Follow the Leder: The Baby Doll Murders (1993)

Dave kneels at the altar of Paul Leder again and hails one of the helmer’s best offerings.

Bob Cook was a regular among Paul Leder’s close-knit group of collaborators. In fact, it was Leder who gave Cook his first job in the business when the Rock-A-Die Baby (1989) helmer moved out west from his native NYC.

“I think it was 1983 in New York when I first met Paul,” says Cook. “When I subsequently moved to L.A., Paul’s daughter, Mimi, was about to go to work for Steven Bochco [as a script supervisor on Hill Street Blues]. Paul offered me the chance to take her place on his crew for his forthcoming film, The Education of Allison Tate (1986). We became good friends, and I rented one of his houses in the neighbourhood [West Hollywood]. There was an excellent rapport between us, although I think he liked that I could always make him laugh even in the worst of situations!”

Of which I’m sure there were many. After all, success was frustratingly hard to come by…

With a clearly defined political agenda, it’s surprising to discover that Leder spent most of his life churning out personal features that garnered barely a ripple of acknowledgment. As Leder’s son, Reuben, explained to Vantage Point Interviews, though, the prize of a passion project was a key career motivator.

“His oeuvre might seem somewhat schizophrenic as the ‘cult’ titles co-exist with a few ‘serious’ films. He loved the filmmaking process, and although he was never completely enamoured with doing movies like A*P*E (1976) or the other B-movies, they were the price he had to pay for Goin’ to Chicago (1990) and the others. Ultimately, he made his peace with that and put everything he had into every project, no matter what. Bottom line, there was nothing he’d rather be doing than making films.” [1]

While there weren’t any fallow periods of creativity for the prolific auteur, the ‘90s were a particularly feverish time, with Leder racking up a staggering eleven features prior to his death in 1996. It’s an interesting blend of projects and topics — from prostitution (Twenty Dollar Star (1990)) and revolution (Exiled in America (1992)), to small-town corruption (Frame-Up (1991)) and vigilantism (Molly & Gina (1994)). Think Larry Cohen via Sidney Lumet and you’d be somewhere close.

Naturally, Leder wasn’t content lacing his more bog-standard crime-thrillers with the same generic tropes that framed every other B-picture in the market either. AIDS dominated the narrative of Murder By Numbers (1990), and one of his best of this era, THE BABY DOLL MURDERS (1993), has abortion lurking prominently in the background.

A serial killer is stalking Los Angeles, and at each murder scene they leave the titular trademark: a baby doll next to the female victim. Lewis (Jeff Kober), the lead detective on the case is convinced that a recently released con, Les Parker (Tom Hodges), is the man responsible for these heinous crimes, but Chief Maglia (John Saxon) orders him to move on. A war of attrition develops between the three men — but when another woman is found murdered, the case takes a shocking turn…

At times, The Baby Doll Murders is a lurid slice of exploitation that veers into the realm of pulpy airport paperback. Thankfully, Leder’s grip enables it to swing into indie auteur territory at will.

A dinner sequence that could come from a Cassavetes flick…

A bit of hot tub sex that would fit in a Jag Mundhra movie…

The Baby Doll Murders is an intoxicating blend that works beautifully. A lot of credit must be given to the casting, which has Leder’s other daughter, Geraldine, in charge of hiring. Saxon is on fire, delivering a powerhouse performance, and First Power (1990) villain Kober brings the ideal mix of intensity and pathos to Lewis. Support is cherry-picked in the shape of Bobby Di Cicco (1941 (1979)) as Lewis’ mild-mannered partner Larry, and there’s a fine cameo from the ever-welcome sight of Don Stark as a sleazy lawyer.

Shot in and around L.A, Dana Walden’s no-frills synth score dovetails with Francis Grumman’s sturdy, meat n’ potatoes photography. It’s another pleasing reminder that the wonderfully un-showy Leder — a lean and mean master craftsman — is at his best without the trimmings.

[1] Goin’ to Korea: Reuben Leder Remembers the Cult Classic A*P*E by Brett Homenick, Vantage Point Interviews, July 2020.

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