Friday, January 17, 2014

Babysit at Your Own Risk

Among the untapped genres here at Weird Movie Village (and there are fewer since it began almost five years ago!), I realized we haven't given any love to the babysitter movie, and it's a rich category to mine. Think about it — there are at least five kinds of babysitter films:
  1. Babysitter is psycho and puts the children in peril
  2. Babysitter's psychological baggage puts the whole family in peril
  3. Babysitter turns Dad on; he wants her to do a lot more than watch the kids
  4. Babysitter is innocently watching the tots but a killer is stalking the house; more messed-up situations
  5. Babysitter has friends over; alcohol is introduced and the messed-up situation escalates from there
There were probably twisted babysitter films made before 1950 (hello, Kroger Babb?), but the first one I remember is Don't Bother to Knock (1952), with Marilyn Monroe as a category #1 sitter.

Her emotionally (and physically) scarred Nell takes an interest in airline pilot Jed (Richard Widmark) in the luxury hotel whose lounge singer (Anne Bancroft, in her film debut) has just kicked him to the curb. Things start out innocently enough — she pretends to be a guest at the hotel rather than the sister of the elevator operator (Elisha Cook Jr.), who'd gotten her the babysitting gig. But as her dementia increases, she starts to imagine that Jed is actually Phillip, the fiance who'd died flying over the Pacific and prompted her to attempt suicide. The babysitter mayhem occurs when Nell decides that her young charge, Bunny (Donna Corcoran) is hindering her romance, so she ties her up and gags her in her bedroom!

This is a strange film — only 76 minutes long, it was a "B" feature released by 20th Century-Fox and directed by future Hammer helmer Roy Ward Baker. Frankly, I don't remember Bancroft's performance, but Marilyn's is burnt into my memory. In one of her first leading roles, the young actress is obviously drawing upon her own troubled past for motivation, and it's painful to watch in retrospect. Don't Bother and Niagara, another dark Monroe film, are among my favorites. Most people prefer the sexy, lip-glossed boop-boop-de-doop Marilyn, but I love this Actors Studio Norma Jean.

As a kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, I saw a lot of the low budget Universal films from the '50s and '60s (because they were syndicated in cheap black and white programming packages). One of our local stations ran a movie after church every Sunday, so while the grown-ups were in the kitchen drinking endless cups of coffee and discussing local politics, I was in the living room with my sisters and cousins watching whatever was on TV.

That's how I was first exposed to William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965), featuring babysitters in category #3. I've covered this title before, so I'll be brief. Since I was an oft-babysitted kid at the time, it really resonated with me, especially the strangely fog-shrouded grounds that surrounded the otherwise typical suburban house and that groovy,  menacing title music. And that cameo by Joan Crawford at the very height of her "please don't light my neck" phase.

Another one I covered previously but deserves another mention is the Hammer Films production of The Nanny (also 1965), starring caterpillar-eyebrowed and veddy English Bette Davis as the title character (and category #2), holding an entire family in her sway after the young son, Joey (William Dix) had been institutionalized for drowning his little sister — an act, of course, he didn't commit. Time and time again, he tries to convince his parents that Nanny is to blame, but it's useless.

Davis delivers a terrific, understated performance here, but it's not without its Bette-isms, which makes it even better. She calls Joey Mastah Choey (say it aloud) and easily manipulates his barmy mother. An added bonus is the always-welcome Pamela Franklin as the boy's slightly older female neighbor, the only one who believes his conspiracy theories (and gives the ten-year-old cigarettes!).

 1971 brought us another English babysitter entry — Fright, starring the buxom and toothsome Susan George as the sitter in peril. Sadly, when it was released in the States, it proved to be a rather mild entry in the genre at a time when such great stuff as Tales from the Crypt and Vampire Lovers were coming to our shores. Now it's considered a proto-slasher; that may be true, but it's all proto and no slasher. Her sitter fits in category #4.

In 1978 came the ultimate babysitter horror film — Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis as the virginal Laurie Strode is left with a young boy and girl so her promiscuous friends can go off to have sex and get killed. She's the kind of babysitter I would've loved: never talks down to the kids, allows them to do what they want — within limits, of course.

And when Michael comes to get 'em, she rises to the occasion, although she stupidly throws down the knife she'd used to stab the killer way too early — which was intentional, as we now know. Part of the fun of communal slasher viewing is being able to scream, "Don't drop the kni-i-i-i-fe!" Laurie is sitter category #4, but her predicament is exacerbated by category #5.

I saw this at the Rialto Theater in Niles, Michigan (just outside of South Bend) about four times. The emotionless, efficient killer, the widescreen photography and director John Carpenter's original score just really got to me.

1979's When a Stranger Calls was somewhat of a hit here in the States, which mystifies me. Starring Carol Kane as the babysitter, it was a depressingly mild and unsuspenseful entry into the then-burgeoning slasher genre. I mean, come on. Halloween and Romero's Dawn of the Dead had appeared the year before; you expect me to be skeered by a mostly bloodless babysitter movie after them?

I guess it was the old "the calls are coming from inside the house!" gambit, but Bob Clark did it better five years earlier with Black Christmas. Kane returned in When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), a TV movie that aired cut on USA Network and was released with an "R" rating on home video, a common practice back then. The original was remade in 2006. I didn't bother to see it, but was only PG-13, so obviously it was as tame as the original.

Alicia Silverstone starred as The Babysitter in 1995. It's a psychosexual drama rather than a slasher, but it fulfills categories #3 and #5. Her boyfriend (Jeremy London),  her ex (Nicky Katt), and the father of the kid's she's babysitting (J.T. Walsh) all lust after her. There's a lot of drinking and softcore fantasy sequences. It's all pretty absurd. Silverstone fared better in the earlier The Crush (1993), in which she played a psycho nymphet stalking older man Carey Elwes.

Now here's one I need to check out — Babysitter Wanted from 2008. Evidently it covers all the babysitter bases and even goes into satanism, cannibalism and torture porn. User reviews on IMDB are pretty enthusiastic.


As we launch into our five year anniversary celebration, look for some new exciting features here at WMV. And let me know what you'd like to see covered next on this site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I never knew about Marilyn's babysitter film. I must see it!


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