blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Babysitter (1980, Peter Medak)

The Babysitter is too technically proficient for its own good. It’s a wannabe prestige lurid TV movie about eighteen-year-old girl with a past (early twenties Stephanie Zimbalist) worming her way into a seemingly perfect family only to reveal all the cracks within.

Except it’s not a seemingly perfect family—and not even by the end, actually—with recovering alcoholic mom Patty Duke, distant dentist dad William Shatner, and chronic affluenza suffering twelve-year-old daughter Quinn Cummings. Cummings was the Oscar-nominated star of The Goodbye Girl at this point, so it makes sense when Babysitter is all about her at the beginning.

Mom Duke got so drunk so often she embarrassed the family out of Chicago, so Shatner’s set them up on a commuter island near Seattle. He’s neglecting Duke and Cummings to further his career—it’s the closest Babysitter comes to a subplot for Shatner, who’s otherwise pursuing or refusing Zimbalist. But Duke’s miserable having to hang out with Cummings, who’s on all sorts of medication for unnamed illnesses (don’t worry, they forget about it by the third scene), especially while having to stay sober.

So when Zimbalist starts hanging out with Cummings, both mooning over dreamy sixteen-year-old neighbor David Wysocki, Duke sees an opportunity. Zimbalist is a poor kid who’d been working as a nanny or something, and she needs a job. Likewise, Duke needs someone to keep Cummings occupied. It’s a win-win.

After a rapid montage for Zimbalist and Cummings, Cummings—Oscar-nominated Cummings—is basically out of the movie. The second act is about Zimbalist becoming Duke’s only confidant, advising Duke about her shitty marriage to Shatner while also trying to seduce Shatner away from Duke. The third act’s all the thriller stuff, mainly with Zimbalist and Shatner, but also John Houseman as the busybody neighbor who decides to investigate Zimbalist.

It also means there’s very little room for Cummings and Duke in the third act—but even Zimbalist starts getting pushed out too. The movie’s never clear whose bad dream it’s supposed to be—director Medak tries to focus on each character to give them a shot on the protagonist stage, but no one takes it. Or can’t take it in time. Medak and writer Jennifer Miller manage to be too quick with character moments while dragging out everything else.

As a result, it’s hard to care for the finale, especially since the main cast stands around to listen to a monologue no one cares about. The movie only realizes in the last few moments Zimbalist might be due some empathy as well, except the character motivation is so erratic it’s not worth the effort.

There’s some good acting from Duke. Houseman’s really bored as the investigating neighbor, but he’s got some charm. Shatner’s better before he’s got to play shitheel. Cummings is grating, but it’s the writing.

Babysitter doesn’t have an original score, and the stock music seems a little out of date—too groovy seventies—which makes the movie feel campy, except no one’s doing camp. Especially not with Redford L. Metz’s genuinely outstanding photography. Medak’s got a real lack of consistent tone, but it’s not Metz’s fault at all. Babysitter’s got swell lighting; Medak just doesn’t know what to do with it.

Maybe a real score would’ve helped since they really leverage montage sequences with music… who knows.

During the second act, while the movie’s about Duke, it seems like it’ll have to have an okay finish. The Babysitter doesn’t deliver, but it seems like it could for a while.

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