Thursday, 29 April 2010
The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: I is for I Don't Want to Be Born (1975)
Dame Joan Collins is an international glamour queen. Dame Eileen Atkins is one of Britain’s most distinguished actresses. It’s likely that neither of them sees Peter Sasdy’s I Don’t Want to be Born as a particular highlight of their careers. Before her career was revived at the end of the 70s by the discotacular screen adaptations of her sister Jackie’s novels The Stud and The Bitch Collins was no stranger to tacky horror, but this is Atkins’ one and only venture into Britsploitation’s murky waters. It’s one she makes memorable by adopting a very peculiar accent (‘Possessed – by the dayeveel!’) to play a demon-busting Italian nun.
Yes, like many movies of its time I Don’t Want to Be Born is clearly trying to emulate (i.e. rip off) The Exorcist (the popularity of which meant that the death toll for British horror films was already ringing), mashing it up with a bit of Rosemary’s Baby, and adding that uniquely grotty ambience only to be found in British films of the 70s, as well as an ingredient inexplicably missing from those earlier films – an evil dwarf.
I Don’t Want to Be Born has a classic exploitation title (disappointingly changed to The Devil Within Her for the US audience – perhaps they hoped people would mistake it for a porn film, and released on DVD as the thoroughly boring The Monster), but the birth in question actually takes place during the opening titles (accompanied by a marvellously funky them from the legendary Ron Grainer of Doctor Who, Steptoe etc. fame), so I Didn’t Want to Be Born would be more appropriate, although that sounds less like the title of a horror film than the cry of a sulky teenager. Anyway, I digress. 80s children like myself will be delighted to see that the nurse attendant at the birth is Playschool goddess Floella Benjamin. The doctor is Donald Pleasence, in a performance so low-key it almost seems like he’s going to drop off to sleep mid-way through a line. Collins plays the mother, Lucy, and she begins to suspect that all is not right with her unusually huge new baby Nicky when he bites a chunk out of her face shortly after his birth.
Lucy’s husband is Italian Gino, played by Ralph Bates, with an accent almost as strange as Atkins’. She’s his sister Albana, who’s a sister (although she’s also a medical researcher when she’s not busy nunning). ‘Now I’m here we are only going to speak English!’ she says, which is lucky for any non-Italian speaking audience members. They’re also concerned about the baby, whose behaviour is becoming increasingly destructive and beyond the realms of what a newborn can usually manage, smashing up his nursery and going berserk at the sight of all the crosses at his christening. Lucy has misgivings. Before her marriage she was a stripper, and she tells chum Caroline Munro about a disturbing incident that occurred one night after her act: The club’s resident dwarf, Hercules (George Claydon) (I’ve no idea if dwarfs were a regular feature of strip acts in the 70s - it was a strange time) made advances toward her which although ‘maybe for an instant I was fascinated’ Lucy disgustedly brushed off. The result: A curse from the seemingly demonic-powered Hercules that she’ll give birth to ‘a monster baby, as big as I am small and possessed by the devil himself!’
Given that the normally placid baby’s face keeps changing into Hercules’ leering features (in scenes a bit like that recent TV advert with Christopher Biggins in a pram only not quite as disturbing) it seems likely that this is indeed at the root of the baby’s violent behaviour. Nicky’s reign of terror continues as he drowns his nanny in a lake and manages to tie a noose, drop it round Gino’s neck from a tree and lift him off the ground to hang him, then hide the body in the cellar – needless to say, we don’t actually see the baby doing these things, it’s left to the boggling imagination. Sleepy Doctor Pleasence ends up being gorily beheaded with a shovel! Oddly enough, the only person who’s particularly nasty to the baby, housekeeper Mrs Hyde (Hilary Mason, the psychic from Don’t Look Now) is let off with just a dead mouse in her tea. The continual close-ups of the perfectly pleasant looking baby help to enhance the hilarity of the whole thing.
Sister Albana has her own theory of what’s wrong with the baby – he didn’t want to be born (as per the title) and is taking revenge on the world because he was. Stanley Price’s very confused screenplay completely fails to match this up with the idea that the baby’s possessed. And what’s it possessed by – the dwarf or the devil? Maybe the dwarf is the devil? Oh, I don’t understand… can anybody explain? Anyway, good Catholic cliché that she is, Albana realises that the only way to sort the whole sorry mess out is with a good old fashioned exorcism. But can she get there in time to save Lucy from her ‘orrible offspring’s maraudings?
Director Peter Sasdy made some really good horror films like Taste the Blood of Dracula and Hands of the Ripper. This is the worst film of his I’ve seen (though The Lonely Lady, his 80s vehicle for flash-in-the-pan US starlet Pia Zadora, has an even worse reputation), but in terms of entertainment value it’s a genuine classic of British trash cinema.