|Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece of paranoid tension about evil lurking in the mundane. It has been called “the horror film without any horror,” and much has been made of the fact that it doesn’t use special effects. This is something of a misnomer because, in fact, some make-up special effects and trick photography are used. But, what is important is not that they are used, but rather the manner in which they are used. That is, when the effects do come, the camera does not linger on them, and they take up just enough screen time to make a near subliminal impact, leaving us wondering, Did I see what I think I just saw?|
The film, which was based on a novel by Ira Levin, marked the American directorial debut of Polanski, already known in Europe for nail-biters like Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), as well as the horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Rosemary’s Baby shares thematic similarities with Repulsion, in that both films are told from the point of view of a young woman who may be going insane. In Repulsion, Polanski gave visual form to Catherine Deneuve’s growing insanity in various horrific visions, such as human arms reaching out from her apartment walls and grabbing at her (the insanity here is very Freudian, as it is the result of her sexual repression).
Rosemary’s Baby is much more reserved in its visual manifestations, and yet it is no less scary. The central character is young woman named Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who is married to a struggling actor named Guy (John Cassavetes). They move into a spacious apartment in an old building in New York City where Guy is trying to get stage work. They become friendly with a nosy, eccentric old couple next door, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon) Castevet.
Once Rosemary becomes pregnant, she begins to suspect that something is not right. Guy gets a coveted stage role because the man who first got the part was suddenly struck blind. When Rosemary’s friend, a children’s writer named Hutch (Maurice Evans), tries to meet her one morning to tell her something important, he lapses into a coma. Rosemary becomes even more suspicious when her obstetrician, Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who was recommended by the Castevets, continually tells her not to be worried about intense pain in her uterus and prescribes natural vitamin drinks that Minnie administers.
Rosemary’s Baby turns into a pregnant woman’s worst nightmare, as Rosemary begins to suspect that Guy and the Castevets are part of a witches’ coven that is planning to steal her baby for their rituals. She reads several books on witchcraft, and the things described in the book fit all too neatly into the strange goings-on in her life. She finds out that a talisman given to her by the Castevets that supposedly contains “tanis root” actually contains a fungus called “Devils’ Weed” used in Satanic ceremonies. Soon, it becomes apparent to her that every person in her life is somehow involved in this conspiracy.
Or is it?
This is the central dilemma in Rosemary’s Baby and the point on which all of its terror hinges: Is Rosemary really the target of a modern-day coven of witches or is she simply losing her mind? Looking at Polanksi’s previous films, mostly notably Repulsion, it would seem that Rosemary is simply in mental anguish, and the witch scare is nothing more than a manifestation of her paranoia. However, if you take into account some of Ira Levin’s other work, most notably his novel The Stepford Wives, which was made into a film in 1975, it would seem that the witches are very much a part of reality, and Rosemary’s selfish husband did in fact sell her womb to Satan in exchange for material benefits.
In the end, however, it is left just ambiguous enough to support either reading. The final moments, in which Rosemary comes face to face with her baby, is a scene of chilling perfection in which all the loose ends suddenly come together. Mia Farrow is excellent as Rosemary throughout, but her horrified look when she first lays eyes on her offspring is a moment of greatness, brought to even greater heights by Christopher Komeda’s twisted musical score, which plays like a deranged child’s nursery lullaby.
Few horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby are made anymore because they demand too much of the audience (the only one I can think of in recent years is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter, which plays like a male variant on the same themes and fears). Horror audiences today want the visceral gore and the quick, cheap thrills, rather than the slowly mounting tension that Polanski achieves here. Running over two hours in length, Rosemary’s Baby is a not a quickly paced narrative, and it doesn’t offer jump-in-your-seat moments. What is does offer, though, is something much more difficult to achieve: A constant escalation in tension that climaxes as just the right moment and in just the right manner. It is, quite possibly, the best example of horror by suggestion ever made.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Paramount Pictures
Overall Rating: (4)
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