January 15, 2011
Rosemary's Baby (1968) ****1/2
Directed by Roman Polanski
Rosemary's Baby (1968)- Genuinely terrifying and undeniably beautiful. Farrow's fantastic. Few clunky scenes. ****1/2 out of 5
What is it about the personification of evil that makes for such terrifying horror films such as The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby? In a way, the idea that a creature from hell acquires power in this world by taking on human or semi-human form really ought to be so ridiculous that the viewer can easily remove himself or herself from ultimate terror. Yet, these movies really burrow deep in one's psyche. Films like Rosemary's Baby are the ones that have the potential to require me to use a nightlight.
Roman Polanski made his American directorial debut with this wonderfully sinister film. The first hour feels like a French New Wave movie in the vein of Godard's Breathless. There's definitely a European sensibility to Polanski's direction which is understandable. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play young newlyweds who move into a gothic apartment in New York previously inhabited by an old woman who recently died. Down the hall live an eccentric elderly couple, played by Sidney Blackmer and Oscar-winner for this film Ruth Gordon, better known to most as Maude from Harold and Maude, who befriend their young neighbors with what seem like good intentions. One night, Farrow's Rosemary has a nightmare in which she's raped by the devil himself. Upon waking up, she realizes that her husband was having marital relations with her at the moment she was dreaming.
Soon after she learns of her pregnancy, strange things start to happen. Her husband has conveniently found success as an actor, and Farrow, who plays Rosemary, constantly feels very sharp pain that her doctor insists will go away very soon. Eventually, with the goading of a recently deceased friend of hers, Rosemary begins to distrust everyone around her, including her husband, her neighbors and her doctor. Perhaps she's suffering from prepartum delusions, or maybe there is a tangible evil that's always nearby.
Mia Farrow, who was known to most at the time as Mrs. Frank Sinatra, gives an amazing performance in a really difficult role. She must be likable, yet cold and distant all at once. For much of the film, Rosemary suffers quite a bit while maintaining a cool demeanor. The final scene, especially, is so over the top that I can't even begin to imagine how Farrow was able to find her motivations. The supporting cast, including Gordon who's always fun to watch on screen even if she really can only play one type of character, does fine work, especially cinema verite pioneer director Cassavetes.
There are a handful of moments that are a bit too contrived to work, so the movie isn't quite a masterpiece. The whole sequence with the anagram from the book makes little sense. Further, Rosemary transitions from slightly anxious to appearing downright psychotic perhaps a little too quickly. The aforementioned climactic sequence goes down as one of the wackiest ever while proving profoundly unsettling at the same time. Perhaps it might have been even better if everything at the end wasn't so staged. The New Wave style is abandoned during the final act when the horror takes full effect, which does invite the viewer to disconnect slightly. If even these freakish moments had been played straightforwardly, the film as a whole might have proven even scarier than it ended up.
Rosemary's Baby isn't just about the ridiculously impossible. It's also a scary metaphor for motherhood. Having never been pregnant myself, I can only begin to imagine the anxieties that go along with bringing another human life to term. It would only be natural to wonder if one's baby is going to be healthy, and what kind of person that baby will grow up to be. Rosemary's horror is shared by all mothers in many different ways. The responsibilities that go along with parenting are enough to make people think twice about having children in the first place. Of course, the decision Rosemary must tackle at the end of the film is beyond any mother's worst fantasies. Still, though, having children can be, among other things, horrifying.
A palpable fear of Satan having tangible power in this world is an irrational one, and yet, as a cinematic theme, it's still as in vogue as it was back in the late 60's and early 70's with films like The Last Exorcism and the upcoming film Priest. Maybe it's the idea of evil itself actually able to reason independently, much like humans, that really gets to people. Rosemary's Baby won't force me to sleep with my light on tonight, but it does make me hope that my dreaming remains at a minimum for quite a while. Also, it might be a good idea for me to take a home pregnancy test, you know, just to be safe.