Rosemary’s Baby (4 of 4)

Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror Rosemary’s Baby is the fifth movie in my genre study of horror. Polanski, who desperately wanted to do a skiing film, came on board to do Rosemary’s Baby through William Castle and Paramount, who told him he could do his “ski” film afterward. RB ended up turning into one of Polanski’s greatest career achievements.

Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a young couple, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes), who are in a relationship going two different directions. Rosemary wants a family, wants children, wants attention from her husband. But Guy is an actor, and being an actor he is “naturally self-absorbed” and cares much more about his career than his wife.

The unassuming pair moves into the apartment next door to an elderly couple, Roman and Minnie. Minnie and Roman are no ordinary senior citizens they are in fact witches. Witches who are looking for blood to use in satanic rituals. Roman becomes fast friends with Guy as they begin to talk about show-biz. Guy is convinced off-screen to join their neighbors’ evil coven and to give them Rosemary as a vessel to birth Satan’s baby! Can you believe this guy (no pun intended)! His wife and baby and soul to Satan in exchange for success in Hollywood, what a dope.

Minnie drugs Rosemary with chocolate mousse and kidnaps her with the entire coven, some 10-20 people all elderly, well, besides Guy. In a half-asleep drug induced coma Satan rapes Rosemary. It’s a graphic scene, much worse for what it implies in the shadows than is actually shown, but grizzly nonetheless. She is impregnated with Satan’s child and begins a terribly painful nine months.

Minnie and Roman and Guy all work together to keep her from seeing or communicating with anyone outside of the coven. Even her obstetrician is part of the coven. The wicked three all go to incredible lengths even casting spells on people outside the coven to keep Rosemary secluded and drugged. When Rosemary gives birth to the devil’s child she is forced to mother it under the supervision of the Satanist witches.

The fear in Rosemary’s Baby comes from two things. One a religious or spiritual aspect, since we are dealing with Satanic worship and the occult, and two from the familiarity of the neighbors and the general peacefulness of the set. RB takes the people and things that we feel we can trust and slowly turns them against the heroine. She can’t trust her husband, she can’t trust her neighbors, she can’t even trust her doctors! Betrayal and deception are huge themes in Rosemary’s Baby to look past them, I think, is to miss the point of the film entirely.  What happens when not some things but everything you have faith in gets undermined?

As a horror film, I didn’t find the film altogether that frightening. It drives almost like a drama for the first hour, and then shifts into a horror/mystery hybrid. Polanski, despite his personal life, is an extremely intelligent director and guided a near perfectly acted and shot movie.

To defend that a little I’ll give two examples. The first being the tight and deliberate framing. The rape scene is actually the best example of the thought and precision put into the film. The angles of the cameras, the close-ups on the blood being painted over her body and of Satan scratching her shoulder are the only thing you leave the scene with clearly. Everything else gets blurred and smeared and color-balanced away from clarity. This is a carefully worked scene.

When she wakes up the next morning with scratches under her arm, you understand it with a satisfaction that poorly directed and written films don’t have.  You realize that what you’ve seen was there for a reason, when it’s brought up again.

The second is the acting. Farrow is unreal, her innocence and spunk at the beginning of the film and the quick and dramatic subversion of her energy and spirit feel authentic. As a man, I can say I’ve never so well sympathized with a pregnant woman. In the last third of the film when she makes an escape and pieces together the clues my heart is in my throat. Farrow is perfect.

Ruth Gordon who plays Minnie is just as good. Rosemary’s door never more than cracked open but Minnie somehow flooded through. Gordon won a well-deserved Supporting Actress Oscar for the role. She is incessant, hospitable and impossible to ignore.

Cassavetes plays overpowering so well it should be studied in acting classes, the feeling his presence in the film generates is tangible through the screen. The easiest way to spot a great villainous performance is to test whether you care where and what that villain is doing when they aren’t on-screen for you to observe. Cassavetes makes you wonder constantly.

Rosemary’s Baby was an extremely enjoyable film to watch. It is perfectly paced (even as a long film, 2 hours 16 min), and it knows its next move way in advance. It is a little dated (I desperately wanted someone to google some answers, in fact an iPhone might make this movie impossible), but it is more than what I anticipated. Certainly my fifth movie was “horrific” in its content but not in its quality.

  1. What influence, if any, do you think this film had on the current trend in glorifying, justifying and rendering as harmless the whole delving into occult and supernatural themes that we currently see in Hollywood and TV productions?

    • I’m not sure if I would say Rosemary’s Baby ever gets to the point where it is “glorifying, justifying and rendering harmless” any sort of satanic or occult activity. If anything, I think RB presents the supernatural as dangerous.

      There could be an argument for this being a stepping stone towards TV shows like Bewitched, The Wizards of Waverly Place, Charmed or Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but even that would take some work.

      After all, The Twilight Zone probably had a more glorified view of supernatural things in the 60’s than Rosemary’s Baby did.

      As far as horror genre goes, Satan is about as scary as it gets. Demonic possession and Satan himself are all very present devices and characters in horror films.
      Rosemary’s Baby was probably more influenced by it’s predecessors than the impact it had on modern film, not to say that it gives nothing to the genre. But much of it’s film-making style comes from past cinema.
      Does that answer the question?

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