Director: Roman Polanski
Date released: 1968
Writers: Ira Levin (novel); Roman Polanski (screenplay)
Considered one of the most ill-fated films in history, it all begins with aerial shots of Manhattan and a nonsensically demented lullaby. The cameras pan onto the building where all the good stuff in the film will take place. The director, Roman Polanski is a relatively new kid on the block, but soon everyone who is anyone will know his name, and not necessarily in a good way. The producer, Robert Evans from Paramount who chose to take a chance on an unknown foreign director has some pretty great movies under his proverbial belt namely, Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968). He would go on to produce True Grit (1969), Love Story (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974) – all of which happened to be both critically and financially successful. They also happen to be personal favorites of this here writer.
The ethereal, waif-like Rosemary is portrayed by Mia Farrow, an actress who will almost always conjure up the most sinister bits of trivia and history that Hollywood ever managed to dredge up. In 1968 the director of Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski, was married to the ill-fated Sharon Tate who would be murdered by members of the Manson family 1969. Polanski would also be exiled from the United States after he was involved in a sexual abuse case involving a minor in 1977. Mia Farrow on the other hand was married to Frank Sinatra at the time of filming, and was promptly issued divorce papers during filming when she failed to turn up to the production of Sinatra’s The Detective (1968) in which he’d given her one of the lead roles. Mia Farrow’s relationship with director Woody Allen that began in 1979 would also end up in the tabloids after Allen became romantically involved with the daughter she adopted with composer Andre Previn, another former husband. If you really think about it that’s a lot of bad luck to be associated with one little film, and what a film it is….
Set in New York without ever really feeling like you’re anywhere other than the unfortunate apartment building Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow) and her aspiring actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes) have recently bought, Roman Polanski’s eerie film is based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. This is one of those very rare occasions in which I have seen the film and have sadly not yet read the book. I will remedy this situation one fine day. As it goes the young couple fall in love with this beautiful apartment once owned by an elderly Mrs Gardenia whose shabbily decorated home is cozy and romantic none the less. It has a certain charm that attracts the young couple, but this doesn’t stop Rosemary from immediately modernizing the space in an abundance of yellow furniture and white walls. This was 1968. This was modern.
Soon enough they meet their nosy neighbors, Minnie and Roman Casavet (Ruth Gordon and Sydney Blackmer) who seem a little too invested in the couple’s lives. Ruth Gordon is brilliant as the seemingly kind and helpful old lady, who is also equally sinister as she entangles herself into the couple’s lives. The minute you meet Minnie you kind of get the creepy feeling that something foul is afoot, but it is the death of a young woman living temporarily with the Casavets that truly starts to worry Rosemary. Personally I think the couple should have been a lot more concerned earlier on when it was made clear to them that were moving into a building (Bramford House) that had a history of strange and horrific events occurring over the years.
“the house has an incidence of unpleasant happenings”
Hutch (Maurice Evans), an old friend of the couple’s did actually mention witchcraft, but to no avail as they still moved in and very quickly made sure they had ‘christened’ the place by making love on what would become the living room floor.
The walls in the apartment are very thin and you can almost hear everything the Casavets say next door. Immediately I started getting that nightmare feeling of having the walls close in on me. No way of escape. In Bramford House despite Rosemary’s decorating skills and her cheerful disposition there is a constant gloom that settles over their home. Polanski’s use of claustrophobia is one of many techniques used to keep the audience permanently on edge. The typical horror films of the 1950’s had a common theme of a fear of supernatural creatures and/or common Earth creatures just made very very big, as found in these gems, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Abominable Snowman and Attack of the Crab Monsters which were both released in 1957 and the awesomely titled 1958 classic, The Blob. This was perhaps due to the ever-approaching loom of nuclear war. In the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s the slasher film was born in which as much blood as possible was the order of the day – Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) are some of the more popular examples that included numerous sequels. In these films the fear was not the unknown, but rather the known horror of a seemingly immortal killer (except for Friday the 13th which was pretty much just about an annoying killer that had no business being in innocent people’s dreams but did it anyway). What makes the films of the era of Rosemary’s Baby unique is that rather than a physical fear we are faced with the psychological fear of losing our minds and that is possibly scarier than any monster or serial killer.
The Casavets soon start inviting the young couple over for meals, and Minnie introduces Rosemary to her friends who are a grotesque bunch of creepy old people who seem very interested in Rosemary’s plan to have children and raise a family in the near future. They gift her with a foul smelling necklace filled with tannis root that they insist she wears to keep her safe. From what? In so many ways that seem perfectly obvious to the viewer this necklace should have been a clear sign that things were not right. Rosemary at least shoves the offending item into a jewellery box for the time being. However this damn thing will make another appearance on the delicate neck of our heroine soon enough.
Meanwhile Guy, the most unlikeable cinematic character I have encountered recently gets a prime part in a play after the current actor playing the part suddenly went blind. Ominous no? At this point Guy’s self-centered ways and preoccupation are beginning to get on Rosemary’s nerves and this just adds to the already tense feeling that hangs over their apartment. During all of this she is experiencing some pretty disturbing dreams that remind me a lot of the experimental cinema showcased in films like the acid-induced trips in Easy Rider (1969). These incoherent dreams start occurring after Rosemary eats a chocolate mousse made for her by Minnie. In the dreams she is surrounded by all her neighbors. They are standing over her and she is naked. In her dream Guy rapes her. Little does she know that her ‘loving husband’ has made a deal with the Devil in more ways than one. Little does she know Bramford House is inhabited by a coven of witches who have the most evil of intentions. The presence of Satanism and the Occult was not an uncommon theme in films during that period in time. In fact the seventies were synonymous with portraying the darker side of counter-culture with The Exorcist in 1973 and The Omen in 1976, the latter which ‘spawned’ (pun intended) a whole slew of sequels. Remember Damian?
Inevitably Rosemary discovers she is pregnant and so ensues even more intrusions into her life by ‘the neighbors from hell’. She is made to drink strange smoothies, and is introduced to a Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) whose sinister intentions are obvious to everyone including the audience, except for Rosemary who is just happy to be finally on her way to starting the family she always wanted, despite Guy’s growing ability to appear more callous and downright awful. Soon enough she cuts all her hair into a pixie-cut, and friends from her past life start commenting on her shocking appearance. She is losing weight and appears frail and paler than usual. This is another Polanski trick; showing Rosemary’s slow descent into a kind of manic paranoia which also shows up in her death-like physical appearance.
When her close friend Hutch dies unexpectedly he leaves behind a book on witchcraft which starts Rosemary’s descent into another kind of madness as she becomes more isolated from her family and friends, and becomes essentially a prisoner in the apartment that was once her sanctuary. With the information she now has regarding the witch coven that have supposedly been living in Bramford since the 1800’s she seeks the help of another doctor who also proves to be in on the evil coven’s plans.
Rosemary is now completely at the mercy of the coven, and all that needs to happen now is the birth of the spawn of Satan. Other than her previous dreams (or nightmares if you want to be specific) the scene that disturbs the audience (and Rosemary essentially) is the moment we are introduced to her son. We never actually see the ill-fated child, but within the black-taffeta covered cradle lies a horror so disturbing that it renders its mother a gasping wreck. In the end the audience will have to come to their own conclusion as to whether Rosemary will be a mother to this manifestation of pure evil. In the end there is simply just Rosemary, and her baby. I’m not even going to mention the sequel…