While I decided to dedicate most of the entries and episodes I’ll be putting out in October to horror films, I will be the first to admit that when it comes to actually watching horror movies, I am not very well-versed in them and I, in fact, have either not watched some of the “required horror classics” in a number of years or at all. Rosemary’s Baby is a film that falls into the latter category. I had obviously heard of the film, knew of its premise, and had even seen clips of it on cable specials about horror movies, but until recently had never seen it.
Part of the reason for that, I will readily admit, is that I have a hard time separating Roman Polanski’s creative output from his personal life (this is also why I have never seen a Woody Allen movie, btw) and with the exception of his adaptation of Macbeth have never seen any of his films. But since Rosemary’s Baby was available for streaming on Hulu, I set that aside. And while I found myself perfectly able to set aside any personal feelings I have against the film’s director, I didn’t find myself particularly scared. In fact, dare I say it, I was slightly bored.
That’s not to say that Rosemary’s Baby is a boring or bad movie. It’s not. Looking at it from the “I look Intro to Film in College” lens that I can use every once in a while (because … well, I took Intro to Film in college), I can see why the film is so highly regarded. At the same time, I wonder if that since it’s so well-regarded and has become so ingrained in our popular culture, it has become a victim of its own success.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young couple who have just moved into a very nice apartment building in New York City. Rosemary is a housewife to Guy’s struggling actor and while their ability to afford said apartment is almost sitcom-like, we set aside our disbelief because what matters is that they’re in the apartment and she’s a young woman whose well-being becomes the focus of their neighbors, Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her role). This friendship with the neighbors is fortuitous for Guy, who quickly becomes successful, and he suggests that he and Rosemary try to have a baby. On the night that they’re going to try and conceive, Minnie makes chocolate mousse for the couple, which Rosemary throws away after a few bites due to a chalky aftertaste. That aftertaste was some sort of drug and that night, she has what seems to be an odd dream where she is raped by a demonic presence.
Of course, that dream was real and anyone who has heard of the movie knows that was no dream and Rosemary is carrying the child of Satan. Her pregnancy progresses in a way that’s freakishly unusual in places (her craving raw meat at one point and having to drink what looks like a noxious smoothie at others) and after the baby is finally born, there’s the very famous scene where she sees her baby and screams, “What have you done to him? What have you done to his eyes? YOU MANIACS!” (screaming “You Maniacs!” seemed to be a popular outburst in late 1960s cinema) before being coaxed into rocking the cradle.
I said that I was bored while watching the movie even though I see why it’s an important film for the genre and I think part of that comes from more or less knowing the ending. Unlike The Exorcist (which I find much more entertaining and scarier), Rosemary’s Baby kind of relies on its big reveal at its end because while Polanski hints that there’s something really nefarious going on and in the back of your mind you think it might be related to Satan, the line “Satan is his father” is spoken only at the end. So if you know what is already coming, you wind up spending a decent portion of the movie waiting for the film to get on with it.
If you, however, go into Rosemary’s Baby knowing what’s going to happen, you spend your time looking at how the movie gets its story across and do appreciate it for its impact on the horror genre as well as its satirical elements. Polanski does an excellent job of keeping the movie’s tension just below the surface–as Rosemary’s pregnancy progresses, we’re constantly aware that something isn’t quite right and the seemingly nice Castavets are not all that they seem (and Ruth Gordon’s Oscar was well-deserved) and he doesn’t go too over the top in the film’s ending. Likewise, in an age where every decision about pregnancy and parenthood among the privilege of the white middle/upper-middle class, the “home remedies” (weird herbal roots and drinks) and specialized doctors that the Castevets provide our protagonist are almost prescient in the way that they satirize the obsession with “natural,” “organic,” and “non-commercial” pregnancy and infant lifestyles. Said satire works, in fact, because the movie probably isn’t trying to be satirical (and if it were done in that vein today, there would be too much winking at the screen).
So, the verdict here? Despite my criticisms, Rosemary’s Baby is worth seeing. Polanski does know how to build tension and have the viewer share in his protagonist’s confusion and eventual despair; plus, he never actually shows us her baby, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks of what he actually looks like (something that will come up later this month in another movie). It also deserves its place in film history as the start of a horror subgenre, one that would ramp up in the 1970s with The Omen, and gives us one of the first real movies where the horror that’s taking place is within the safety of our homes (which the aforementioned Exorcist and other movies such as The Amityville Horror and even Halloween would also make their mark) instead of a realm of the supernatural.