“The Babysitter” (1980)

With the shocking election of Donald Trump as President came the news that white people are upset that they’re not as important as they used to be. Indeed, this is reflected in current media, where white people problems account for only 75% of the plots of movies and TV shows, as opposed to all of them. We’re just not seeing as many juicy dramas about lonely doctor’s wives, or bored, absurdly rich teens who spend much of their time either engaging in loveless sex or basking in the warm glow of their own ennui. We also just don’t see as much grade-A pulp like 1980’s The Babysitter, in which a miserable upper class family is torn to shreds by their manipulative, psychotic hired help.

The film opens with the Benedicts, newly moved to a remote island off the coast of Seattle. Dad Jeff (William Shatner) is a workaholic dentist, ignoring the needs of both his brittle, bitter wife Liz (Patty Duke) and their possibly emotionally disturbed, definitely creepy adolescent daughter Tara (Quinn Cummings), who spends much of her time alone, sullenly muttering to a rag doll. They seem to have it all, but, of course, still aren’t satisfied.

Tara befriends a mysterious older girl named Joanna (Stephanie Zimbalist), who just happens to show up after Liz is in a car accident. Despite not having a job, hobbies, or anything that forces her to leave home other than to go shopping, Liz evidently finds taking care of the house and raising a 12 year-old too taxing, and without so much as asking her for an address or even a single reference, she hires Joanna as a live-in nanny/cook/housekeeper. Jeff is opposed to the idea at first, but suddenly feels a lot better about it when he meets and locks eyes with Joanna for the first time.

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Though it’s unlikely that a house with just three people living in it would give her that much cooking and cleaning to do, Joanna is constantly on the go as the family’s sweetly accommodating slave. She’s also a tireless companion to Tara, weaning her off of television and teaching her how to swim. Nobody seems even slightly unnerved by the fact that Joanna never stops smiling, or when it’s suggested that she spend some time away from the house, replies in a robotic monotone, “I’m very happy here, Dr. Benedict.”

The sheen soon wears off, however, when Joanna becomes critical of Liz’s overprotective parenting. Already insecure to begin with, Liz becomes desperate for the approval of a teenager who just seemingly fell out of the sky onto their front porch one day. Joanna, who also sets herself up as Liz’s sole confidante, is not put out in the slightest by Liz and Tara’s near pathological attachment to her–in fact, it’s exactly her intention. She gains such a powerful grip over the family that she almost effortlessly talks Liz, a recovering alcoholic, into drinking again.”Joanna says it’s okay to have a drink every now and then,” she tells Jeff when he protests, giving the advice of her just barely out of high school employee the weight and reverence of an Oprah Winfrey guest.

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With Liz back on the sauce, Joanna can now move forward with her sinister plan, which is…well, it’s not entirely clear, but it involves feeding into Liz’s fear that Jeff is cheating on her, isolating her from her friends, antagonizing Tara, and, of course, seducing Jeff. The only person who senses something amiss about Joanna is the Benedicts’ neighbor, Dr. Lindquist (John Houseman), who, even from just a casual distance, can see that she’s up to no good, and starts checking into her background. He discovers that Joanna’s been in and out of numerous foster homes since she was a child, never in one long enough to develop a sense of family or belonging. Oh, and that she might have killed a baby once, but no one could prove it.

The movie tries for a brief moment to make Joanna seem sympathetic despite her malevolent machinations, a lonely, unloved girl whose need to be accepted has taken a dark turn. Then it just goes right into slasher flick territory, when Dr. Lindquist discovers the suspiciously well preserved bodies of the last family Joanna worked for, and Joanna, knowing the jig is up, knocking out Jeff and Liz and chasing Tara around the house with a knife. Dr. Lindquist shows up just in time to save the day, however, and Joanna is stopped from adding another dead family to her resume. In a bizarre “all is forgiven” moment, just as the police are taking Joanna away, Tara runs to her and gives her the shabby rag doll she’s carried around for most of the movie. Joanna finally shows real emotion over this gift of an old toy that some crappy rich kid doesn’t want anymore.

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Like the very similar Summer Girl and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the message is clear: woe unto the woman who dares hire a sexy young thing to take care of her children. All of them begin with women committing the sin of admitting they can’t handle all the tasks of childrearing and running a household on their own. All of them hire younger, more attractive women who can smell insecurity like a shark smells blood in the water to help them. All of these housekeeper/nannies instantly set about taking over the entire household, a task that proves remarkably easy, because the men are always helpless putty, unable to control themselves in the presence of a woman half their age making fuck-eyes at them.

In this case, however, it’s not just Jeff who’s helpless putty, but Liz too. Joanna’s half-comforting/half-seductive manner of addressing people, which involves speaking in a soft, breathy voice while staring intently at them, is so effective on Liz that you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if she agreed to make Joanna the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. She hilariously gives in to Joanna’s not entirely subtle manipulation over and over, with conversations between the two of them almost literally going like this:

LIZ: “I don’t want to go to the party.”
JOANNA: “You should go to the party.”
LIZ: “Alright, I’ll go to the party.”

Or, later, when Liz and Jeff’s marriage seems irrevocably broken:

LIZ: “I can’t leave.”
JOANNA: “So leave.”
LIZ: “You’re right, I’ll leave.”

All three of the Benedicts believe everything Joanna tells them immediately and without question, and whenever anyone suggests that perhaps she should leave their employ, either Liz or Tara or both respond in the negative with anguished, hungry (and occasionally angry) need. Nobody seems to think there’s anything inappropriate about a middle-aged woman and her preteen daughter developing a clingy, codependent relationship with their housekeeper, until, of course, as is the case in all movies like this, it’s almost too late.

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While not quite reaching the pinnacles of delicious trash as Summer Girl (for one thing, Joanna’s outfits aren’t nearly as skimpy as those of Cinni, the treacherous tramp of the later movie), it’s still pretty tasty, with some great lines like “You made love to her that night, didn’t you…did you think of me?” Amping up the camp value is that virtually all of the main characters are pretty awful from the get-go. Liz is a bottomless well of complaints, while Jeff is the kind of guy who, after his wife has some sort of emotional breakdown, comforts himself by banging an eighteen year-old girl. Even young Tara is a whiny brat, changing her allegiances to the various adults in the household whenever it best suits her. Other than some vague references to Liz’s previous drinking problem, they seem to live a charmed, enviable life. Near the end Joanna shouts “You have nothing to be unhappy about! in a murderous rage, and you know what? She kind of has a point.

Original airdate: November 28, 1980

Watch it here

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