each other in a fight over men. This latter reading feels far more faithful to the intelligence of the film.

While The Baby may not be the horror movie you expect, it rises far above the appraisals that reduce it to little more than a demented curio. This is a film that deserves far greater recognition than it has ever received. Nobody puts The Baby in the corner.