Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, who is an unsuccessful actor, move into a Manhattan apartment with a bad reputation. Guy becomes enchanted with their nosy neighbours Roman and Minnie Casavet, but then strange things start to happen. Chanting can be heard through the walls, a woman Rosemary meets in the washroom throws herself from a window, Guy gets a lead part when the first choice is stricken blind but is rather distant from Rosemary, and Rosemary dreams that a horrible creature makes love to her. She finds that she is pregnant, but feels increasingly awful despite the strange concoction her doctor keeps giving her……
It’s hard to really pinpoint exactly the moment in horror film history when the period ‘Gothic’ horror started to fall out of favour and become superseded by a more up to date, more relevant and much nastier kind of horror movie, but I reckon it was the success of Roman Polanski’s great chiller, without which there probably we wouldn’t have had The Omen and maybe even The Exorcist, that began the process. Here was a horror film from a major studio, with a modern setting, with protagonists one could relate to, and that took it’s subject seriously. It also appealed to women more than most other horror films around. It’s actually a strange sort of horror movie in that it joins a select group of films that possibly become scarier with each viewing [I would also put Don’t Look Now and The Shining in that category]. I was rather unimpressed by Rosemary’s Baby when I first saw it twenty or so years ago, but it stayed in my mind and I find it really works for me now. Maybe it’s because I’m older, I can immerse myself in a movie more and are better at noticing little details, such as a brief line of dialogue, or a character looking at another, which give a film depth and tension.
Perhaps because Polanski, in adapting Ira Levin’s novel, often copied the book verbatim [supposedly at the time he didn’t know one was allowed to deviate widely from the source], the first half an hour is extremely slow, with most of the footage devoted to Guy and Rosemary’s conversations with their ‘in your face’ neighbours Roman and Minnie. This may try the patience of many viewers nowadays, and maybe a couple of scenes could be lost with no damage to the film, but Polanski often paced his movies like this, allowing the viewer to ‘live’ with the characters for a while and get to know them well through what they say and the way they act and react, before things start going wrong. Then Rosemary has her nightmare. She imagines she is on a boat, partially populated by people she knows, then is led down below where, before a group of naked and mostly elderly people, and conducted by a bishop in a warped kind of church service, she is raped by a very briefly scene Devil, only it sometimes changes into Guy. The scene is not overly explicit [though that didn’t stop the UK censors from shortening the sequence] but extremely disturbing and one of the most realistic depictions of a dream on film. Things are weird, but not that weird, and you feel even the oddest details kind of make sense even though the idea of some of then doesn’t. Incidentally, around the time of release, the head of the Church Of Satan, Anton La Vey, claimed that he played the Devil, but that later turn out to be untrue. Polanski did often say though that, while many Christian groups were up in arms about the movie, witches and Satanists tended to like it!
SPOILERS After this the noose starts to tighten. Polanski bravely refuses to show us things like death scenes, and still avoids the temptation to go for easy shocks or grand guignol. Instead he goes for the accumulation of little details such as the bizarre medicine given to Rosemary which just seems to make her worse, or the revelation of a character’s name using Scrabble pieces. The feeling of paranoia grows and grows, until we feel uneasy at something as innocuous as an old man waiting outside a telephone box. Panic finally takes over as everyone seems to be against Rosemary, and then we have the absolutely brilliant end sequence, which is daringly low key. Rosemary hears her baby, which has now been delivered, crying nearby, and suspense builds to Hitchcockian proportions as, equipped with a large knife, she searches for it. Finally she enters a secret room where people are gathered and a large black cot is in the corner. She goes over and cries out “His eyes, what have you done to him”. Somebody replies “he has his father’s eyes, and look at the hands and feet”. Her feelings of horror turn into something approaching maternal love as she stops someone from rocking the baby too violently and slowly starts to rock it herself. Through all this time, though there is a brief flashback shot of the Devil’s eyes from the rape, you never see the baby. All we have are the references to the eyes, the hands and the feet, and the imagination fills in the rest. If you have a vivid imagination like mine then you’ll agree that the mind can conjure up far worse horrors then anything a special effects person can create. Interestingly, there been many instances of people actually thinking they remembered seeing the baby, especially upon first release, which is just proof of the film’s power [similar to many folk supposedly seeing tons of blood during the Psycho shower scene]. SPOILERS END
Mia Farrow is simply sensational in the lead role, it’s a brilliant performance where she has to go through almost every emotion, and sometimes several at once, yet the skill of her acting is such that she lets the viewer know exactly what is going through her mind. Pretty much everyone else in the cast [my favourite is Ruth Gordon as Minnie, a real neighbour from hell, one of those people you just want to tell to “**** off” even though they haven’t actually done anything wrong and maybe just mean the best!] has to be ambiguous as to whether they are good or bad and all judge it perfectly. It’s not often said that Tony Curtis is in this, but he is, though you’ll have to listen out for him! Christopher Komeda’s terrific score alternates between a sweetly sinister lullaby [which was hummed by Farrow] and terrifying dissonant cues mirroring Rosemary’s state of mind. It’s an approach that was soon taken to even further extremes by Ennio Morricone in his giallo scores of the seventies. One should also mention Joel Schiller’s art direction, especially for Rosemary’s and Guy’s apartment, which is rife with subtle Gothic features. Maybe Rosemary’s Baby could do with some trimming, but it’s still a true classic of the genre that is not only extremely clever [unless you count the dream you don’t actually see anything supernatural at all] but has a lasting effect and shows that you don’t need shocks, blood or indeed many of the other typical horror film trimmings to really chill.