It is vacation time and I have been enjoying some off-time poolside in Portugal without any List movies. I am back now, and Europe is struck by a massive heat wave so without air-condition we try to stay out as much as possible to get some breeze. Consequently, I am so far behind on movies. Still, I have managed to creep through “Rosemary’s Baby” and I feel rather guilty, because this is a movie that deserves a lot more attention and focus than what I have been giving it.
Today Roman Polanski is a household name with blockbusters on his resumé, but back in the mid-sixties he was merely a young Polish director trying his luck in America. “Repulsion” was awesome, but it was “Rosemary’s Baby” that gave him the breakthrough. Some claim this was the founding of the horror genre, others that this is the best horror movie ever made. I personally doubt both claims, but certainly this is a landmark movie on both accounts.
The movie follows the book by Ira Levin very closely (you can find it as an audiobook, read by Mia Farrow herself!) where a young hopeful couple in New York is looking for a new place to live and start a family. These are Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her still-waiting-for-his-break-actor husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes). They find their dream apartment in the Bramford building and despite early warnings they happily move in.
Soon however things start to stack up against poor Rosemary. An early friend drops to her death from a window. The neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) are more than a bit intrusive and weird and when her friend Hutch tries to warn her, he falls into a coma and dies. Rosemary gets convinced she is surrounded by witches who want to take her baby and for a while it is difficult to say if she is imaging it or if it is real. The scene where Satan is raping her is very dreamlike and many scenes are ambiguous. And well, <SPOILER ALERT!> it turns out it is even worse than she imagines it. In a great conclusion it is revealed that she has been beset from all sides, even by her husband and her doctor (Ralph Bellamy), to get Satan’s child.
There are many great things about “Rosemary’s Baby”. The best kind of horror movies are those where the horrific is only hinted at. Something lurking, something unseen that may or may not be real. In “Rosemary’s Baby” we never actually see anything, but hints and weird behavior. The closest thing is the rape by the devil, but even that is very fuzzy. The true terror is what is read on Rosemary’s face as she gets more and more disturbed by what is going on and, climaxing on her realization of the full scope of the terror. That is just brilliant on all accounts, script, direction and acting. To me, by rooting the story in the mundane and trivial, a very normal couple living ordinary lives, starting a family, the horror becomes far more relevant and effectual than by jumping right into the improbable. Do not let yourself get discouraged by the almost boring first half hour. As in “Repulsion” this build-up is essential to make the following horror work.
Everything in this movie rests on Mia Farrow being convincing and she does a stellar job. How on Earth she was not even nominated for an Oscar is beyond me (she did win the Golden Globe though). She has to be a bit silly, a bit naïve and then scared, really scared and she pulls it off completely. John Cassavetes, whom I like better as an actor than a director, is convincing, but I would almost consider his role more supporting than lead.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is a case of an excellent story, a good adaption, first rate direction and excellent performance coming together and to me it has aged very well indeed. Even as jaded as I am this is still terrifying. I still hardly dare to look. I still get the creeps. How many old horror movies can do that?
Roman Polanski truly mastered this genre, but somehow I am not surprised. He did live through the worst horror imaginable. When visiting the Schindler factory in Krakow last year I did see letters written by a very young Roman Polanski in the ghetto.
I recommend “Rosemary’s Baby” with the highest praise, though not if you want a good, sound sleep.
Also, this is my movie number 500 on the List. Anniversary time!