Roman Polanski's 1968 film Rosemary's Baby was among the earliest examples of the modern, post-Universal monsters phase of horror cinema, and yet it remains among the genre's most mature, least conventional offerings. A key factor in its endurance is described in David Konow's recent chronicle of horror's history, Reel Terror:
[Rosemary's costume designer] Anthea Sylbert says that Roman's goal with Rosemary's Baby was to make "a classy horror film." He wanted to avoid any of the easy scares. He thought anyone could scare you when the lights are off and it's dark. He wanted to do it with all the lights blazing.
Criterion is issuing a deluxe edition of the masterpiece on Tuesday and there's never been a better time to watch it. The horror film that's made the most money over the past two weeks is Paranormal Activity 4, an unending stream of easy scares that mostly occur in the dark. Forty-four years ago, that was already too simple to Polanski. Watch Rosemary's Baby and see how we've regressed.
At the same time, you can see our cultural progress. When I recently watched Rosemary's Baby again, I wondered if a film so easily interpreted as misogynist (is the sinister stuff actually happening, or does a pregnant Rosemary just think it is because of the "pre-partum crazies?") could get made and find such a reverent audience? Would people root for a modern female character whose obedience is essential to the plot she's steering?
Polanski's film was ahead of its time, yes, but it's also very much of its time. Mia Farrow's Rosemary is unquestioningly obedient to her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), who is so invested in providing for his family that he's willing to sabotage it. At times it is as though she is willfully dim – convincing her to eat a dessert that doesn't taste right is as easy as taking an open approach to reverse psychology. She is about as insane as everyone she encounters, howling, "It's alive! It's moving!" and referring to her fetus on every reference as "Little Andy or Jenny." She dresses in fabulous clothes that nonetheless look like quilts, blankets and pajamas. She says things like, "Pain be gone, I will have no more of thee."
Rosemary's Baby is a story about ignoring the signs and not trusting one's own intuition – it puts a blazing spotlight on the impending doom from the start. Immediately after deciding to move into the opulent Bramford building, Rosemary and Guy find out from their friend Hutch that it was home to cannibal witches at the turn of the century. Hutch then tells them that a dead infant wrapped in newspaper was found in the basement less than 10 years before. Rosemary hears witchy chanting through their walls and later, in that spooky basement, she meets a woman who soon ends up splattered on the sidewalk. It goes on and on with foreshadowing too ridiculous to be believable, an implicit dialogue between our reality and the film's darkly fantastical take on it. In addition to repackaging Satan for modern consumption (iconic '70s horror films like The Exorcist and The Omen are both in debt to Rosemary's Baby), Rosemary's Baby's minor points were influential: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a similar tone-setting doom that remained unwavering in that before the killing begins, we hear of grave-robbing, a character reads an ominous horoscope and everyone engages with a clearly unstable slaughterhouse employee; there's also a line of domestic thrillers a la The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, in which no one will acknowledge the very obvious affliction befalling the female protagonist.
Polanski is said to have regretted the sequence in which Rosemary is raped by Satan, but it is as avant and disorienting a sequence as ever featured in a "blockbuster" (as the movie is described by the Paramount exec who brokered it, Robert Evans, in a informative and dry documentary on the Criterion disc). The boat, the blazing sun, the naked old people are all fantastic – the only really regrettable images in that sequence (and the whole movie, really,) are Satan's ridiculous furry hands, which look cheap and out of a much uglier film.
Rosemary's Baby is deliberate and simple in its storytelling – it's rarely startling in the jump-scare manner that has become conventional because it shows its hand so early on. It is not without its eccentricities, though, like the aforementioned outfits worn by Farrow or Ruth Gordon's nonstop yammering. As Minnie Castevet, the probable head witch in charge, Gordon's delivery sometimes comes off as bad line-reading but always comes off as musing from an absolute nut who'd have no concept of good line readings. In an essay packaged with the Blu-Ray, Ed Park writes, "Gordon's force-of-nature line readings are designed to steamroll any objections Rosemary might have." It works. The woman is confounding and enchanting at the same time. She is as electric as the colors on her clothing. I'm not sure that makes for an Oscar-caliber performance (in 1969, she won Best Supporting Actress for this role), but she's so damn watchable that who would argue?
Gordon's Minnie provides a sinister comic relief. As such, she exists in contrast with her surroundings, and yet she perfectly embodies the singularity of Rosemary's Baby. Maybe the ambiguous-to-awful politics could possibly surface in a piece of current pop culture (horror has never experienced a shortage on dim broads), but it is doubtful that anyone would attempt, let alone pull off, tumbling out one ominous sign after another in a slow-moving, yet never less than gripping horror movie. Even its payoff is cerebral – we never actually see what the movie is named after and instead must take Rosemary's word for it that her baby is as awful as she says it is…minutes before she falls in love with it.
In the aforementioned Criterion doc, Evans praises Rosemary's Baby as an alternative to the "watered-down, non-human assaultage [sic]" of current horror. The film sported the ingenious tagline, "Pray for Rosemary's baby." Watch the movie again and you'll be praying for the state of its genre.