US (1968) Dir. Roman Polanski
“Just be a mother to your baby!”
And you thought labour was the most torturous part of having a baby, that is nothing compared to what poor Rosemary goes through in this psychological horror that has somehow eluded me despite its 50-plus year reputation as a piece of classic cinema.
Young couple Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) move into a New York apartment formerly lived in by an 89-year-old woman. They are immediately welcomed by the elderly couple a few floors above, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer), and their tenant, reformed junkie Terry (Angela Dorian). Shortly after, Terry is found dead outside the apartment block, apparently from suicide, which surprises Rosemary as she found Terry full of life.
The Castevets turn their attention to Rosemary and Guy, the latter bonding with them easily whilst Rosemary finds them a little overwhelming, especially the constant gifts of food. It is after eating a mouse from Minnie, that Rosemary feels unwell and dreams she is being raped; Guy confesses he took advantage of his unconscious wife and soon after, Rosemary learns she is pregnant. Unfortunately for Rosemary, this is not the beginning of a beautiful journey to motherhood.
I have to admit is going to be hard to appear objectively complimentary about this film without seeming misguided knowing what we do know about director Roman Polanski, so be sure to note that this is a case of having to separate the art from the artist, no matter how unsettling his legacy in this regard might be. And whilst, Rosemary’s Baby is a film deserving of praise, in part down to Polanski, it is giving credit where it is due.
Based on the novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby can be described a subtle horror, with textural similarities to Japanese horror of the 60s in which atmosphere and foreboding prove more efficient means of getting to the audience than explicit gore. And by virtue of being made at the height of the psychedelic era, the head-trip experience endured by Rosemary offers visual succour to the psychological terror she undergoes.
Rosemary is typically uxorial and supportive of husband Guy’s burgeoning acting career, so far limited to a few stage plays and TV commercials. He is in line for a major role and is carrying on as if he has it in the bag, whilst Rosemary is more enthusiastic about their new home. Everything is played with a steady hand in terms of the world building, only the scattershot editing and brisk time jumps offer a subliminal hint of things to come.
For the Castevets, they quickly move on after Terry’s suicide, imposing on Rosemary as if her needs are unimportant, made easier by Guy’s instant connection with Roman. Rosemary puts on a brave face, and accepts their generosity, including a good luck charm made of tannis root, a pungent herb. Then odd things begin to happen – the actor who beat Guy for the prized role suddenly woke up blind, giving Guy the job instead.
Hutch (Maurice Evans) Rosemary’s old friend pays her a visit and casts doubt over the tannis root charm; the next day he is in a coma and dies a few months later. At the funeral, a now pregnant Rosemary is given a book Hutch left to her with vital information about witchcraft and how it pertains to her neighbours. She tries to alert Guy but he won’t hear a word of it, nor will he allow Rosemary to get a second opinion about her pregnancy treatment, fearing what Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) is doing to her.
Polanski is not about to give anything away, leaving plenty of room for doubt even if the evidence appears incontrovertible – but that is what is supposed to happen, otherwise this would be a bland and predictable tale indeed. There are many trump cards played in this scenario to keep the ambiguity alive – from Guy not completely ignoring Rosemary’s concerns, to the normalcy of the elderly imparting their unsolicited sagacious advice with friendly authority, something we’ve all experienced.
Yet it is also important to make the unravelling of Rosemary’s psychosis seem very real, which is achieved by the simple trick of having Rosemary sleeping in situ of her vivid dreams. Therefore when the all too realistic rape nightmare occurs, in which the familiar people are all naked and watching a grotesque beast have his way with her, this is not a leap for the audience to accept this as another dream.
Except Rosemary wakes up the next morning with scratch marks over her arms and back, then later falls pregnant. The remainder of the film toys with establishing where the truth lies – is it Rosemary’s paranoid version or everyone else’s less hysterical reality? A product of its time, frenetic camerawork and claustrophobic close-ups are employed to full effect in this mental entrapment Rosemary endures, then pans out and slows down to remind us of the other side of the story.
Mia Farrow, then mostly a TV actress, is the quintessence of a flower bud on is journey to bloom, only for the petals to come out damaged and blackened in charting the mental decay of Rosemary. There is a palpable sense of empathetic physical exhaustion in her performance as if Farrow was living this tumult herself, and her refusal to overact even at the most horrific points is welcomed. Yet, if she didn’t have such a wonderfully kooky sparring partner as Ruth Gordon as Minnie, her pain would be less believable.
Despite being made 54 years ago, Rosemary’s Baby is only dated by its aesthetic and period technology, the presentation, themes, and coverage of pregnancy-related stress has a timeless relevancy to it. The effectiveness of the horror will be subjective if graphic violence is your thing, but disturbing chills and long lasting unease are guaranteed regardless. Polanski’s reputation may be tainted but this film’s doesn’t deserve to be.