31 Days of Hell: Rosemary's Baby (1968) - Reviewed

It is impossible to separate what is unquestionably one of the truly great horror films of the late 1960s from its tragicomic réalisateur/perpetrator Roman Polanski.  Seen upon initial release, Rosemary’s Baby based on the novel by Ira Levin and produced by legendary B-movie showman William Castle was the first English language Hollywood film of the French-Polish film director which catapulted him into the pantheon of Tinseltown’s most respected players.  A work of psychological terror, paranoia, conspiratorial evil and the occult, Rosemary’s Baby remains a monumentally disturbing horror film which has lost none of its bleak foreboding powers and is generally regarded as a towering masterpiece of film art. 

However in 1977, the perspective on this classic horror film arguably changed upon Polanski’s arrest and conviction of statutory rape after the drugging and sexual assault of a thirteen year old girl before fleeing the country to evade sentencing.  Though the film is indeed faithfully adapted to a tee from book to screen with few events depicted therein deviating from the source, that the crux of the plot hinges on events all too similar to those of the director’s conviction can’t help but unintentionally color the piece in an even darker, tragic and twisted light.  For good or for ill, the developments surrounding the fugitive filmmaker’s sexual misconduct inadvertently by design made the still truly horrific sequence involving the unholy siring of the spawn of Satan a deeply unsettling gaze into the director’s own deranged outlook on life.

What’s curious about this still unsettling and downbeat classic is how brooding the world depicted onscreen can be in broad daylight with the bevy of conspiring witches surrounding the helpless Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow in top form) with smiles and social niceties.  Upon moving into the infamous landmark Dakota Apartments (the site of John Lennon’s former residence and assassination), Rosemary and husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) find themselves besieged by their overbearing quirky neighbors Minnie (Ruth Gordon in an Oscar winning performance) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer).  All seems well until one morning after a nightmare involving Satanic rape, Rosemary becomes pregnant and in turn grows suspicious of her new neighbors convinced they are plotting against her and her unborn child.

Less focused on jump scares and gory shocks modern moviegoers have since become numb to (although one teenage character’s suicide early on in the film is startlingly graphic for the time), the film’s greatest dramatic asset is the sly, snarky sense of humor which helps to cast a certain amount of doubt on the mental state of the film’s unlucky heroine while adding a further layer of realism to the proceedings.  Where other occult films depicting the presence of evildoers in classic Gothic horror lighting and set design, Polanski’s vision sees the Dakota apartment complex as startlingly modern with the inhabitants as bright and cheerful, even ingratiating.  Tonally the film’s reliance on tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the proceedings actually allows for the more crushing blows of the macabre scattered throughout to land with much fiercer dramatic weight than they might have been purely played straight. 

The frail and meek Rosemary, played brilliantly by Mia Farrow, achieves a rare balance of appearing simultaneously mad and sane as she delivers her paranoid and anxious dialogue, allowing ample room for viewers to read her appearance more than one way.  It would be very easy to unapologetically believe Rosemary’s fantastic claims of occult conspiracy as the film all but confirms her suspicions every step of the way, and yet the film wisely frequently invites skepticism of her hysterics and paranoia.  Furthermore, that Rosemary’s frantic appearance can’t allow room for any well-adjusted practical individual to begin to believe her cries for help cements her uphill battle as all the more terribly hopeless.  The horrors come not from the outcome we already know will happen, but from seeing poor Rosemary struggle violently against an unholy war she’ll never win.

Adding to the sly mixture of wicked black humor and sinister plotting the most is arguably Ruth Gordon’s overly neighborly next door resident who creates the last possible figure you’d expect to be in league with the devil.  Much like Christoph Waltz’s SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, we get a near-cartoonish caricature dripping with evil intentions while presenting the appearance of a clown figure.  It’s an unforgettable character whose greatest strength is how much viewers are still inclined to like this lovable goofball of a woman even after her motivations aren’t lost on the viewer.  There aren’t many full blooded Satanists out there who are simultaneously this outwardly likable yet simmering with danger. 

Featuring in his film debut is Charles Grodin as a young doctor who might be Rosemary’s last vestige of sanity left in a world that seems to be gradually closing in against her from all around.  Given the actor’s eventual penchant for screwball comedies, fans accustomed to his 1980s pictures will find his brief dramatic appearance in a horror film as uncompromising as this one to be most surprising. 

It is worth mentioning the presence of hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, who was brought from London to Hollywood per director Polanski’s request to create Rosemary’s post-pregnancy hairline transformation.  An early introduction to what would soon become a late 1960s cultural craze in modern hairdressing, the change in our heroine’s appearance followed by her own declaration as the work of Sassoon functions as both clever product placement and a recurring in-joke as friends and family gasp in shock at her new haircut.  Subliminal advertising typically works against a film by briefly lifting the viewer out of the narrative to call attention to itself, but in this case Polanski spins the technique into a snarky bit of poking fun at the bourgeoisie while also signaling early on our heroine’s own eventual psychological breakdown.

Particularly aiding the film’s sense of doom and hopelessness is the avant-garde score by Polish jazz musician Krzysztof Komeda who tragically passed away at the age of 37 one year after the film was completed.  A previously frequent collaborator with Polanski, Komeda’s atonal score comprised of dark jazz, sharp strings, keyboards, tenor saxophone and trumpet set to Mia Farrow’s moody lullaby opening the film immediately cast the proceedings in a particularly desperate and downbeat light. 

You know from the opening cue with the bright pink cursive title cards playing over images overlooking New York before settling on the gothic Dakota apartments that this story isn’t destined to end well for our poor heroine.  Very few opening cues for a film playing over broad daylight have ever been able to singlehandedly evoke such implacable malaise. Music especially drives the infamous Satanic rape sequence with a ghostly chorus of disembodied shrieking voices crying out in horror while images of an unholy rite play out across fades and jump cuts.  And of course the terrifying reveal climaxing the film and Rosemary’s journey into the heart of darkness stands out for how Mia Farrow’s eyes and the soundtrack seem to light up with shock and horror. 

Seen now, can one ever truly judge Rosemary’s Baby on its own merits as an impeccably crafted and timeless horror film without taking into account the very real crimes committed by its creator?  Roman Polanski is, understandably, difficult as a filmgoer to be a fan of and at the time of his conviction many did understandably begin reevaluating his oeuvre with the common newfound belief that Rosemary’s Baby was in fact an insight into the director’s diseased mind.  With such keen insight into the modern face of Satanism in the twentieth century, critics couldn’t help but speculate whether or not Polanski had more in common with the characters in his film than many were led to believe.

Forever stigmatized yet critically revered as a genre classic like most of Polanski’s films, what sets Rosemary’s Baby apart from the still fugitive director’s other works is just how truly disturbing this and largely only this particular film is to reflect on after seeing it knowing full well of the transgressions committed years later by its creator.  For good or for ill, the film actually winds up being that much more upsetting and difficult to shake or easily dispense with because of how much the chain of events echoed Polanski’s own sordid life years later. 

As a genre thriller, Rosemary’s Baby is an indefatigable exercise in cinematic perfection that never missteps and never lets the audience off the hook well after it’s over.  Clearly an influential horror film, it spawned both a made-for-television sequel, a made-for-television remake in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy star Zoe Saldana in the titular role and an entire generation’s worth of loose spin-offs and copycats.  Most recently the indie-horror film scene saw admitted Polanski fan Ari Aster’s Hereditary make quite a splash at the box office and if that doesn’t have the fingerprints of Rosemary’s Baby all over every frame, no other recent horror film does.  Seen as a game-changing entry in the troubled yet fascinating career of auteur-turned-criminal film director Roman Polanski, it quickly takes on the form of a waking nightmare neither we nor the man who gave it cinematic form can ever truly recover from.

-Andrew Kotwicki