Roman Polanski is well known for his characteristic approach to horror films, specialising in what might be called paranoia stories. His best effort in this genre may be Rosemary’s Baby, a piece still discussed in film schools to this day. Polanski expanded on an already effective suspense novel by Ira Levin, and drew out the essential waking-nightmare quality of Levin’s writing with great success. Levin himself has called it “possibly the most faithful film adaptation ever made.”
Rosemary’s Baby was a breakthrough in many ways, both in style and content, but that can be hard for the modern movie viewer to recognise. Having inspired a long series of movies with similar themes, the film often gets lumped together with its inferior imitations – including the dreadful and misguided 2014 remake – but Polanski deserves better. There is no horror film quite like it; and in 1965 it broke new ground and caused a sensation among movie audiences.
The central character is Rosemary Woodhouse, a sweet, domestic, conventionally feminine, slightly naive young woman, whose world revolves around her adored husband, Guy, and her plans to raise a family with him. Mia Farrow is excellent as Rosemary, and brings a vulnerable quality to the role which adds pathos to the threat which develops as the story unfolds.
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, an upwardly mobile young couple, have been fortunate enough to obtain a spacious apartment in a prestigious old building in New York City. The exterior of the building, it may be worth noting, is ‘played’ by The Dakota, John Lennon’s final home. The structure is tied to rumours of ghosts and past sinister activities, which only makes it more intriguing in Rosemary’s mind. The Woodhouses meet their neighbours, an eccentric and garrulous elderly couple, Minnie and Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer).
A striking feature of Rosemary’s Baby is the appearance of the commonplace and harmless, which allows any suspicion of danger to develop slowly, both in Rosemary’s mind and that of the audience. The Castavets are distinctly ordinary, an amusingly nosy and talkative old couple. Ruth Gordon in particular is perfect as Minnie Castavet, who is by turns charmingly odd and irritatingly intrusive, but never remotely threatening. The implication of something wrong or evil is present from the beginning, but the suspicion is at first vaguely directed toward the building itself. The only concrete sign of trouble is the unexpected suicide of a young woman, Terry, who had been staying with the Castavets.
Guy becomes close friends with elderly neighbour Roman Castavet, to Rosemary’s surprise. Soon after moving into the apartment, Guy is informed that his chief rival for an important role has suddenly and mysteriously lost his sight, leaving Guy the part. His career begins to move forward from this time.
When Guy announces that he is ready to start a family, Rosemary feels her happiness is complete. On the night planned for the conception, Minnie brings dessert to the Woodhouse apartment. Rosemary finds it tastes odd; and a short time later, she becomes groggy, is put to bed, and falls into a deep sleep; that she has been drugged is clear, but not the reason. A dream sequence follows, in which we see events from the perspective of Rosemary. Images which are clearly part of her dreams, although with symbolic importance, alternate and mix with real events. Rosemary seems to dream that she is carried from her room to another place, occupied by a group of people including the Castavets. She appears to be tied down and ritually raped, but in her cloudy state of mind Rosemary accepts everything calmly. She has one moment of clarity in which she panics, protesting that what is happening to her is not a dream but real, but it fades. The entire scene is a striking and very effective mixture of stark realism and fantasy, which provides the viewer with a basic, still imprecise and misleading, suggestion of what may really be going on.
A short time later Rosemary is delighted to find that she is pregnant. An interesting minor feature is Rosemary’s impulse to have her hair cut soon after she has her pregnancy confirmed, choosing an extremely short, boyish style which could be seen as similar to the traditional shearing of newly confirmed nuns. It is an appropriate parallel for Rosemary, who retains a sentimental attachment to the Catholic faith she was raised in, and hints of the greater significance of her pregnancy. Her changed appearance also gives her a more frail, vulnerable look, which works well with the growing sense of danger in her life.
Rosemary enjoys preparing for motherhood, in spite of the rather overbearing interest the Castavets take in her condition; but soon problems develop. She experiences pain, weight loss, and bizarre cravings. She looks pale and sleeps poorly. Guy, the Castavets, and the obstetrician the Castavets found for her, assure her that all is well. The suggestion of evil intent grows clearer, especially as an old friend of Rosemary’s, after trying to meet with her to communicate some important information, suddenly takes ill and falls into a coma. After discerning the message her friend had tried to relay, concerning the Castavets, Rosemary becomes suspicious of them.
The looming sense of paranoia which is Polanski’s specialty slowly grows in intensity. Rosemary furtively investigates her neighbours, discovers the Castavets’ background and comes to her own conclusions. She recognizes the ominous significance of both Guy’s rival and her friend Hutch suddenly being struck with severe illness. She comes to believe her husband is part of the conspiracy she perceived against herself and her unborn child. She tries to escape her situation, each time foiled in one way or another, partly because her accusations are, quite reasonably, not believed by outsiders she appeals to for help. The audience is, for some time, a little uncertain of whether Rosemary is in genuine danger, or is delusional. Ultimately, all is made clear, revealing that neither the audience nor Rosemary herself understood the full reality of the threat.
The film’s finale is an imaginative, slightly surreal classic, mingling the horrific with the ordinary, or even the foolishly mundane, in a way that is weirdly fascinating. The contrast of petty details with unapologetic Gothic horror adds to the fear and gives a flavour of realism to what might otherwise be conventional movie terror. Rosemary’s shock at recognizing her ultimate betrayal is perfectly managed. Polanski’s decision never to actually show the film’s ‘monster’ on-screen, but to let the actors’ reaction and the audience’s imagination do the work, was inspired.
This is a film in which every aspect, from the sets and camera work, to the casting, to the dialogue, are perfectly and creatively interwoven to provide maximum impact. There is a reason Rosemary’s Baby is still looked to as an example by budding filmmakers; it is a film that goes beyond the horror genre.
For further viewing:
The Stepford Wives. The 1975 film adaptation of Ira Levin’s later novel, has been spoiled by countless parodies and unofficial sequels – and most of all by a 2004 remake as a comedy – but the original horror film was surprisingly effective. Containing the same theme of justified paranoia as Rosemary’s Baby, the ‘75 film can be called a feminist nightmare made real.
Roman Polanski’s most recent film, Venus in Fur, uses a simple two-actor scenario, an actress auditioning for a role in a play, to explore the many layers of meaning and intention in human interaction, with a sharp edge of suspense and implied danger.