WRITTEN/DIRECTED BY ROMAN POLANSKI
STARRING MIA FARROW, JOHN CASSAVETES, RUTH GORDON, SIDNEY BLACKMER, RALPH BELLAMY, MAURICE EVANS
R FOR UNSPECIFIED REASONS (CONTAINS SOME SEXUALITY/NUDITY AND DISTURBING CONTENT.)
OVERALL: 3 OUT 4 STARS
ROSEMARY'S BABY is generally considered the first film of the "New Horror," the major resurgence of popularity for the horror genre that was part of the larger New Hollywood movement that took place from 1967 through the early 1980s.The New Hollywood was marked by the rise of a new generation of filmmakers, sometimes called "the movie brats," in reference to the fact that this generation had grown up as fans of the filmmakers of the Hollywood Golden Age who were now past their prime.It was also the result of the dissolution of the Production Code of 1930, which had strictly dictated the content permissible in studio films through self-governance in an effort to avoid the local censorship boards that began to sprout up nearly four decades earlier.Movies like PSYCHO (1960) and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINA WOOLF? (1966) had managed to push the boundaries that had held firm in the Code's earlier years, and movies like Billy Wilder's kinky comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) had proved that films unapproved under the Production Code could be successful.During the same time as the Production Code, the National Legion of Decency, founded as the Catholic Legion of Decency, wielded nearly as much power as the Production Code, but while the Code possessed most of its power from within the studio system, the Legion of Decency wielded an immense power over the public.Utilizing a three category system of A (Morally Unobjectionable), B (Morally Objectionable in Part) and C (Condemned), the Legion of Decency held the industry in a vice-like grip, and any movie "condemned" was likely to fail prior to the mid-60s at the same time that the Code began to wither.
Nobody told the Legion of Decency of how greatly their influence had waned by 1968 though, and they condemned more movies that year than ever before, and no movie ruffled Catholic feathers that year more than ROSEMARY'S BABY.
Based on the best-selling novel by Ira Levin, it's the story of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), a yuppie housewife who moves into an old New York City apartment where she hopes she and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, will start a family.Their apartment building, the Bramford, is the setting of several spooky urban legends, and it is said to have been the base of coven of witches once, but the worst thing about it seems to be their garish and meddlesome neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, respectively).Guy strikes up a friendship with the elderly Castavets, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, he allows them to be as much a part of the event as himself.The Castavets set Rosemary up with Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), a prestigious doctor who orders Rosemary to ignore her friends' advice and not to read any of the books on the subject, because no two pregnancies are alike and he doesn't want her to become worried.Eventually Rosemary finds that Guy, the Castavets, and Dr. Sapirstein are shutting off all her communication with her old life.The only socializing they do now is with people twice their age, and her pregnancy is causing her severe abdominal pains and her health is failing.On the other hand, Guy's luck in getting roles seems to have taken a full reversal, sometimes under uncanny circumstances.
The basic plot is very direct; it is the two possibilities that drive the drama: Did Guy offer Rosemary's baby to a coven of Satan-worshipers, including the Castavets, in exchange for career success, or is Rosemary going mad?
If you're unfamiliar with the film's plot and wish to remain so for now, do note that further reading details the plot twists of ROSEMARY'S BABY.
In fact, Guy, it is revealed, offered his wife, Rosemary, as a vessel to bear the Antichrist, a true-life child of Satan.She is the counterpart to the Madonna, descended upon by Lucifer, and impregnated with the Devil's spawn.
For as extreme a notion that the film is based in, what makes the film most noteworthy is how it brought horror home.Previously, most major horror films were somewhat macabre flights of fancy, regarded without much seriousness and lumped in with fairy tales as juvenile fare.ROSEMARY'S BABY was filmed on location in New York City, in the grungy, real-life world, and deals with common real-world anxieties.As much or more than being a film about the birth of the Antichrist and a coven of witches, it's a fright-fest about modern anxieties for young people such as securing a career, starting a family, and identifying yourself within and without the earlier generations, and worst of all, whether any of your concerns are even of any value.In this, ROSEMARY'S BABY is not exactly a terrifying or directly scary film most of the time.Most of the time, it's disconcerting, which can have a more enduring effect than mere spooks.
In terms of identifying oneself within and without the older generation, as Rosemary both depends upon and strives to avoid her neighbors, the Castavets, this issue is paralleled by the story behind the film as well.ROSEMARY'S BABY marked the first major horror event of the New Hollywood movement (1967-early 1980s), an era in which the horror genre would play a significant part, and like the rest of the industry at this time, it signaled a passing, and more often wresting, of the baton from the old masters to the new auteurs.William Castle, who produced the film, had discovered the book's cinematic potential and urged Paramount Pictures to purchase the film rights.Castle had made a career out of making low-budget campy horror films which he sold on gimmicks, such as primitive rumble packs in select seats for THE TINGLER (1959), advertised as being film in "Percepto", or HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), filmed in "Emergo," which basically meant that a skeleton would dangle from a wire in select theaters at the appropriate point in the film.Castle was a master showman, but his work was schlock, representative of the juvenile, campy, gimmick-driven horror films of the 1950s and 60s.Castle hoped that ROSEMARY'S BABY would be the film to legitimize his career, but while he convinced Paramount to make the film, they wouldn't allow him to direct it; instead, studio executives sought to capitalize on the New Hollywood interests in European cinema by courting Polish-French director Roman Polanski to make it his American debut.Polanski was by no means a stranger to real-world horrors, having witness Nazi war crimes firsthand when his family was forced into the infamous Krakow ghetto, and his parents were among the millions of Jews killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust.Some speculate that this firsthand experience contributes to the threatening atmospheres he creates in his work.
ROSEMARY'S BABY resulted in a great deal of controversy, mainly with populations of the Catholic faithful.Polanski has recounted the influence of Catholicism on him during his time as a child vagabond after being separated from his parents during the war; although never being baptized, Polanski posed as a Catholic and was sheltered by Polish Roman Catholic families, but some were more "Christian" than others.The first family, arranged with by his father as a precaution, evicted him after a few days but refused to let him take his personal belongings, and he recalls confrontations with parish priests who accused him of being Jewish.
There's no doubt that Polanksi's personal history factored into ROSEMARY'S BABY and its heavily Catholicism-inspired plot, about a young woman who's become estranged from her Catholic faith and becomes the mother of the Antichrist, but it's hard to say how much and in what way, especially because the script, written by Polanski himself, is a relatively faithful adaptation of the book, though he probably sympathized more strongly with certain elements.
The ending was most controversial, both for the religious and others, as Rosemary discovers her baby.She passes out while giving birth, and when she awakes, her husband and the doctor inform her that the baby didn't make it, but later, she hears a baby's crying in the Castavet's apartment.It is then that she learns her child was not intended as a sacrifice, but is the child of Satan.She approaches the child's bassinet, gripping a kitchen knife in hand, and after all the buildup, the infant is not seen as explicitly described in the book, nor seen at all.Other than a couple of non-revealing glimpses of movement, the only indication of a child their is the reactions and interactions of Rosemary and the others; no visual could satisfy the monster of the mind.This was a highly divisive mood for audiences, but what happens next, as Rosemary hesitates and Roman Castavet pleads with her to act as a mother to the child, even without joining their cult.She drops the knife and sits down beside the bassinet, and rocks the cradle while cooing a lullaby, having accepted her maternal role, even to the Spawn of Satan.
This cryptic conclusion was seen by many religious audiences as a passive acceptance, if not outright endorsement of Satanism, and Polanski, as well as others involved with the film received hundreds of raving and threatening letter of damnation from the zealously religious population around the country, even as the film's box office intake soared.The next summer after the release of ROSEMARY'S BABY, Polanski's eight-and-a-half months pregnant wife, actress and sex symbol Sharon Tate, was found gruesomely stabbed to death in their home in L.A., along with four of their friends, while Polanski had been working in London.Victims of the infamous Charles Manson "family," preexisting controversy about Polanski and a newly-rekindled stereotype of a "Godless" Hollywood helped fuel the media frenzy that followed in the wake of the sensational murders, with speculation that Polanski was a Satanist and involved with the killings, and others claiming that it was punishment for ROSEMARY'S BABY.
Today, ROSEMARY'S BABY isn't quite so shocking, with the worst of it probably being the brief glimpses of naked senior citizens during the famous dream sequence.It works on a surrealist, psychological level, and even the big "payoff" moments, the birth and the baby reveal, that would take the spotlight in any other horror movie are practically excised.From a director who's witnessed such real-life horrors and is famous for a pessimistic tone in his classic films, it's still a very subtle horror, working its way under the skin, but never providing the catharsis, for better or worse.