Synopsis: Horrifying and darkly comic, Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut. This wildly entertaining nightmare, faithfully adapted from Ira Levin’s best seller, stars a revelatory Mia Farrow as a young mother-to-be who grows increasingly suspicious that her overfriendly elderly neighbors (played by Sidney Blackmer and an Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon) and self-involved husband (John Cassavetes) are hatching a satanic plot against her and her baby. In the decades of occult cinema that Polanski’s ungodly masterpiece has spawned, it has never been outdone for sheer psychological terror.
Rosemary’s Baby 8.5
eyelights: Mia Farrow. the cinematography. the eerie vibe. the ambiguity. the surrealist dream sequences.
eyesores: Patsy Kelly.
“He has his father’s eyes. “
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a tale of psychological terror about a young woman who moves into a large, luxury New York apartment complex with her up-and-coming actor husband only to discover that the building and its residents have sinister secrets. Soon she finds herself caught in the middle of a conspiracy, and no longer trusts anyone or anything, wrapped up in a severe state of paranoia.
But is any of it happening? Or this all in her head? Is Rosemary unraveling due to ill-health and the pressures of pregnancy? And how will this affect Rosemary’s baby?
Released in 1968 to much acclaim, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was a massive hit for Roman Polanski, grossing well over 30 million dollars on 2 million dollar budget. It was Polanski’s first adaptation, so his screenplay was deeply rooted in the original novel, basically translating it to screen. In fact, because of this, the first cut of the picture was excessively long, running at about 4 hours in length.
Thanks to some judicial editing, he was able to trim it down to a little over two hours in length, and created a modern horror picture of such influence that such classics as ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Omen‘ likely wouldn’t have existed without it. It even garnered many award nominations, in particular for its screenplay and for the lead actresses, Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon (who won an Oscar for her performance).
The film is almost all mood, with the chills coming from Rosemary’s perception of events around her, slowly building her -and us- up to a crescendo of terror. There are no scares in the traditional sense, no jumps, no dramatic music, no visceral moments, but Polanski was masterful in framing every moment in such a way that it brings into question what will come next, just as it forces us to reconsider what transpired previously.
And that’s why ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ works so well. As we are watching the situation develop we are constantly forced to assess and reassess what the truth of the matter might be, thereby creating a state of paranoia. What can we believe? What is real and what isn’t? Could some of it be true? And, if so, which parts? In questioning our understanding of the events, we are destabilized, unable to trust our own eyes.
For instance, right from the beginning, Polanski sets us up with some questions, in the form of the dresser which was displaced and wedged against a closet door. Why was it moved? Why was the previous owner trying to hide the closet? Or was she trying to block it? If so, why? And how could an ailing old woman move it by herself when it required much effort from two healthy middle-aged men to put it back in place?
Personally, this sequence immediately made me think that this was a haunted house story, or that there was some sort of malevolent being in the house that the previous owner was trying to block out. This alone set me up with one set of expectations, while the picture began to slowly put together the pieces of its true intentions. It would only be towards the end of the movie that we would come to realize the purpose of this dresser.
It is tremendously challenging trying to discuss ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ without spoiling any of the film’s impact. An aura of mystery and insecurity pervades the film, and only the very last minutes connect all the pieces together, revealing to Rosemary and audiences what is actually transpiring. So one has to tread lightly. Even the descriptions at the back of the DVDs are too explicit, exposing far too much of the story.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ works best when one knows nothing at all going in. I remember quite vividly when I first watched it. It initially felt long, and slightly slow, but it became such a gratifying experience as it developed and coalesced. Even watching it now, knowing what is taking place, the picture holds up because it’s constructed with such precision; it’s pure bliss to see the pieces put in place this way.
The film begins with a wide shot of the apartment complex, a uniquely imposing structure that immediately overwhelms and unsettles with its architecture and layout. Taking its time showing us the exterior, the film then introduces us to the Woodhouses, as they visit an apartment they’re considering. This not only gives us a sense of the couple, but also of the setting, seeing as most of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ takes place indoors.
In effect, this sequence acquaints us with our key cast: Rosemary, Guy and the Bramford.
Soon we will also meet Minnie and Roman Castavet, Rosemary and Guy’s neighbours. Both eccentrics, Minnie is particularly colourful and extremely nosy, whereas Roman comes off as a gentleman with a few secrets below the surface. The Woodhouses would soon find very little time alone: one of the two Castavets would always come visit, or they would bump into each other to and from their apartment.
They become inescapable figures, which isn’t helped by the fact that the building isn’t soundproof whatsoever, so Rosemary and Guy can hear the Castavets through their walls – especially Minnie’s grating voice, carrying with it all manners of gossip and reflections at all hours of the day and night. But what about the chants that Rosemary seems to hear from the old couple’s apartment? What could those be?
The Woodhouses are snooty people whose aspirations are made evident by their choice of home and the fact that would spend so much money on such simple things (200$ for a chair in the mid-’60s? That’s absolutely disgusting!). So it’s not surprising that they first mock the Castavets’ lack of sophistication and their peculiar ways. At first. Because soon enough the Woodhosues and Castavets would become inseparable.
Part of the reason is because the Castavets are at every turn, of course. Which led me to wonder where the line between being friendly and being intrusive is drawn? Conversely, where is the line between politeness and being hypocritical drawn? Both Rosemary and Guy, at different points, are polite to the Castavets even though they don’t like them. Why the pretense? Is being “neighbourly” so valued that it should trump sincerity?
Of course, the Woodhouses have plenty of problems beyond their incongruent social behaviour: they also seem to lack empathy for each other, despite all the initially apparent caring and intimacy. Guy is obviously a self-obsessed narcissist, totally focused on his career and dismissive of Rosemary’s concerns, but even Rosemary lacked empathy for him (ex: when he didn’t get an important part, she just turned away and ignored him).
The couple’s dynamic: he’s distant, she’s losing her mind. Lovely.
I love how the picture teases its audience, playing with its perceptions via Rosemary’s own deleria. Actually, one of the picture’s key strengths are these dream sequences, which are eerie, pretty and surrealistic. From that first one we get the impression that it will be difficult to trust Rosemary’s assertions and judgment – her reality is blurred, mixed in with some sort of nightmarish state that is difficult to assess.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
By the time that Rosemary is wandering the streets of New York in a daze, almost getting hit by traffic, there is no doubt that it’s only going to get worse. (as a side-note, Mia Farrow actually walked through REAL traffic with Polanski for that scene. They did it three times, with Polanski convincing Farrow that no driver would hit a pregnant woman – she was wearing a prosthesis for the part at the time!. It worked, and it’s as real as it looks.)
By the time that Rosemary is forced to make the ultimate decision, sacrifice or motherhood, we are convinced that she would make that choice. A terrible choice indeed. It’s such a demented ending: completely fragmented, horrified by what has been done to her, by what she knows, and by what will happen, she nonetheless decides to mother her twisted offspring. Would she be fit enough? Perhaps she’s crazy enough by then to be fit for Satan’s spawn.
It’s funny how memories plays tricks on you: every time I think of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, I inevitably think of this last scene – and every single time I keep thinking that we see the child’s eyes and that they’re yellow with slits. Appropriately enough, Polanski refused to show Adrian, so I made that up, no doubt due to Rosemary’s reaction to his eyes, and her recall of his father’s gaze. But we never actually see Adrian’s eyes.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Similarly, we learn to distrust Guy, who begins to act peculiarly, becoming uncomfortably close to the Castavets; his allegiance seems to have shifted. But has it? Or is that all perception? It remains that he is so self-obsessed that his intentions come into question, irrespective of what he’s actually doing – a perfect example being his admission of taking advantage of Rosemary while she’s passed out. Selfish… creepy…. dangerous?
John Cassavetes, for all his flaws (I don’t think he’s entirely credible), remains well-suited to the part of Guy: he manages to make him slightly villainous, casting shadows over him effortlessly. The filmmakers originally wanted Robert Redford because he would have had that charismatic, nice guy presence, but I’m not sure if he would have managed to sow seeds of doubt as well as Cassavetes did. He might have been more consistent, however.
Mia Farrow was delicate and beautiful as Rosemary. We immediately see her fragility, both on a physical level and a mental level; there is no doubt in our minds that she could fall apart under minor stresses. Her skeletal frame also sets up her illness, the cause for which becomes as unclear as her psychological breakdown. And with that short haircut and the make-up job, she looked absolutely dreadful, a victim, like a lamb for the slaughter.
Farrow is so good here that she would end up being nominated for multiple awards. She was so devoted to the part that she even refused to turn it down at the request of her then-husband Frank Sinatra, who wanted her to star in his own movie ‘The Detective’. She held her own, but he wouldn’t have any of it: he had his lawyer serve her some divorce papers while she was on the set of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Brutal, but what commitment!
Ruth Gordon is absolutely unforgettable as Minnie. The strength of her performance is such that you can’t imagine her any other way, And yet she was apparently reserved and very serious when out of character. Phenomenal. Sidney Blackmer’s Roman is also memorable. He reminded me of Roger Corman with his cool demeanour, with that tone of voice and the cadence with which he spoke. He and Gordon made for such a perfect pairing, playing off of each other marvelously.
Even the supporting cast was superb: Maurice Evans was fantastic as Rosemary’s friend, Hutch, and I particularly liked Elisha Cook Jr. as the concierge who showed the apartment to the Woodhouses at the beginning; he’s got such a stellar presence. My only real gripe was with Patsy Kelly, whose delivery was like a brick through a windshield. Horrible stuff. And the way that she rocked that cradle? Preposterous! Even a nittest (!) of wits would know better.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is hardly the most exciting picture one will ever see, but it’s a terrifyingly chilling one. Whenever I think of it, it’s with a certain amount of disquiet. The theme of satanism no doubt adds a sinister edge, because I’m always uncomfortable with anything relating to the dark side of Christianity – there’s something terribly disturbing in the notion that people would venerate a force of evil and wish its ascendancy.
It doesn’t help that the filmmakers brought Christianity into question early on, by questioning the value of the Pope and by showing a Time magazine cover that asks “Is God Dead?”. It was pretty daring in 1968 to start off with, but a part of me can’t help but question the intentions of filmmakers who would ask these questions and then show our protagonist give in to the forces of Satan. It makes me feel filthy just thinking about it.
Perhaps that why the film continues to spook me every single time I watch it. Not that I”m scared, per se; it’s just that my blood curdles as I’m sucked in to this nefarious plot.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Between the themes and the mood, I find ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ already rather eerie, but composer Krzysztof Komeda also added layers of tension with his score. On the one hand, he had “Lullaby”, a theme that had a childlike quality to it, but on the other he also had themes that were much more ominous, with choirs chanting the background, juxtaposes with the dreamier music to make for quite the nightmarish combination.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is ambiguous, and with purpose. I’ve been told by some people that nothing goes on in it. I have to disagree. What it is is subtle. The whole point of the picture is for it to creep up on its victim(s), getting closer and closer until it can finally strike. By then, it’s too late. Polanski’s masterpiece slowly builds up the paranoia until we, like Rosemary, are all-too-willing to give in to its sinister intent. And if that’s not horrifying, then nothing is.
Post scriptum: A sequel called ‘Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby’ was released on television eight years later. It features only one returning player and is considered a major failure by all accounts. Also, Ira Levin, who wrote the original novel in 1966, wrote a sequel in 1999 called ‘Son of Rosemary’. The intention was to make a movie of this story, but to this day nothing has come of it. Unfortunate. However, Michael Bay’s threat of a remake, thankfully, fell through.
Date of viewing: October 19, 2013