WARNING: some images below are NSFW
“God is dead! Satan lives! Hail Satan!”
I’ve been watching all these movies for the first time for this binge, including some legitimate classic, must-see top films. One of those is on the slate today – Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a quiet and upsetting horror movie that’s become one of the cinematic classics in the horror genre. I was looking forward to watching it. But screw all that and read this:
So at one point there was a remake of this movie in the works with Michael Bay as a slated producer.
That’s it. Nothing I type in this series will ever be as scary as that thought. I’ll take my leave here.
Still here? Well alright then, I suppose I could talk about the movie. Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968 and was directed by Roman Polanski, who was making his American cinematic debut. It was produced by low budget schlock director William Castle, who basically lured Polanski into the project by bundling the book with a book on skiing. As a normal human being Roman Polanski decided devil worship, pregnancy and psychological terror was a more interesting subject matter than sliding down a mountain with sticks on your feet.
Rosemary’s Baby is about Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (played by John Cassavetes). The movie starts with them moving into a new apartment. They’re planning a new start, Guy’s up for great new roles in the theatre, the apartment is wonderful, and they’re planning on having kids. The only possible downside is the history of the apartment building, which was home to witches and cannibals in the past. Doesn’t really slow them down much. Rosemary meets one of her neighbours, a young ex-drug addict who was taken in and saved by an older couple, Minnie and Roman Castevet, who also live in the building. A day later Rosemary’s newfound friend is found dead outside the window of her apartment. The police rule it a suicide.
The absence this generates in Minnie and Roman’s life seemingly inspires them to befriend Guy and Rosemary. Guy especially takes to Roman, finding his stories fascinating, and he visits him a few times without Rosemary, who finds the couple off-putting. The rest of the movie is this lurking, building tension. Rosemary blacks out when Guy impregnates her, seeing horrific visions. Her pregnancy is, at first, incredibly painful and fraught. As the movie progresses she gets extremely paranoid and fearful and the tension and horror swells. The movie’s scariest moment comes early however, with Rosemary’s frightening half-dream.
I know I’m not really spoiling anything here by pointing out what happened. Guy basically sells Rosemary to the Castevets for an acting career. They’re the relatives of the witches that once lived in the building and are active participants in an ominous coven. They blind Guy’s competition to ensure he gets a good role. In turn Guy helps them summon Satan, who rapes the unconscious Rosemary so she can birth the antichrist. Be afraid of your neighbours and old people guys.
The movie generated a ton of controversy from the religious spectrum. Ira Levin, the author of the novel the film is based on, writes about this and the faithfulness of Roman Polanski’s adaptation:
“The result was possibly the most faithful film adaptation ever made. It incorporates whole pages of the book’s dialogue and even uses specific colors mentioned. It was not only Polanski’s first Hollywood film but also the first one he made based on someone else’s material; I’m not sure he realized he had the right to make changes. His understated directorial style perfectly complemented the style of the book, and the casting couldn’t have been better. I’m one of several people who claim credit for first suggesting Mia Farrow for the leading role.
“The movie of Rosemary’s Baby attracted some of the hostility I had worried about while writing the book. A woman screamed “Blasphemy!” in the lobby after the first New York preview, and I subsequently received scores of reprimanding letters from Catholic schoolgirls, all worded almost identically. The Legion of Decency condemned the film, but the film turned around and condemned the Legion; when the film became a major hit despite, or because of, its C rating, the Legion, already on its last legs, was disbanded.”
He actually really hits on one of the key qualities of the film: Polanski’s reserved cinematic quality. The movie is lit and shot in a generally naturalistic, nearly unnoticeable, style, with occasionally jarring handheld moments and touches of the surreal, which in contrast become much more effective. The surreal and symbolic nature of Rosemary’s rape is a big part of why it’s effective, but the complete lack of that style afterwards is what makes her paranoia and the situation so much more disturbing. It grounds it and makes the whole thing feel uncomfortably real.
Of course the movie’s themes lend a considerable helping hand. By basing most of the swelling terror on a woman who’s disturbed by the possibilities of pregnancy, Roman Polanski makes sure the terror resonates as real in a truly effective way. It’s exactly like John Carpenter grounding The Thing in a sense of paranoia that resonated with the political landscape of the time. It’s all about having a real world reflection for the terror. It’s all about Rosemary not knowing what’s happening to her body, not knowing how her child will end up, and feeling betrayed by her spouse for getting her pregnant in the first place. At least on a subtextual level. The fact that on the surface the literal devil is involved is what makes this psychological horror and not a character study.
Rosemary’s Baby was easily the best of the movies I’ve watched as part of this binge. I didn’t enjoy it the most or anything, but there’s not doubt it’s better written and realized than anything else I’ve watched in this Halloween fest. It’s a real movie through and through, with a sense of completion the rest of this binge has lacked.
Next up: More Italian horror! Not Argento though…