Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.
So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.
Sometimes all you need to sum up a film is one simple sentence. But just because that sentence is simple, it doesn't mean the film is – either technically, or thematically. Films with the easiest synopses can often be the most dangerous. To sum up Baby Blues, using my own words: A young mother suffers a nervous breakdown and begins to systematically murder her young children, one by one. Such a simple sentence should hopefully be a sucker punch to the gut. It should hopefully cause a trifle bit of unease in even the most jaded horror fan. I knew very little about Baby Blues when I sat down with it. I knew it was about a mother chasing after her young child in an attempt to kill him, and I knew it was given favorable reviews by some horror pubs when it hit disc way back when. I sat down and watched, expecting a decent but forgettable romp. But what I saw knocked me back.
Mom (the eerily good Colleen Porch) is clearly not well. Her four children, including newborn Nathan, seem to be running her ragged. Cooking and cleaning and keeping an eye out – all of her duties as a mother are really taking their toll. Not helping matters is that Dad (Joel Bryant) is away from home almost constantly, due to his job as a truck driver. Anyone could take one look at Mom’s tired eyes beaming their thousand-yard stare and see that she needs help. Even when she begins to break down and cry when it comes time for Dad to hit the road again, he simply insists that everything is going to be all right. But it’s not. And as soon as he hits the road, things get real bad real quick. Their son, Jimmy (Ridge Canipe, who has played both young versions of Dean Winchester in “Supernatural” and Johnny Cash in Walk the Line), may be the oldest of the four children, but he’s no more than twelve years old. While he may still be wet behind the ears, he knows something is very wrong with Mom…but not until it’s too late.
Honestly, I was not prepared for Baby Blues. As a horror film fan, I like to think that I’ve seen it all, but that’s not even remotely true, and I’m glad it’s not, for two reasons: One, that would be awfully boring going forward, wouldn’t it? And two, there is stuff out there I haven’t seen and never want to see, because at one point filmmakers begin to straddle that line between entertainment and triathlons involving grimy basements and sexual perversity – shock for shock’s sake, etc. Filmmakers like Tom Six (Human Centipede), Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film) and even the lame Nick Palumbo (Nutbag) have absolutely nothing of merit to say with their films. I’m sure at the end of the day they can sit down and concoct some bullshit reasoning for sewing one girl’s lips to another’s asshole, or for including actual 9/11 footage in their film’s opener to attempt some tenuous connection between real world terror and their lamebrain lead character. But these guys just want to push the boundaries for no other reason than to elbow you in the side later on and say, “See what I did there?” That kind of cinema isn’t my cup of tea and it never will be. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t shock your horror-loving audience – it just has to come from a pure place. It has to shock you with its themes as well as its on-screen violence.
For instance, in the Troma film Beware: Children at Play, scores of kids are shot down and massacred in the finale—and, in addition to pretty much the rest of the film, is the reason it fails as any kind of experience rather than one of utter superficiality. The film wants to shock you in only vapid ways, but all it does is end up looking completely pedestrian and immature of the filmmakers to even try. Killing one hundred kids with no emotional build-up will never be as shocking as killing just one, so long as the appropriate development has taken place, and the conflict realistically and unpretentiously built.
I’m not giving anything away when I say that this young mother, under a tremendous amount of stress as well as suffering from post-partum depression, does indeed kill most of her children. That much is stated right in the film’s synopsis. But even though it’s right there in black and white text, you never quite actually believe it. Because you convince yourself there’s no way a filmmaker would ever resort to such techniques to tell a story. Reading such a synopsis might allow you to dismiss the words you are reading and concoct your own explanation: Perhaps the children are already dead once the film begins, either recently or in the years prior. Or maybe there’s some third-act twist revealing that the mother is just a psycho and it was all in her head.
Even as the children die, one by one, you think, “This isn’t happening. Or if it is, they only want to shock you with one child death. The other children will be saved.”
But you soon realize this is not the case.
And that’s why Baby Blues works as well as it does. At no point does it ever feel exploitative. At no point does it seem like the filmmakers have absolutely nothing to say about the on-screen events rather than, “This is fucked up, ain’t it?” All of the violence committed against the children is committed off-screen, but you will feel every hit and stab, that much I will guarantee.
The horror genre is immensely diverse, just like any other genre. But horror tests you in many different ways. I consider this film, as well as, say, The Thing, Phantasm, and Insidious to be great—but all in different ways. The Thing wants you to question the evil inside yourself, Phantasm wants to mess with your mind, and Insidious just wants to have fucking fun. Baby Blues wants to test you, too—but not in any of those ways. It wants you to face one simple fact: what you’re seeing happens. Often. Because people do not receive the kind of mental attention they need—either by their loved ones, by their physicians, or by society. And that has never been more relevant than right now, what with the current gun control debate taking place on the public stage. Some argue to ban automatic assault weapons while others state the problem isn’t the guns, but the lack of attention to those with mental and emotional problems. If our government’s recent output is any indication, it’s yet one more debate that will become so watered down by both sides that inaction surely would have been the easiest conclusion in the long run.
Co-directors Lars Jacobson (also the writer) and Amardeep Kaleka have an awful lot to say: about religion, about family values, and about mental illness. And it’s all included in such subtlety that viewers actually force themselves to realize those themes at film’s end. Because to have experienced what you’ve just experienced cannot go unanalyzed. The idea that Baby Blues was made for the sole purpose of shocking you just isn’t enough. You will demand to know why you were shown what you were just shown, and you will insist on knowing why such a film exists.
Speaking of subtlety, there’s also a moment in the film’s first act where Mom finds a rather racy matchbook in Dad’s pants – one that suggests perhaps Dad has certain hot spots he likes to hit while out on the open road for weeks at a time. And we never find out for sure if Dad likes to visit those kinds of places…perhaps drink a little too much…perhaps get a little too handsy with the dancers. Dad is certainly painted as a good guy – a good provider to his family. But even the best men are flawed, and maybe Dad is visiting these joints while no one is looking…or maybe, instead, he’s curiously fishing them out of a fishbowl at the truckers’ warehouse, where he often picks up or drops off another load, and living vicariously through the fantasies swimming around inside his head.
Perhaps the most famous horror film to feature a parent trying to dispatch their child is The Shining, and Baby Blues is quick to throw out a nod here and there to its cinematic ancestor. Either by lovingly recreating iconic shots, or including in its story the use of a CB radio that Jimmy uses to reach the outside world while fleeing from his murderous mother, Baby Blues is sure to pay its fair share of homage to one of the big daddy films of the genre. Obviously Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance was thirty kinds of insane, but Colleen Porch’s performance is nearly as riveting, just for different reasons. Torrance is a man possessed by ghosts of the past, but Porch is a woman taken hostage by her own demons spurred by her unsteady mental state. And though she may utter lines of dialogue from time to time that might be wrongly considered puns, they’re not meant to be quirky or ironic. When she threatens her children with a cleaver and tells them it’s past their bedtime, it’s not the same as Chucky killing someone with a ruler and saying “This rules!” (or something to that effect) – because Mom is delivering her lines through tears. Somewhere inside her she knows she is sick. She isn’t taking sinister joy in her carnage with a clownish grin on her face. She knows she didn’t want to do what she did and is still trying to do, but she is taken hold by her growing insanity and there’s no way she can stop herself.
Naturally I won’t get into the film’s ending in detail, but I will say this: Baby Blues’ conclusion looks you right in the face – you, the offender, in a sea of a million offenders – and says you will never learn your fucking lesson.