“This one doesn’t want to be born!” That’s what Dr. Donald Pleasence says at the beginning of “The Devil Within Her.” Is he talking about the movie itself? No! The movie itself wants very much to be born, to share its bizarre and baffling incompetence with the whole world, like people who proudly display misspelled tattoos.
No, the “one” that doesn’t want to be born that Dr. Donald Pleasence is referring to is the baby that is coming out of Joan Collins. In fact, “The Devil Within Her” was originally called (really) “I Don’t Want to Be Born,” a great title that unfortunately makes it sound like a pro-abortion television movie. It’s also listed at IMDb as “Sharon’s Baby,” which would have been a decent title except that the character who has the baby is named Lucy, not Sharon. I can’t explain that one.
Whatever you call it, “The Devil Within Her” stands alone among the many “demon baby” films of the 1960s and ’70s as the only one where the mother is an ex-stripper whose offspring’s satanic tendencies are the result of a curse placed upon her by a jilted dwarf. Dwarf-facilitated hexes are shockingly rare in cinema, rarer still if we limit them to hexes involving the as-yet-unconceived children of flirtatious burlesque dancers. So “The Devil Within Her” is special.
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves, as we are wont to do when discussing cheesy horror films that are 95 minutes long yet contain only 15 minutes of plot. The movie begins with Lucy Carlesi in the delivery room, “giving birth,” which Joan Collins conveys by tossing her head back and forth like someone having a bad dream. Either childbirth is a great deal less arduous than I’ve been led to believe, or Ms. Collins is not giving a very good performance!
The baby, a supernaturally strong 12-pounder named Nicholas, scratches Lucy on the cheek the first time she holds him, drawing blood and terrifying Lucy. Dr. Finch (Pleasence) calmly explains to Lucy’s very concerned and mildly Italian husband, Gino (Ralph Bates), that it was most likely Lucy’s own fault. “Maybe she was cuddling it too tightly,” says Dr. Finch, referring to the baby by a gender-neutral pronoun even though he knows damn well what gender it is. “It may have had difficulty breathing.” Dr. Finch says to forget about it (the incident, not the baby) and go home.
At home, baby Nicholas’ first act is to bite the housekeeper’s finger. She says, “Why, I could swear he’s got teeth already!” which seems like a pretty easy question to get to the bottom of. Lucy, Gino, and the housekeeper dismiss the savage biting as probably nothing, and they leave baby Nicholas alone in his crib in his nursery and shut the door behind them, as was evidently the standard method of caring for day-old babies in England in the 1970s. Later, Lucy’s alcohol-fueled friend Mandy (Caroline Munro) comes over to visit, and they hear a terrible ruckus upstairs. Upon inspection, they find the room completely trashed, Nicholas lying peacefully in his crib holding a severed doll’s head. Their reaction is along the lines of: “Huh! How strange. Oh well, what are ya gonna do?” They leave Nicholas alone again and get back to drinking.
It is already very likely that Nicholas is possessed by the devil. Newborn babies do not claw their mothers or bite their housekeepers or decapitate their toys or appear in movies called “The Devil Within Her” unless they are possessed by the devil. That’s just science. The matter is settled by the arrival of Lucy’s sister-in-law, Albana (Eileen Atkins), who is both Italian and a nun. The Supreme Court has ruled more than once that the presence of an Italian nun in a movie about a baby is incontrovertible evidence that at some point an exorcism will be required.
Nonetheless, the movie has a lot of time to kill, so Sister Albana doesn’t voice her suspicions yet — not even after Nicholas screams and makes a crackling sound when he sees her, and not even after Nicholas’ baptism is prevented by his squalling like a boiled cat when the priest draws near. Instead, it is Lucy who first says aloud that she thinks Nicholas is possessed, and she only says it to Mandy, thereby ensuring that the story will not be moved forward in any appreciable way.
In flashback, we see why Lucy is concerned. Before she married Gino, she was a dancer at a seedy nightclub where the stage shows featured not just gorgeous, almost-undressed women, but also a frolicking male dwarf named Hercules (George Claydon). (Space limitations prevent us from examining in the present treatise the usage of dwarfs in European burlesque shows of the 1970s, but rest assured that we are very interested in the matter.) Lucy used to flirt with Hercules — harmlessly, she thought, but he took her seriously and made a pass at her one night, which she sternly rejected. Humiliated and angry, Hercules quite understandably reacted by lying in wait for Lucy, then leaping out in front of her and declaring, “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!” — you know, just as anyone would. Lucy had dismissed the imprecation as nothing more than the lovesick railings of a spurned midget, but now she fears it may have been a factor in her current situation.
Dr. Finch can’t find anything wrong with Nicholas, so he suggests Lucy and Gino sedate the baby and hire a full-time nanny. Basically, the doctor’s recommendation is that the Carlesis avoid direct contact with their days-old infant at all costs, lest an act of parenting should transpire. The nanny they hire, Jill (Janet Key), takes Nicholas for a stroll in the park, and Nicholas pushes Jill into the pond so that she hits her head on a rock and dies. Yes, Nicholas the baby does this. We see his little hand reach up from his buggy and shove poor Jill from behind. It is not the last time he will commit murder in this film, nor the last time it will be hilarious when he does.
To kill some more time, the movie sends Lucy to talk to her ex-boss from the strip club, a sleazily mustachioed, frankfurter-shaped man named Tommy (John Steiner). Lucy thinks he might be the baby’s father, which will be relevant in the genetic tests the doctor has ordered. For example, is there any history of demonic possession in Tommy’s family? Have other people in his line been born under dark curses placed upon their mothers by horny dwarfs? This may be useful information.
Meanwhile, Sister Albana has been hanging around, and she finally tells Gino that she fears Nicholas is possessed — according to British actress Eileen Atkins’ Italian accent — “by the day-vil.” She says the same thing to Dr. Finch, who humors her by agreeing to bring the baby in for observation. Before that can happen, though, devil baby Nicholas kills Gino by luring him into a noose magically suspended from a tree in the backyard, then decapitates Dr. Finch with a shovel. For his final act, he chases a screaming Lucy into her bedroom, then shoves his way through the door and stabs her with a knife.
Now, you are probably picturing a little baby scampering around doing these things, filmed with puppets or animation. The image in your head is probably very silly. The filmmakers knew it would be hard to pull it off convincingly, and also could not afford any puppets or animation, so instead we just see the noose, the shovel, and the knife, with the hands that wield them mostly out of frame, the illusion of a 12-pound week-old baby moving around killing people safely maintained.
Once about 45 minutes of the film’s running time has gone by since Sister Albana first should have performed an exorcism, and after the baby’s parents are both dead, Sister Albana finally performs an exorcism. The scene is intercut with images of Hercules the dwarf collapsing onstage in the middle of a show, the rebuke of his evil curse evidently causing his demise. Let this be a lesson to us all: do not swear oaths upon women who refuse to sleep with us unless we are certain they do not have religious in-laws.
– Where did the dwarf get his powers in the first place? Do all dwarfs have them, or only dwarfs who work in the flesh industry?
– In matters of demonic possession, what difference does it make who the baby’s biological father is? What are some methods of killing time in a movie that are better than pointless subplots and irrelevant quests?
– Since the nun is the only one left alive, does that mean she was our main character? Were we supposed to be rooting for her the whole time? If so, how were we supposed to have known this? Did the movie give us any indication? Show your work.