Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Victoria Vetri, Patsy Kelly, Elisha Cook Jr., Emmaline Henry, Charles Grodin, Hanna Landy, Phil Leeds, D’Urville Martin, Hope Summers
1/2 (out of 4)
Like the cradle? I bought it at Hot Topic!
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Based on the best selling novel by Ira Levin, the Roman Polanski-directed Rosemary’s Baby is a deliberate slow-burn, an efficient clockwork of paranoia. It successfully depicts the intrusion of the supernatural into the real world, and until the ending revelations, its dangers are lurking just out of visual range, at the edge, in shadows. Thanks to Polanski’s sure direction and Mia Farrow’s effective performance, you wonder sometimes whether the character of Rosemary really is just going through the “pre-partum crazies”, at least until the literal ending that turns her world (well, The world) upside down (then again, maybe it’s not so literal – maybe everyone is just crazy).
Three 6's in a row! I'm on fire!
Rosemary (Farrow) and her aspiring actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a gothic-style apartment house named the Bramford and settle into a place where the previous tenant was a strange elderly woman (who blocked the entrance to her hallway closet with a large dresser). The neighbors next door are an eccentric older couple named Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). Roman is 79 years old and insists that he has been all over the world; Minnie is nosy and a bit overbearing. However, the pair seem nice and harmless enough, and Rosemary simply attributes their behavior to loneliness. There are disturbing stories about the Bramford – former residents eating children and another attacked by a mob for being a devil worshipper – but do you know how difficult it is getting a place like this in the city? Rosemary briefly meets Terry (Victoria Vetri), a woman close to her age that was adopted by the Castevets off the street. But before long, poor Terry throws herself out the window. Soon after that, Guy starts spending an awfully lot of time over at Minnie and Roman’s apartment. Anyway, Rosemary badly wants children, and she gets her chance when she eats some of Minnie’s bad mousse, passes out, and has a surreal nightmare about being raped by a beast while her hubby and the rest of the Bramford’s tenants witness the act in the nude.
The rest of Rosemary’s Baby is a skillful buildup of suspense, as Rosemary slowly (perhaps too slowly) realizes that there may be a coven of witches next door planning horrible things against her and her baby. The Castevets take quite an interest in Rosemary, and with Guy now their new best friend, convince her to change doctors (Dr. Hill is a nobody – Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) is a high society obstetrician who will give you a special discount!) and forgo taking manufactured pills so that Minnie can make strange concoctions made up of special “roots and herbs” in her private nursery. Rosemary reluctantly accepts this new diet, which includes lots of “tannis root”, which she eventually learns has diabolical origins, but by then it’s too late. (As much as we come to care about Mia Farrow’s character, her innocent and trusting nature eventually becomes a bit frustrating, but of course I’m looking at it from a 21st century perspective, not from a 1960s one). But that brings up another interesting talking point, with the 1960s being such a tumultuous time in 20th Century American history, where the social conformity of the 50s was turned on its head. Like other horror films of the 60s – I’m thinking specifically of Night of the Living Dead and Psycho – the concept of family is twisted and the fabric of society unraveled. The parents of our young couple are noticeably absent (were they ever around?), and poor early victim Terry had no family either (just a brother in the Navy). In a sense, Rosemary’s Baby can be considered reactionary, since the void caused by disappearing family members (and Rosemary straying from the Catholic church) is filled by a coven of Satanists. The anti-Christ is born at the end of the film, but Rosemary still feels obligated to be a mom to it – the mothering instinct being triumphant over all. (And forget about marital cohesion – the trust that is supposed to be present between Rosemary and Guy is completely destroyed by Guy’s unending desire for fame and fortune.)
Another party at Polanski's place.
That the film is an exercise in paranoia and anxiety is a given, and this aspect of Rosemary’s Baby has been discussed a number of times (see also: Night of the Living Dead). But I think it may have something to say about pregnancy itself and how mothers-to-be come to terms with harboring a (foreign) life form in their womb for 9 months. Conditions like neurasthenia and prepartum depression are covered – I think this film may connect with mothers on a deeper level than it did with me. Although, I don’t recommend viewing by expectant moms – not because of gore (there isn’t any except for a brief shot of Terry’s death) but because of the unsettling ideas the film brings forth. Rosemary’s Baby is carefully constructed, psychologically disturbing but not without humor – my favorite scene is when Rosemary panics, runs to Dr. Hill, and spills forth her suspicions in such a manner that anyone within earshot would consider her insane. The poor girl is a little bit too naive for my tastes, but then again what other type of person would be so vulnerable to the plans of a cult of Satanists? A small part of me also wishes we got a look at the baby, even though I understand why Polanski chose not to show us. In the end, it’s not really about the baby anyway, but the corruption of the family and the intrusion of the sinister into everyday life. Rosemary’s Baby is Polanski’s first American film and the second in his “paranoia” trilogy, which also includes Repulsion and The Tenant.
– Bill Gordon
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Buy Rosemary’s Baby (Criterion Collection) on DVD