Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, and Sidney Blackmer
Runtime: 132 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Roman Polanski takes his time establishing the suspense in Rosemary’s Baby, not because his film relies entirely on the payoff of its devilish finale, but because he wants to submerge the viewer in details. Through his meticulous study of characters, their mannerisms and peculiarities, and a weight applied to even the smallest triviality, Polanski builds a very real sense of horror. But he also creates an atmosphere of uncertainty—paranoia that counteracts his picture’s foreboding and instills sensible skepticism, almost in the same moment that he confirms our worst fears. Not until the final act does the film reveal itself as a horrifying tale of terror, one of the most chilling stories ever put to film.
The Polish filmmaker adapted Ira Levin’s popular 1966 novel, presenting the story, at first, as a macabre comedy rather than a thriller. Author of The Boys from Brazil and the pseudo-feminist tale The Stepford Wives, Levin upheld potboiler pacing in his book, even while maintaining a naturalistic approach to his horror intent. But never does Levin’s reader hesitate as much as the film’s viewer. Polanski preserves simultaneous belief and distrust toward the situation; he whirls about confirmations and denials for every lurid possibility. From muffled sounds heard through the walls in dreams to the genial dispositions of his characters, even the evil ones, the viewer second-guesses themselves and the protagonist throughout, until, of course, Polanski confirms our misgivings.Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary Woodhouse, the expectant mother who believes a coven of witches scheme to steal her unborn baby for a human sacrifice. But before any talk of witches or occult conspiracies, Polanski spends about an hour outlining the nature of his characters. Rosemary and her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), move into the Bramford, a Gothic apartment complex in New York City. Polanski shot on location at The Dakota, the Central Park West building outside which John Lennon was killed. Rosemary is naïve, delicate and dainty. She spends her days decorating their new home, busying herself any way she can. Meanwhile, Guy struggles to become a big-time actor, finding only roles on television commercials and bit theater productions. He talks fast, finds a joke anywhere, frequently does voices that make Rosemary giggle. They are happy.
Another occupant, Terry (credited as Angela Dorian, but yes, indeed, she is Victoria Vetri), a laundry room acquaintance of Rosemary, lives with their neighbors, the Castevets. Later Terri commits suicide for what seems no reason at all. These elderly, cheerfully eccentric neighbors Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) introduce themselves immediately after Terry’s death, Minnie peeking in Rosemary’s apartment door to get a look at their renovations. Obligated to a dinner out of sympathy, Rosemary and Guy visit the stuffy apartment next door for some of Minnie’s bad cooking and Roman’s stories about world travel. A discussion ensues about religion and the Pope, and Roman remarks, “You don’t need to have respect for him because he pretends that he’s holy.” Guy agrees. Rosemary, who was raised Catholic, feels uncomfortable talking about it. After the dinner, Minnie becomes meddlesome, poking her nose in their affairs. And though Rosemary wants nothing more to do with them, Guy keeps visiting for more of Roman’s stories.
What consumes us are details, how three-dimensional these characters feel, and Polanski’s flawless realization of the story’s time and space within his frame. However cute and flirty Guy and Rosemary appear, she behaves like garnish to her husband. Being a lonely housewife, she talks to herself throughout the film, and remains meek when voicing her opinion. Minnie fusses over messes (cleanliness is next to godliness, you know) and asks about the cost of Rosemary’s new furniture. Roman, meanwhile, has been everywhere. “You name a place, I’ve been there.” The credit for some of these details belong to the actors who bring such characteristics to life, such as Minnie’s fervent surveillance of Guy’s enjoyment of her cake, or the way Rosemary bounces when excited. But Polanski also layers seemingly inconsequential conversations with curious facets. Imbedded into talk about washing dishes or plans for the future, Minnie probes Rosemary about her good health, her intent to have children, her fertile family history. Is this idle conversation, or is there something more to it? Polanski keeps us guessing.
In the initial scenes, the audience is overwhelmed by mounting suspicions, which then go overlooked. The Castevets seem nice enough, but little irregularities about the building and their new neighbors are everywhere and eventually arouse our dread. The previous tenant, an elderly woman who died in a coma, left unfinished scribblings declaring, “I can no longer associate myself with…” She also pulled a heavy wooden secretary in front of her hallway closet. One night, strange chanting can be heard through the walls, coming from the Castevet’s apartment. Minnie gives Rosemary a charm, the same one that was around Terry’s neck when she committed suicide. Rosemary’s friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) mentions that the Bramford used to house a coven of infamous cannibal witches, among other notorious occultist figures. Guy, who used to complain about the annoying neighbors, continues to spend his evenings with the Castevets. Suddenly, he starts saying “They’re not so bad.” Then Guy wants to have a baby; he even “figured out” Rosemary’s ovulation cycle. Tonight’s the night. Not to intrude, Minnie sends over some chocolate “mouse” desert. Guy loves it, but Rosemary takes only a few bites and pours the rest out. It tastes funny.
Realistic mise-en-scène shrouds the elements of horror in a Roman Polanski film, so that which remains suspect also feels too real to possibly delve into horror territory. His scares arise not from supernatural origins, but from psychological possibility—the horrible things people will do if so compelled. Polanski specializes in obsessions and madness, particularly those purveyed within a limited space. Prior to this film, he made Repulsion in 1965, and then after it The Tenant in 1976. Consider these a thematic trilogy. Each takes place in an increasingly confining apartment, the respective protagonists wary of neighbors, sounds, and the history of the building itself. The walls seem to gradually close in and suffocate the interior, whereas the world inside their heads has long since gone mad. These films each force the audience to question the reliability of the central character. Is the world really out to get them, or are their fears a symptom of some mental malady? Perhaps in the other two films, but not Rosemary’s Baby.Dizzying, hallucinatory dreams ensue after Rosemary’s “mouse” desert. The film’s dream sequences continue to puzzle today, as Polanski constructed them so much like actual dreams, not typical soft-filtered movie dreams, but an overexposed nightmare of mish-mashed imagery. Voices around the apartment seem to penetrate Rosemary’s unconscious, as if Polanski were showing us two truths at once. Images flow in and out of frame. Nothing makes logical sense, and yet it all congeals in an effortless sort of way. Guy begins to undress her. Rosemary appears on a boat captained by JFK. Hutch cannot join her; the boat is for Catholics only. She floats on scaffolding underneath Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Naked figures emerge all around her. A feathered creature of some kind scrapes its claws on her flesh and begins to rape her. The Pope appears during the act, so that Rosemary might kiss his ring: the charm Minnie gave her. Rosemary announces, “This is no dream, this is really happening!” Who can be sure?
Guy seems distant the morning after Rosemary’s dream. She questions the Scratch-marks on her body. He promises that he already filed down his nails, and that he made love to her as she slept, not wanting to miss making a baby. “It was kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way.” Sometime later Rosemary is pregnant. She forgoes seeing her initial obstetrician again when the Castevets insist on their doctor friend—the best in the city, Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who soon resolves that the weight loss and constant pain Rosemary has is normal. Hutch thinks otherwise, and in a chance meeting with Roman, voices as much. When Hutch ends up in a sudden coma, Rosemary is all alone. Her friends help, telling her that months of pain are not normal. And just when her pain brings her to the brink of cracking and seeing someone other than Sapirstein, her pain goes away.And so, we doubt Rosemary. She seems so unsure of everything. When her first obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), asks for another sample of blood to test her blood sugar, she questions it, whispering “blood sugar” to herself in undue suspicion. Perhaps she welcomed Dr. Sapirstein for that reason. Rosemary becomes hyper-sensitive to many small details during her pregnancy out of justified mistrust, and some out of, as Polanski suggests, just the natural hormonal anxieties of a pregnant woman, later explained away as pre-partum depression. She comes off childish and innocent, therefore her actions and behaviors are uncertain, her worries chalked up to an archaic sense of feminine hysteria. Hints to her Catholic upbringing and religious images in her many dreams warn of ingrained religious-based fears, countered by the delusional thought that something sinister plots against her.
Polanski plants the notion that Rosemary has fallen prey to her hysterics, so our reservations toward the characters around her subside, albeit temporarily. Hutch, who encouraged her worst fears, ends up dead. He leaves her a witchcraft book, entitled All of Them Witches, that seems to confirm Roman was the ancestor of a notorious Bramford witch. Guy adamantly defends his neighbor friend, believing her anxiety stems from Hutch putting ideas in her head. But then Guy is too busy worrying about his sudden success, his starring role in a new choice play, won when the previous actor went inexplicably blind. Rosemary runs, believing Guy, the Castevets, Minnie’s sewing circle of friends, all of them… witches. She seeks help from Dr. Hill, who calls her husband and Sapirstein to retrieve her. She attempts an escape but they catch her, and then she goes into labor.
The very real threat that exists within this film is not confirmed until the final scene. Until that point, Polanski forces us to question, Is she mad? After waking from her labor, Rosemary spends days using a breast pump, though kindly neighbor Laura-Louise (Patsy Kelly) tells her the milk is just thrown away. She listens to Guy’s apologies about the baby dying due to “complications,” enduring his guilty smiles and transparent lies. Have witches taken her baby and used its blood in their rituals, as Hutch’s book suggested? When strong enough, with kitchen knife in-hand, she enters the Castevet apartment through a false wall in the hallway closet. She comes upon a gathering of well-to-dos and familiar faces, including her husband and neighbors, standing around a black crib. Everyone watches with eerie calm as she approaches it and sees her child for the first time, not butchered for witch food, but worse. Farrow’s face electrifies with terror, “Its eyes! What have you done to its eyes!” Roman announces her child’s eyes are that of his father, Satan. Jarring declarations from around the room rupture the silence: “Hail Satan!” “God is Dead!” “The year is One!” How impossible to convey the horror of this moment, as breathless Rosemary screams in revulsion while the fervent expressions of satanic victory proceed around her.
This moment was so real that 1960s audiences believed Polanski had actually conjured the Devil’s child. Sustaining our belief, Polanski does not show the baby, but the involved viewer might see it for themselves through their gripped participation. Avoiding supernatural or doubt-worthy effects, he leaves his finale rooted in the veracity of Rosemary’s reaction. The horror remains an idea. When Rosemary accepts that she is her child’s mother no matter its form, she rocks the carriage with a distant calm. She has finally succumbed. Some affected audiences prayed for the director who brought evil so realistically to the screen, and others feel that he got what was coming to him when his wife, the eight-and-a-half months pregnant Sharon Tate, was killed by the Manson clan—a belief further fuelled by Hollywood rumors suggesting the production was cursed. Pregnant women refused to see the film out of some arcane fear that a form of cinematic transference might take place, that the evil within the film might somehow infect their pregnancy. Evil is given uncharacteristic humanity through characters like Minnie and Laura-Louise, who seem more appropriate for a senior care center than a horror film, but their realism is what scared people, and what continues to scare people.
Knowing how it ends layers every scene. Consider when Rosemary’s pain goes away and her baby begins moving inside her. She cries out “It’s alive!” with joy. A happy moment for any mother instead recalls Colin Clive’s similar announcement in Frankenstein. This may be the most disturbing moment in the film. Guy, meanwhile, carefully avoids touching her, knowing what grows inside her. Even the title sequence overlooking Central Park and rotating to eventually capture Rosemary and Guy in the camera’s downward gaze reminds us of Minnie’s comment in the end, how that out of all the women in the world, Satan chose Rosemary. Did Polanski intend us to revisit the film and imagine Satan looking about New York City, only to spot Rosemary? All of these moments are accentuated by the film’s music: Farrow’s own voice sings the Devil’s lullaby over the opening and ending credits. And composer Krzysztof Komeda, a longtime Polanski collaborator, composes violin strings that cry out as if the instrument itself, joined by a ghostly choir of deathly echoes, were emitting sounds from a long and numbing torture.
Returning to Rosemary’s Baby again and again, one grows astounded by the humanity that resounds throughout, which makes Polanski’s effort all the more effective and less homogenized into its genre. Farrow, Cassavetes, Blackmer, and Gordon give performances more suited for a dramedy about the struggles of a young married couple, but certainly not horror fare. Gordon even received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts, which helped raise the film’s esteem despite its genre. Polanski was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Reserved for B-pictures, horror prior to the 1960s did not win awards. Polanski’s film changed that, making way for later pictures like The Exorcist and The Fly. Avoiding every formula characteristic associated with the period’s horror movies, Polanski presents his tale with an artful edge and proves the possibility of the genre.Since the release of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, others have copied the basic plot structure, but no other filmmaker could accomplish the sense of realistic psychological fright that Polanski does. Other directors are more concerned with the ending, the fantastical aspects of evil lurking in a mother’s womb. Polanski seems interested in everything else. The story’s shocks may occur only on the initial viewing, of course, but on subsequent viewings, what was once paranoia becomes sheer terror as the audience sees how those inconsequential surfaces compile into an extended nightmare. After Polanski is done, cinematic escapism typically prevalent in the horror genre no longer resides in the realm of the impossible, as he confronts his audience by submitting that the impossible is less incredible than we think.