Thirty years of horror: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Tom: Here’s where it starts:

I can no longer associate myself

Rosemary sees that written on a page left out by the previous tenant, who has died. What does it mean? Why isn’t the line finished? This ominously incomplete thought isn’t just a bit of exposition about the old lady who used to live here and her local Satanic cult. It’s also a statement about pregnancy, when a woman’s body is taken over by another entity. I’ve never been pregnant, and neither has director Roman Polanski, or author Ira Levin. We can only imagine how frightening and confusing it might be. And wonderful, of course, but this is a horror movie.

After the jump, the beginning of an era

Rosemary’s Baby might have been released in 1968, but we’re clearly in the domain of 70s cinema here. For so long, this movie is so convincingly mundane and domestic. Even Ruth Gordon’s unforgettable fussy tornado isn’t sinister so much as powerful. I love how expansive she is. She dominates every moment when she’s onscreen, even when she’s studiously focused on something else, like doing the dishes or knitting or not listening to someone. During the intentionally over-the-top finale, my favorite moment is Gordon’s reaction to the mark left in the floor where Rosemary drops the kitchen knife.

But the real driving force in Rosemary’s Baby is Mia Farrow’s alabaster china doll frailty, those enormous clear eyes, that sweetly Gwyneth Paltrow expressiveness, the way she mutters to herself at the times no one else will hear her. Tannis anyone? Baumgard. You’re pregnant. She implores the empty rooms, longing for her child before he even exists, lonely and unfulfilled, adrift in a dream that isn’t a dream. Monsters. Monsters. Unspeakable.

I forgot how shocking it is when she cuts her hair and goes gaunt and pale. Her cheeks go from cherubic to sharp. Once the movie takes a turn for the pregnant, it comes down with a touch of body dysmorphia. It’s very Cronenberg watching Farrow’s eyes withdraw as she gnaws on raw meat. There’s a palpable sense of relief when her pain lifts, as if a weight has been taken off my stomach and I can breathe again. I love the research scene, with the book from her dead friend Hutch and the Scrabble set she shared with her husband earlier in the movie. Roman Polanski would later make an entire movie of watching a fascinating character research stuff. It will be called Chinatown.

The evil in Rosemary’s Baby is so mundane, mixed into health drinks and expressed with cloying fussiness or an appeal to an actor’s vanity. It’s the simple effective seductiveness of getting what you want. The devil comes not through riches or power or glory, but through the walls of a nice brownstone apartment that you lucked into and the part in a play that you got. The devil comes in the promise of the future you hoped for. What’s a little drugged mousse and some restive dreams under a groping incubus in exchange?

I also forgot how sad it is watching Mia Farrow waddle around New York, pregnant, sweating in the heat, attempting her subterfuge at the payphone, with no one to turn to and fully aware what’s going on, but unaware how crazy it seems. Not many characters can so readily process the facts of their place in a horror movie. And I always secretly knew Charles Grodin must be a treacherous weasel.

The famous line in Rosemary’s Baby is “he has his father’s eyes”, but I forgot how much weight exists in Rosemary’s final exchange with Roman. “Are you trying to get me to be his mother?” she asks after having recoiled in horror.

“Aren’t you his mother?” Roman asks. And she is. Who cares if it’s the end of the world? There are some things more important, a point that will be entirely lost in subsequent evil kid movies.

Chris: The changes we see Mia Farrow go through physically are incredibly jarring to watch, but I think originally the movie also very effectively asked its audience to assess the state of her mental health. Was she going nuts, or was there really something sinister going on? That descent into madness (or not) has been visited in horror movies before this film, but I think this is the first great execution of that concept in the modern era.

Unfortunately, the impact of that particular element of the movie has been greatly blunted. Whether or not you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby, if you’re a horror fan you likely know enough about the ending to know whether or not poor Mrs. Woodhouse is losing it. I haven’t seen this movie in 15 years, but I could give you an easy sketch of the plot that would do it justice. I wasn’t too sure there would be much left here for me watching it again.

I was happily surprised to find myself so engaged all over again, then. Knowing how things were going to go, I was still able to delight in the creepy foreshadowing going on–the scrawled note that Tom opens this review with, the odd placement of the secretary desk, and so on. (I’ll admit I missed that the paintings had been taken down in the Castevet’s apartment until Rosemary commented on it. A quick rewind reveals that she was correct, but also reveals that the director felt no special compunction to hit us over the head with making it especially noticeable.) It’s almost as if Roman Polanski understood that the enduring quality of the film would depend on it having more going on than just an easily spoiled plot outline and obvious “Is God dead?” themes.

More, then, is what we get. Tom nailed it on Ruth Gordon’s force-of-nature turn here, but all the actors here do incredible work with a difficult task. (Think for a moment how easily these performances could have dipped into self-parody and silliness; it’s an achievement that it never happens). One of my favorite, unsung scenes in the movie has a brilliant bit from John Cassavetes. He’s just returned from having his first evening alone with Roman Castevet. From prior viewings I know what’s going to happen later and I’m wondering if the elderly neighbor has already broached the possibility of a certain bargain with Guy Woodhouse yet. Then the phone rings and Guy gets what should be incredible news (despite the circumstances) and instead he looks absolutely poleaxed. Knowing what I know, it’s brilliant to see him realize that maybe what he’d thought of as a lark with a goofy neighbor has become a contract honored. He seems as if he wants to vomit. He makes a weak excuse to Rosemary and goes for a walk to sort his thoughts. It’s an amazing piece of understated acting.

I love the way the characters talk in the movie. I don’t think they’re speaking in particularly realistic ways, but instead they have a beautiful, stylized cadence. Characters repeat sentences and sentence fragments with great regularity. (David Mamet must be a fan.) They talk over one another. They make glorious gestures. (Check Cassavetes out when Roman praises both Omaha and Baltimore as great cities.) The result of all that fine acting, stylized and engaging dialogue, as well as the constant hints scattered all over to reward repeat viewings takes Rosemary’s Baby out of the realm of a film to see once. Watching it anew I discovered that this is a film to see–and appreciate–again and again.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)