The Devil Within Her / I Don’t Want to Be Born / It’s Growing Inside Her / It Lives Within Her / The Monster / Sharon’s Baby (1975/1976) -***½
I’ve occasionally been asked why I do this, why I spend so many hours of my life writing up movies that mostly nobody remembers, for no material reward. In general, that’s a complicated question requiring a complicated answer, but in the case of certain specific films, the motivation becomes very pure, very simple, and very immediate: I must write, because I must tell as many people as possible about what I’ve just seen. This is one of those times. I have to tell all of you about The Devil Within Her because all of you need to know that there’s a movie in which Donald Pleasence gets decapitated with a shovel by a baby. He’s not even a hideous, deformed monster baby like the one in It’s Alive! He’s just a fat, squishy baby with huge, brown puppy-dog eyes and a perpetual expression of bemused grumpiness, although he does occasionally show himself to his victims as a barrel-chested, middle-aged dwarf. All this in the context of a story that combines the aforementioned Larry Cohen film with ideas pilfered from The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby to create something so tremendously silly that you’ll never believe it isn’t Italian.
We begin with Lucy Carlesi (Joan Collins, from Empire of the Ants and Tales that Witness Madness) in the delivery room of a London hospital, undergoing a rather difficult birth. The baby is huge— almost twelve pounds, as the hospital scale eventually reveals— and he almost seems to be actively resisting his mother’s efforts to expel him. “This one doesn’t want to be born…” muses Lucy’s obstetrician, Dr. Finch (Pleasence, of Raw Meat and Flesh and the Fiends). Little Nicholas turns out to be freakishly strong, too, and what’s more, he’s got a mean streak. When Lucy first embraces him, the infant lashes out and scratches her cheek hard enough to draw blood. Lucy and her husband, Gino (Ralph Bates, from The Horror of Frankenstein and Persecution), are rightly freaked out, and the doctor’s assurance that Lucy probably just squeezed her son tighter than he was expecting doesn’t assure them half as much as it was meant to.
Nicky continues to be a pain in the ass at home. He bites Mrs. Hyde the housekeeper (Hilary Mason, of The Thrill Seekers and She’ll Follow You Anywhere), and although he obviously doesn’t have any teeth yet, those jaws of his can exert an uncomfortable amount of pressure. He spits formula all over Mom at feeding time. He throws temper tantrums that leave everything within reach of his tiny limbs in shreds and tatters, his cries sounding more like the screaming of an enraged cougar than the usual cranky-baby wail. All in all, it’s enough to make Lucy morbidly certain that her baby hates her. There’s something else, too. Gino has a sister, a nun by the name of Albana (Wolf’s Eileen Atkins), whose order has just sent her to London to help with some project at its medical research laboratory (your guess is as good as mine). Naturally, Albana makes a point of swinging by to see her new nephew as soon as possible, and Nicky’s reaction to her is even weirder than his behavior overall. As soon as the nun sets foot over the threshold, Nicholas begins fussing noisily upstairs, and he pitches an absolute fit when Albana makes the sign of the cross over him to bless him. The baby stages a similar performance at the church where he was supposed to be baptized, wrestling against the priest with all his surprisingly considerable might until his parents, baffled and embarrassed, take him back to Dr. Finch for examination. Finch can find nothing organically wrong with the unruly child, and cautions the Carlesis that a psychiatrist would probably fare no better with Nicholas at this stage of his development. The big, serious brain disorders like autism and epilepsy can’t be diagnosed until a child is much older, so there’s nothing much that Finch can recommend for now beyond to hire a full-time nurse and to keep some sedatives on hand for when Nicky becomes truly uncontrollable. On the other hand, the doctor does think that maybe Lucy would benefit from a little psychotherapy. Post-partum depression and anxiety are common enough, after all, and whatever may or may not be wrong with the baby, it’s obvious that the demands he places on his mother are causing her severe stress. Finch would no doubt write out a referral himself if he knew what Lucy was worrying about most, but she’s been keeping mum about that with everybody but her little sister, Mandy (Caroline Munro, from The Last Horror Film and Maniac)…
Before Lucy met Gino, she used to dance in the same revue as Mandy, a tawdry spectacle of bare tits, bad jokes, and corny carny crap presided over by one Tommy Morris (John Steiner, of Salon Kitty and Deported Women of the SS Special Section). Tommy had a habit of helping himself to the girls on his staff, and Lucy was his favorite during the period under discussion. For that matter, the two of them had a one-night stand for old times’ sake on the eve of Lucy’s wedding to Gino about nine months ago, which is why she reacts with such horror to Finch’s suggestion that a genetic screening may be the best approach to figuring out what ails Nicholas at the moment. The boss wasn’t her only admirer, however. Another of the performers was a dwarf called Hercules (John Claydon, from Berserk and Twins of Evil), who was frequently teamed up with Lucy onstage. Hercules was a flirty sort, but Lucy never thought anything of his affectionate, familiar manner around her— certainly she never guessed that the little man was in love with her. Well, the day eventually came when Hercules made his feelings unwelcomely clear, and Lucy reacted badly. Maybe not “Olga Baclanova in Freaks” badly, but plenty badly enough to trip Hercules’s crazy switch. The last thing he ever said to her was, “You will have a baby— a monster! An evil monster conceived in your womb, as big as I am small, and possessed by the Devil himself!” It was a weirdly specific malediction, and even Mandy has to admit that it seems more than a little prescient— especially once the child’s rages begin wrecking stuff that he shouldn’t even be able to reach, let alone lift and tear apart.
It isn’t until that nurse Finch recommended takes up residence at the Carlesi house that things turn really ugly, though. Her name is Jill Fletcher (Janet Key, from Percy and The Vampire Lovers), and she seems a solid, unflappable sort. When Nicholas tries to drown her in the basinet while she’s giving him a bath, Jill takes it in much smoother stride than anyone better acquainted with the child would, dismissing the incident with what sounds like a logical explanation. And why wouldn’t she, really? The notion of a weeks-old baby grabbing onto a grown woman’s hair and holding her face-down in a tub of water is too absurd to contemplate. Of course, that kind of thinking gets her killed for real a day or two later. Jill takes Nicholas for a lakeside stroll, eventually parking his pram just a few feet from the embankment. No sooner is her back turned than the baby lunges out, and shoves her into the water; it isn’t very deep, but Jill cracks her head on a rock sticking up above the surface, and unconscious people tend not to do very well when lying in ponds. Jill’s “accident” sends Lucy very nearly off the deep end, so that Gino, Albana, and Finch feel compelled to put their heads together on a scheme to separate her temporarily from the pressures of motherhood. Gino will take Lucy away on vacation for a few weeks, leaving Albana to manage their affairs while Finch admits Nicholas to the hospital for an inpatient evaluation. It seems like a reasonable plan, but most of the conspirators will never live to carry it out.
The Devil Within Her may be a composite rip-off of It’s Alive, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist, but the movie it reminds me of most is one that it doesn’t really resemble at all, and that didn’t exist yet when it was made— Exorcist II: The Heretic. What this film and Exorcist II have in common is that they both richly reward repeat viewings, because nobody could possibly process the complete extent of their badness in a single sitting. The Devil Within Her’s most fundamental defect is an inability to decide what it’s really about. It can’t make up its mind what’s really the matter with Nicholas, and neither of the explanations favored by the characters squares up well with what we’re actually shown. Is the child seeking revenge on his parents because he never wanted to be born in the first place? Lucy and Albana keep speculating about that, Dr. Finch says it aloud while delivering Nicholas, and the movie was straight-up entitled I Don’t Want to Be Born in its country of origin. But then there’s the whole demonic possession angle, to which director Peter Sasdy and writer Stanley Price seem equally committed. It too is never far from Lucy’s or Albana’s mind, and it is, after all, what Hercules said would happen. The possession theory is also supported by the baby’s consistently negative reaction to the trappings of holiness, and Albana’s climactic exorcism is successful enough to mitigate what is otherwise a wowser of a 70’s downer conclusion. Plus, the kid is named Nicholas— remember when “Old Nick” was the euphemism of choice for old folks too superstitious to call Satan by name? However, if we ignore things like the title, symbolic character names, and the protagonists’ own interpretation of events, and just watch the damn movie, what it looks like is that Hercules has cast a spell on Lucy that enables him to control Nicholas via the power of his subconscious mind. Otherwise, why would it be the dwarf’s face that Lucy sees on her baby whenever he’s acting out with especial vehemence? Why would it be his meaty, stubby-fingered hand that lunges from the pram to push Jill to her death? Why would Hercules succumb to a heart attack at the very moment when Albana performs the rite of exorcism over the child? I’ve seen plenty of movies whose creators were determined to force upon them an interpretation that their action wouldn’t support, but usually when that happens, it’s a matter of back-story or subtext. In The Devil Within Her, the filmmakers want to pretend that the surface-level story itself is something other than what they’re showing us, and they can’t even make up their minds what to pretend it is instead!
Now let’s zoom in, and focus on some of The Devil Within Her’s detail failings. Note, to begin with, that there’s no indication of how or why Hercules is able to do what he does, whether we take that to mean directing Nicholas like his own personal Id Monster or inviting the Devil to take up residence in the kid’s body. It’s never suggested that Hercules is a magician, a psychic, a Satanist, or even just a Gypsy. To all appearances, we’re simply being asked to believe that all sideshow freaks are possessed of supernatural powers, simply because they’re sideshow freaks! Now I realize that there are plenty of populations that crummy horror movies conventionally assume to have such abilities— the aforementioned Gypsies, American Indians, practitioners of Voodoo or other Third World religious traditions, and so on— but the point is that with those groups, there is such a convention, however indefensible it may be. This is the first time I can remember seeing a movie say, “Look out for those dwarves, man! They’ll put a hex on you if you piss them off!”
The specific nature of Hercules’s curse is rather problematic as well, as a careful comparison with It’s Alive will demonstrate. Both movies face the challenging prospect of having to sell a newborn baby as a deadly threat, but Larry Cohen was smart about it. The killer infant in It’s Alive is a mutated monster, incapable of passing even momentarily for an ordinary child. When its first act upon being born is to massacre the entire obstetrics team, we know at once that we can toss out all the usual rules of human neuromuscular development right along with the generally accepted principle that babies have neither teeth nor claws nor the ability to digest human flesh. In The Devil Within Her, by contrast, only the people closest to the murderous little tot are supposed to be able to tell that he isn’t normal apart from being curiously big for his age. Thus, far from being a fanged and taloned monster with unnaturally bulging muscles and a pear-shaped head, Nicholas is so cute that even an inveterate baby-hater might be inspired to coo over him in a thoroughly undignified manner. And let me tell you, the costumer’s attempts to make him look sinister by dressing him in hooded garments with wooly tufts above the temples to suggest a pair of devil-horns have precisely the opposite effect.
The most ludicrous thing, though, is the filmmakers’ insistence upon treating Nicky as a brute-force physical danger. It would be one thing if The Devil Within Her took after Village of the Damned by granting Nicholas paranormal mental abilities, and to be fair, there is a bit of that implied by the destruction he wreaks in the nursery when nobody’s around to see it. Unfortunately, “nobody” includes the camera, and the low-frequency rumbling that accompanies most of his temper tantrums suggests less the shaking of the house under his psychic onslaught than the explosive soiling of his diapers— scary for Jill and Mrs. Hyde, I grant you, but no so scary for us. And in any case, whatever psychic manifestations we’re meant to infer are of secondary importance to the child’s much-ballyhooed muscle power. This is a baby who pushes nurses into ponds, who cuts doctors’ heads off with gardening tools, who (in perhaps his greatest exploit) climbs trees to drop nooses around the necks of grown men, and then hoists them up off the ground to strangle. Naturally none of that can be shown explicitly, and ordinarily I’d be tempted to say that Sasdy was wise not to try. However, in this particular instance, the power of the imagination works against the film, conjuring up images more utterly hilarious than even the most tragic special effect. There’s one lovely sequence in which Lucy goes to see Tommy to raise the subject of his participation in Dr. Finch’s proposed genetic screening (on the grounds that he’s just as likely as Gino to be Nicky’s father), and ends up bringing him back to the house to see the child for himself. As usual, the introduction goes badly, and Nicholas bloodies Tommy’s nose. The blow itself occurs offscreen, represented only by a thoroughly satisfying “BAP!” on the soundtrack. That’s more than enough, though, to plant in our heads the picture of Nicholas sitting up in his crib, hauling back his little arm like a miniature Rocky Balboa, and socking Mom’s old boss right in his great, beaky schnozzola. If you can keep a straight face thinking of that, you might have a bright future ahead of you as a professional poker player.
Then there’s the acting. Donald Pleasence is predictably great, and the only reproach that I can level at Eileen Atkins concerns her bizarre choice to affect a German accent while playing an Italian. But everybody else… George Claydon I can forgive; nobody could deliver Hercules’s dialogue while dressed as a Medieval court jester and still hang onto their dignity. Caroline Munro’s movies usually leave me wanting more of her, but here she stinks up the place so terribly that I ended up not minding Mandy’s virtual disappearance from the story in the third act. Joan Collins unleashes a tidal wave of ham confirming that a trashy, prime-time soap opera was indeed her natural habitat. But even her performance pales into relative adequacy beside that of Ralph Bates. I have no idea what Bates thought he was doing here. I already needled Atkins for faking the wrong accent, but at least hers is a decent counterfeit. Bates’s, on the other hand, routinely comes and goes within the space of a single line, and at best it’s on the “Mama mia! That’s a spicy meatball-a!” level. At worst, it conveys the impression that Gino hails from the part of Italy that’s in between Dublin and Cork. What might be even funnier are his awkward attempts to simulate touchy-feely Mediterranean effusiveness, which suggest that the Dago-Tron 9000 is going to need a software upgrade or two before it’s ready for the market. And whereas most of the acting in The Devil Within Her tends toward excess, Bates underplays to the point of having no visible emotional response at all to the discovery that his infant son has gone missing, apparently by smashing his way out of a second-story window!
Despite all that, though, The Devil Within Her contains a couple legitimately interesting ideas, not all of which are badly handled all of the time. The notion of a baby turning homicidal because he didn’t want to be born is an intriguing one, even if nothing whatsoever comes of it in the end. After all, the 1970’s do seem to have been the era when even people with conventional values began to worry that the world was becoming too fucked-up to present a suitable environment for children. Meanwhile, it’s refreshing to see an occult horror movie that feels no need for altars of sacrifice, covens of chanting worshippers, or incipient Armageddon, and that takes a wider view of its genre than to limit its borrowing to just the same two or three oft-copied films. Not that The Devil Within Her doesn’t rip off those standard models, mind you, but it takes more of its inspiration from other, much more idiosyncratic sources. However, my favorite smart concept marooned in this stupid movie is Sister Albana, Science Nun. I can’t overstate how badly I would like to see a version of The Devil Within Her that was her story, and that made further use of her atypically modernistic take on her role as a servant of God. There’s a fairly long scene in the middle of the film where Albana meets with Finch to discuss her more unconventional suspicions regarding her nephew, and where The Devil Within Her momentarily starts firing on all cylinders. It’s set up so as to mimic the usual science-vs.-faith confrontation, but there’s really no “versus” involved. Albana is trained in medical science herself, while Finch has seen enough of Nicky by this point to recognize that he’s an extremely aberrant infant, and the two of them aren’t sparring so much as hammering out a framework within which their respective talents and perspectives can best be put to combined use. Obviously we’d be giving up a lot if the whole of The Devil Within Her were as thoughtful and effective as that one scene, but we’d also be gaining at least as much from the opposite direction.