So far in this column, the default setting for TV horror has been the supernatural; usually ghosts (vengeful division), and a cult or two (whether it be Satan or crops). However, I would be remiss if I didn’t tend to any unusual domestic activities on a more human scale. This brings us to The Babysitter (1980), Peter Medak’s chilling tale of live-in help with some serious boundary issues. She doesn’t do windows, but she will do away with you and your family.
Originally airing on Friday, November 28th, 1980 as part of the ABC Friday Night Movie, The Babysitter as well as NBC’s Friday Night at the Movies would get trounced by CBS’ top rated shows The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas, but those were number two and one in the land, so nobody was breaking through that block, not even the nanny from Hell.
Let’s see what our Pledge smudged TV GUIDE has in store for us:
THE BABYSITTER (Friday, 9pm, ABC)
A fractured family’s new hired help may be hiding a terrible secret. William Shatner, Patty Duke Astin star.
The Benedict family has just moved into their new home on the island. Dad Jeff (William Shatner – Kingdom of the Spiders) is a dentist in the city, mom Liz (Patty Duke Astin – The Swarm) is stay at home and a recovering alcoholic and daughter Tara (Quinn Cummings – The Goodbye Girl) is a weird 12 year old who still plays with dolls. No one gets along great with anyone; it’s clear the grown ups are having marital issues, and Tara has no friends to bitch to about her folks. Enter Joanna (Stephanie Zimbalist – The Awakening), a beautiful 18 year old girl who Tara spots one day on their property. Joanna tells Tara she lives on the other side of the island, looking after a family. After Joanna pulls Liz from a car wreck, she decides to hire her to look after the family, to Jeff’s initial and natural concern.
Everything goes swimmingly at first; Joanna is seen as a mentor to Tara, and tends to the household with little personal interference. However, neighbor Dr. Lindquist (John Houseman – The Fog) has misgivings about Joanna from the start, and does some digging into her past, which before long will collide with the present as she worms her way into (and drives a wedge between) the Benedict clan. Will they find out that Joanna’s resume is lacking in living clients before it’s too late?
The Babysitter does not revel in the soapy or heightened sensibilities of later features such as Fatal Attraction (1987) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992). Now, you have Duke (or Duke Astin, here still married to Gomez Addams) and Shatner, so there are a few scenes of hysterics, but for the most part director Medak and writer Jennifer Miller (The Dark Secret of Harvest Home) go for a low key approach that ups the creepy factor. A boating “accident” treated calmly by one character and the slow reveal by Houseman as he searches the plastic wrapped inside of a home offer up a serene dread where theatrics could have easily hammered home the point, a style that Medak effectively wielded with the same year’s The Changeling. Some of this can be chalked up to budgetary constraints inherent in the TV realm, but regardless it’s refreshing to see the subject matter treated in a serious manner.
But it’s also very entertaining. This is B material all the way, from Liz’s predictable fall from sobriety to Joanna’s seduction of Jeff, frightened hairpiece and all. It just doesn’t get in your face about it, until a dramatic finale that is tinged with sadness, all due to a cast member who rises above her material to deliver a surprisingly touching (in addition to super creepy) performance – one Stephanie Zimbalist.
This isn’t to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t rise up to the material; Duke Astin always does distraught with a clear eyed intelligence, and Shatner is for the most part restrained, at least according to the Shatner Scale. Cummings was outgrowing her cute girl phase, and gives a solid turn as the quirky adolescent who turns against her mentor before anyone else comes around. As for the voice of reason, who else do you get besides the seasoned Houseman? But the whole show would collapse without the right actress in the lead, and Zimbalist brings an insidious charm and pathos to Joanna beyond the surprisingly grounded back story afforded her. Her unassuming, freshly scrubbed appearance belies a tragic past and she slowly reveals layers of the character in gripping interactions with Shatner, Duke Astin, and especially Houseman. She’s never less than believable as the fractured girl, and even gives Joanna a gnarled sense of dignity. She’s simply terrific.
The Babysitter doesn’t offer the viewer any apparitions to expel, or malevolent demons to purge. The evils presented here are firmly entrenched in the ideals of family, and a yearning for inclusion that can lead down some pretty dark roads. Oh, and let’s not forget, a proclivity for plastic wrap.Next: It Came From The Tube: CROWHAVEN FARM (1970)