Larry Cohen is a coward. When his demon baby was born it slit the jugulars of the entire delivery team but remained unseen--scampering away through a sky light to begin its reign of half-glimpsed horror in the San Fernando Valley. There will be milk! But baby Nicolas is of another order. As the credits roll, Collins writhes in orgasmic pain as this demon baby will not pass. It's as if, observes Donald Pleasence, this baby "does not want to be born."
Larry Cohen's evil baby isn't evil at all, nor a baby, but is instead a latex mutant concealing cables and pulsating air bladders. But the baby in Joan Collins is The Devil Within Her!, an actual infant and a puzzler of ensoulment. Satan in a baby in Joan Collins--a Jobaytan...the Collinfantifer. Does it truly "not want to be born," as the alternate title suggests? If so, why not? Joan Collins rebuffed Hercules who made a pact with Satan cursing this baby to be both demonic host and dwarf-controller. But why should such a baby not want out of the womb? It must need and want to enact its demonic agenda, and surely the tender and mild brain of an infant is no match for the power of Satan.
Then again, perhaps it is little more than a passing moment of stage fright for Nicholas (who could be half-Italian), the baby pausing to contemplate which movie he will occupy once he finally vacates the birth canal: It's Alive? Rosemary's Baby? The Exorcist? Little Nicholas, your burden is great, for director Peter Sasdy will ask you to interweave an odd combination of all three.
Forceps force little Nicholas into the mise-en-scene of life--we see him first with his mother, moments after his birth. But this is no happy scene of mother-child love. Baby is at the end of the bed, lying inert like an abject excretion, swaddled--yes--but left to fend for himself, perilously close to rolling off the edge. Joan Collins has turned away and sobs inconsolably, perhaps realizing for the first time she is the putative lead in a movie about a baby that kills through editing.
The Italian husband runs to the bedside and turns his wife toward the camera. Three blood trails well-up on her cheek, mute evidence of a savage attack. But who would slash a defenseless mother only moments after giving birth?
Why has a dwarf cursed Nicholas? A flashback later in the film will recall the days when Joan Collins was an exotic dancer at a club in London. Every night she worked alongside Hercules, driving him to the brink of sexual insanity. And then, on the evening of her final performance, Hercules made his move in the dressing room--a shoulder massage that quickly morphs into outright groping. Rebuffed! As Joan Collins flees the club, Hercules accosts her at the door and curses her by announcing the very premise of the film: "You will bear a child as big as me and possessed by evil!" Strangely enough, this is exactly what will transpire.
The family goes home from hospital. But things do not improve, either for Joan Collins or the viewer. In one scene, Joan Collins has swaddled her child in a brown towel and placed him in his crib. Nicholas stares back, vaguely sinister and accusatory in his demeanor. Is he a mere baby contemplating a diaper dump, or is he the Dark Lord of the underworld plotting his future ascension to the levers of power? An eye-line match returns us to Joan Collins as a growing look of concern spreads across her face. We cut back--
LOOK NOW! BELOW! or DON'T LOOK NOW if you don't dare. Through a mere edit, adorable Nicholas has transformed into Hercules the malevolent dwarf.
And so mote it be, for here hath he is.
Joan Collins responds in the only way possible for a classically trained actress--she raises her hands to the sides of her head in utter disbelief: My baby has become Hercules the sweaty, leering sex dwarf. Dear God, what is happening to my career?
But when we cut back to the crib we find that "baby" Nicholas is back in his crib. Or was he ever gone in the first place? Again, through little more than a simple edit, the entire foundation of the diegesis has been put in question. Has Nicholas literally transformed into a dwarf and then back again into an infant; or, is Joan Collins slowly going mad, imagining for a fleeting moment that a dwarf substitution has taken place. A lesser film would give us a definitive answer to this riddle, but happily, here we are left with uncanny ambiguity.
Later, a new nanny takes Nicholas out for a day in the park. She rolls the perambulator up to the rocky edge of a pond and stops to take in the delightfully fresh air. Nicholas, now in a cute yellow onesie, contemplates his next fiendish deed by sucking on his fingers. We cut to the Nanny, lost in the wonders of nature. But then, in a shocking reverse shot, a hand thrusts upward from off-screen to fill the frame.
What hand is this? On screen for less than a second, the hand resists easy categorization and sets in motion a series of narratological conundrums. Are we meant to see this fleeting glimpse of a hand as Nicholas the baby reaching out to kill? Or has the dwarf-transformation happened once again, and it is Hercules who now occupies the perambulator? Closer inspection of the hand suggests that it belongs to an adult---but viewed in real time, there is no real way to make this determination definitively. Regardless, after another cut to the clueless Nanny, we see this same hand push the woman in the back, causing her to fall forward into the pond where she hits her head on a rock. She's dead! We cut back to the perambulator where Nicholas continues his diabolical masquerade of pinchable adorability.
Needless to say, the decision we make about this hand is crucial. If, having examined the still or slow-moving image, we determine this is meant to be an adult-dwarf hand, then it's appearance here outside of Joan Collins' field of vision implies that some form of baby-dwarf transformation has indeed taken place, thereby setting our conditions of engagement for the rest of the film. On the other hand-hand, we are told repeatedly that Nicholas is freakishly "strong" for his age, leaving open the possibility that this jiggly mass of baby-flesh is capable--at certain crucial junctures--to muster the strength and mobility necessary to implement his demonic intent. Ideally, one would need to locate the original viewers of this film from 1975 and query them as to their initial reaction to this sequence.
Then again, perhaps this is simply a cheat gone wrong, a "mystery" that did not in fact exist before the ability of VCR and DVD technologies to slow this image down for excruciatingly close analysis. Babies, after all, are notoriously bad at hitting marks or following blocking--perhaps this is no more than a baby "stunt hand" called in to execute the complexity of this shot, thus rendering the "dwarf-transformation" hypothesis wholly moot.
The housekeeper goes inside to answer the phone, leaving her cup of tea unguarded on the patio table. When she returns, she stirs some sugar into her cup. But something is amiss. The camera moves in to frame the dead mouse, now soaked in Earl Gray and resting atop her spoon. She screams and runs back into the house.
And here baby Nicholas delivers perhaps his most chilling performance of the entire film. As we see him back in his bassinet, snug and cozy, Nicholas flashes a fleeting moment of "crazy eyes," projecting a look of pure insanity and evil. It is a fleeting micro-expression, really, but one wholly befitting an infant who has, only moments earlier, leaped from his crib, pried open a storm drain, retrieved a dead mouse, dropped said mouse into a tea cup, and then returned--unsuspected--to the security of his bassinet.
The sequence is all the more chilling in that we are forced to execute the sequence of events in our imagination, retrospectively. Like all great horror, we must fill in the blanks of the leaping, retrieving, and mouse-depositing baby, making it much more terrifying than a crass aesthetic of common visibility. His signature eye-movement only confirms our worst suspicions--this baby is up to no good.
We see Nicholas on his pillow, apparently napping quietly. Ted leans in to look at the boy. Suddenly, his head flies up and back into the frame. He is "selling" the illusion of a spirited baby slap. When Ted settles at last in the center of the frame, we see that a small trail of blood trickles from his nose, more evidence of the baby's powerful musculature and freakishly accurate motor skills.
Film is a collaborative art, and here we have many cooks in the kitchen of excellence. Nicholas must project a sense of imperturbable tranquility. Ted must convincingly mime the whiplash motion one typically associates with a demon baby strike. And both director and editor must time this sequence with absolute precision, lest it devolve into a laughable, embarrassing farce for all concerned.
At this point, the viewer may be excused for wholly abandoning the "dwarf substitution" hypothesis. In the last few incidents, after all, it would appear that baby Nicholas has acted alone in his demonic mischief. To reignite our uncanny apprehension, however, director Sasdy wisely "bookends" the original transformation sequence with one that is even more challenging in its formal complexity and more shocking in its impact.
No sooner has Nicholas chased the deadbeat Ted from the nursery by walloping him in the nose, Joan Collins walks over to the crib. There is a faint smile on her face, proud perhaps that her son--devil though he may be--gave the sleazy Ted such a righteous beating. A POV shot shows Nicholas in his crib. The introduction of shiny car keys off-screen has inspired the young actor to wave his hands back and forth, introducing a novel element of dynamic movement to his typically understated acting style. As with Nicholas and the shiny object off-screen, we too become transfixed by the baby's animated waving. But then, in a flash shock cut, Nicholas the waving baby instantaneously becomes Hercules the waving dwarf. This time there is no mediating shot of Joan Collins to facilitate this transition, just the hocus-pocus presto of a graphic match from dynamic baby to dynamic dwarf. Only then do we cut to Joan Collins, paralyzed in fear. When we resume her POV, however, we see that Hercules has once again yielded the terrain to baby Nicholas who, despite his momentary transplantation to a spatio-temporal void of non-existence, a low-budget limbo as it were, nevertheless continues in his fascinated eye-tracking of the D.P.'s Jaguar keys.
Joan Collins runs through the house in terror only to have Nicholas spring up and stab her through the heart. Dead.
But, happily, the Italian father's sister is an Italian nun. And not just any nun, but one who has recently arrived in London to perform experiments with rats in a laboratory. Sasdy leads us to believe this scientific training will be relevant in solving the enigma of the devil baby...but no, it is a complete red herring. Having pondered this enigma for several days, I can safely say the nun's research program with rats has absolutely nothing to do with anything, standing as a veritable "Ambrose Chapel" of pure misdirection.
The time comes for sister nun to confront the demon baby. Here she goes straight to the Linda Blair playbook, chasing the infant around the room while quoting Latin. It is an extraordinary finale, baby Nicholas repeatedly pulled out of frame by unseen hands to simulate the devil's reluctance to surrender his diapered host. This manuever has the added advantage of giving the baby a series of painful carpet burns, thereby insuring he stay "in character" by crying through the entire sequence.
But finally the nun sister succeeds in pressing the crucifix to Nicholas' head. His crying immediately stops, replaced with the delightful cooing of an infant freed from Satan's influence. Meanwhile, across town in Ted's strip club, Hercules has slowly collapsed and died in a series of cross cuts.
Our final image of the nun sister says it all. This baby is clean. This movie is over. Let us thank God for both miracles.