Monday, April 8, 2013

You're a Virgin Who Can't Babysit

A rock star of the post post-modernist movement in literature, author Robert Coover wrote some pretty nifty short stories for his 1969 anthology Pricksongs and Descants. From a fairy tale told by objects to the rambling un-punctuated fury of Noah's forgotten brother, these are experimental tales that are sometimes tedious, sometimes fascinating, and more often than not, fairly horrifying. The most famous of these stories is probably "The Babysitter," a dark suburban saga that follows a group of loosely connected everyday characters (the titular babysitter, her pre-teen charges, horny boyfriend, hornier clients, and so on) through their repressed fantasies that sprawl over one fateful (or maybe very ordinary) night. The story itself is separated by different third person omniscient perspectives seen from different characters as they lust for a different life.

Though it probably made the biggest splash, I personally found "The Babysitter" to be one of Coover's lesser stories. Once you see what he's doing with points of view, the actual reading becomes rather dull. Sure, the shock of a dead baby or gang rape or bathtub drowning isn't easily brushed away, but since everything is ultimately fantasy, it becomes harder and harder to care as the pages continue to turn. Nevertheless, the thrill of a nubile young lady being leered over by everyone from a middle aged drunk to the town bad boy is easily ripe for a Lifetime-ish film adaption, hence Guy Furland's 1995's take.

Quick Plot: An unnamed (until the end, when the reveal of her rather ordinary name isn't actually that special) babysitter heads to her night job at the Tucker residence, where dad's already three bourbons in and mom needs a hand squeezing herself into a not-so-little black dress for a house party. Meanwhile, The Babysitter's on-the-outs boyfriend (one of the Londons, and I continue my pledge to never be able to tell them apart) bumps into an old pal who's taken a turn for the wrong side of the tracks. Old Pal is played by one of my major late '90s to early 2000s crushes, Nicky Katt, who aside from appearing in virtually every movie made between 1995 and 2002, also struck my heart as a rebellious teacher stranded on the miserable Boston Public. I harp on this casting because aside from riling up some of my younger days, Nicky Katt is also costumed and styled to be the spitting image of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Spike: leather duster, dangling cigarette, and hair slightly too high on his head. Bleach it blond and the resemblance is downright scary.

I know, I know: it's only 1995. Sarah Michelle Gellar was still winning junior daytime Emmy Awards and Kristy Swanson hadn't even DONNED a pair of ice skates yet. Stay on track Emily!

Anyway, The Babysitter's style of storytelling is as such:

-a character encounters The Babysitter
-a character suddenly acts extremely inappropriately with the underage The Babysitter
-extremely inappropriate action leads to dire consequence

-camera cuts back to reveal extremely inappropriate action with underage The Babysitter was a micro-fantasy

Surprisingly, Furland's film is an extremely faithful adaptation of a 20 or so page story. But that doesn't really make it any fun. Furland (now a veteran of directing for television, including credits for The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy) plays very carefully with his tone, assigning overly aggressive musical scores to blatantly show us what kind of mood the fantasy should generate (sexy saxophone for dad's porn 101 vision, playful piano for his son's naughty PG peeping, etc.). He's also not afraid to surrender to all-out sleaze, at least within the parameters of whatever rating system his film gets. The actual content is about as risque as an episode of Gossip Girl, strange when you add in uncensored use of the F word.

And smoking. LOTS of badass delinquent smoking.

As a child of the '80s and a teenager of the '90s, I have plenty of affectionate nostalgia for this era. Though cinesnobs are often eager to discount the '90s as worthless save for the occasional Pulp Fiction, I think there are plenty of gems to be found, even if they generally, well, don't LOOK good. Take, for example, Michael Tolkin's fantastically challenging moral tale The Rapture, which goes for some of the gutsiest filmmaking I've ever seen, yet visually, never seems to have a speck of ambition. I'm not versed enough in media studies to diagnose the issue, but for whatever reason, '90s films just aren't that, well, pretty.

Despite starring Alicia Silverstone in between her Crush and Clueless years, The Babysitter is also not a pretty movie. Sometimes, this feels smartly intentional, even if it becomes insufferably grotesque. Poor Lee Garlington is saddled with the horrid character of a plump, insecure housewife whose idea of sexy is having her neighbor George Segal pour champagne down the side of her mouth. There's girdle humor/horror, which somehow always feels misogynistic when executed in front of your eyes. Indeed, watching a middle aged suburban mom humiliate herself at an insufferable cocktail party is horrifically uncomfortably, as is seeing a seedy J.T. Walsh leer over an extremely young Silverstone. Aside from Dolly, everyone's fantasy seems to be the same: have sex with Cher. And yes, that includes her 10-or-so-year-old babysitting charge, who sneaks in the sorta R-rated nudity via a girlie magazine.

When I heard that a film had been made based on Coover's story, I assumed it merely lifted the concept of a cute teen babysitter lighting the libidos of every male who came across her path. That IS the case, but Furland should certainly be credited with trying to maintain what made the original tale so memorable in the first place, namely, the multiple points of view. The problem, however, with such a concept on film is that we as an audience can't possibly care about anyone. We're never given enough time with any individual characters to form any sort of connection, although the simple fact that all are horrible people with dull rape fantasies would make that impossible anyway.

High Points
As I mentioned earlier, the blatantly stereotyped use of music does a deceptively good job of mirroring a character's point of view

Low Points
The fact that everyone in this movie is neither interesting nor likable

Lessons Learned
A small ice cream stain on one's dress generally calls for a luxurious bubble bath

People in the suburbs are really turned on by the idea of soaping one's back

In the '90s, cool kids always toasted with lit cigarettes

No woman has ever mastered the art of flipping her hair with more skill than Cher Horrowitz

As both a token of its time and ambitious attempt to adapt a literary experiment, The Babysitter certainly has some merit for those looking for something different. Its somewhat experimental approach will probably surprise anyone looking at the shadowy cover art and reading the premise. Perhaps if this movie was made during a grittier era, the risk would have paid off. Instead, we're left with a rather ugly tale about ugly people.


  1. I'm not sure if I knew about this one beforehand or not, but I did actually think you were reviewing 'The Crush' up until you brought 'The Crush' up in your review (because I forgot the name of 'The Crush' is 'The Crush').

    Like you, I love '90s movies, but there is definitely something very generic about how many of them looked. Also, it seems like most teen movies from that time period involved scandalous sexual situations and lots of betrayal. What a decade!

  2. The cover is essentially The Crush without the overt Lolita reference. It's understandable to be confused.

    I'm glad it's not just me on the '90s thing. I don't know what it is (whether it was in part the actual film/video technique or what) but seriously: what an ugly era of cinema. At least we got plenty of scandalous sexual betrayal!

  3. Wow I had forgotten about this movie completely. I have to say that even the low points of this movie makes me kind of want to seek it out again. I haven't seen it since it was first released on video.

  4. It's a disc rental on Netflix, so it IS out there! I'd love to hear your thoughts on it today. Go for it!

  5. she's so hot in this