The newlyweds in question are Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow). Guy is an actor, hunky but professionally angling. Rosemary is a glamorous housewife, a bug-eyed gigi we figure made the transition from high school graduate to hausfrau quickly.
Part of us wants to push a narrative onto them — say one of domestic stiltedness that comes when a man’s expected to bring home the Benjamins while the wife sulks at home — but Guy and Rosemary appear to be veritably happy. A nervous smile is forever resting in their eyes, as if they understand that life’s just about to get good. Someday they’ll laugh about the struggles they faced in the 1965 in which they currently live.
But then the glitter fades. The neighbors, elderly couple Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), are friendly but progressively nosy, coming over uninvited like clockwork. Guy begins getting distracted by his occupational prospects; Rosemary starts feeling forlorn. The airy apartment’s suddenly closing inward.
Sensing all might bubble over if something doesn’t change, Guy suggests he and Rosemary try to have a child — such will be a remedy to all their woes. Rosemary emphatically agrees to the suggestion, and, like Guy, believes that all their martial anxieties might be healed by the presence of a child.
But right around the time attempted conception becomes a central part of their everyday routine, Rosemary suffers an uncanny dream — a dream in which she’s tied onto a naked mattress, stripped of her clothes and surrounded by emotionally flaccid onlookers, and raped by a demonic figure. “This is no dream,” she exclaims midway through the night terror. “This is really happening!”
The scratches with which she wakes up indicate that that proclamation might have had a hint of truth attached to it, though Guy, menacingly, chuckles at her fearful bleats, explaining that he had sex with her while she was unconscious. This sort of behavior is unexpected from her usually upstanding husband, and from there does Rosemary suspect that something is deeply, deeply wrong.
After months of strange behaviors, Rosemary starts believing that the Castevets might be involved with a Satanic cult, and that her husband, along with the obstetrician recommended to her (Ralph Bellamy), are in cahoots with them and plan to use her child as a tool in all their forays into witchcraft.
Made by a filmmaker less self-assured than Roman Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby would perhaps be as juvenile as the premise sounds when abbreviated by summarization. This is material that, if done wrong, could carry sensationalist, Satanic Panic-oriented TV-movie-of-the-week nonsense a la Satan’s School for Girls (1973).
But Polanski, adapting Ira Levin’s 1967 novel of the same, makes Rosemary’s Baby so much more multifaceted than one might expect a thriller wherein a woman gives birth to the antichrist to be. Taking his time to make it clear that there’s something tremendously odd about the situation, Polanski first makes sure that we understand our heroine (intelligent but so innocent, trusting), her marriage (loving but rote), and her fears.
This woman is so all-encompassing as a young wife still figuring out how the world works. She worships her husband but doesn’t like how easily he can steamroll her convictions. She likes her apartment and her routine but doesn’t really know who she is. She wants to please outsiders (namely the Castevets, whom she finds nice but also a little funny) but also dislikes that people expect she be so many things simultaneously and perfectly.
So when things start getting Occultist chic, we know, or at least think we know, exactly how Rosemary feels. Here she is, finally pregnant, but there might be something wrong. The conception was strange, first of all. And just as she’s starting to get to know and like her obstetrician (Charles Grodin), the Castevets meddle and coerce her into seeing someone else, a someone who demands she read no pregnancy books, listen to no advice, and take no vitamins. All she must do, apparently, is drink a concoction made by Mrs. Castevet every morning.
Instead of gaining weight, the already angular Rosemary loses three pounds. A sharp pain develops in her chest. Color leaves her cheeks; brown, puffy bags form under her eyes. No one greets her without immediately telling her how awful she looks. As the pregnancy pushes forward, the physical effects fortunately start to fade, but the psychological anguish lingers, mostly because Rosemary increasingly has reasons to believe that something very sinister is playing with her gestation.
We reason that many women have experienced something similar, subtracting the Satanic interference. Remarks about a woman not looking her best while pregnant or after giving birth are fairly commonplace — tabloid magazines fussing about who can jog off their pregnancy weight the quickest makes for a repetitious headline. An uneasiness unquestionably is felt by many expectant mothers, the elation at the thought of motherhood nevertheless interrupted by thoughts of bodily changes, thoughts of if life will ever be the same, thoughts of whether they’ll still appeal to their loved ones. One of the many reasons Rosemary’s Baby is so terrifying is because it takes such a common milestone in one’s life and turns it into a nightmare, all the while retaining certain universalities.
And also because Polanski is a filmmaker primed for the horror genre. Before becoming a celebrity director thanks to Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski, only 35 at the time of release, had begun cultivating a much-lauded career in Europe. Knife in the Water (1962), his debut, was a tense exploration of a love triangle that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Repulsion (1965), shadowy and stark, was a claustrophobic, disturbing account of a young woman’s (Catherine Deneuve) descent into madness. But while the latter two films were terse and jumpy, Rosemary’s Baby is atmospheric and vast, a beautifully decorated night terror.
Polanski had yet to make his American movie debut in 1968, but his notable work overseas had especially made an impression on Paramount executive Robert Evans. The latter had recently approved American horror maven William Castle's desire to produce a film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby (a novel still in the galley proof stages), and he saw the commercial potential in the project. But Evans, aware that Castle was more a shlock maestro than a talent of Hitchcock’s renown, wanted to make sure someone cinematically adept be behind the camera.
Nervous that Polanski wouldn’t be keen on traveling to the United States unless the project really be exceptional, Evans, with Rosemary’s Baby also in the package, sent the filmmaker the screenplay for Downhill Racer (1969), a sports drama, because Polanski was known to spend much of his downtime skiing. Evans told the young director that he could direct whichever source material interested him more. After Polanski stayed up reading Rosemary’s Baby through the night, it was decided which would become the filmmaker’s American coming.
So enamored of Ira Levin’s galleys, Polanski adapted Rosemary’s Baby extremely faithfully. Aside from cutting a couple scenes out to shorten the running time, the movie makes for such an intricate transition from page to screen that almost all the dialogue is lifted directly from the page. Even the walls of Guy and Rosemary’s apartment are the same color as they are in the novel. I haven't yet read the Levin book, but its reputation as a defining horror novel — among the handful that started the horror boom of the 1970s — precedes it. From Polanski and Levin do we receive a psychological thriller of unusual perceptiveness. So much of it falls under the category of typical genre fare — from the hysterical Satan-worshipping underpinnings to the much-discussed dream sequence and back to the everyone-is-plotting-against-me terrors — but so much else is exceptional without the genre tampering.
The film convincingly captures a new marriage and all the uncertainties that come along with it: the unnerving presence of uninvited guests who take advantage of neighborly kindness; the perturbation of growing older, realizing that life is hurtling forward and there is not a lot you can do to stop it A touchstone in substantial horror movies, from Psycho (1960) to Carrie (1976), is that a good movie could be made even without the interference of horror set pieces. Psycho could have sheerly been about a young woman’s grappling with the aftereffects of her sudden immorality. Carrie could have been a character study about an outcast’s eventual conquering of the student body by simply coming into her own.
Similarly, we can imagine Rosemary’s Baby in cinéma vérité style, merely watching as a fetching 20-something survives pregnancy and downcast living situation. Of course, the movie is one of the great horror works, but it’s so great because it’s as attentive to its genre thrills as it is building a leading lady, and overarching circumstances, we’re quick to recognize. Farrow is superb as Rosemary, moving in her every incarnation: first an elegant waif, then a weakened doe, then a scared shitless victim, then an unwilling mother. Cassavetes is good pre-brainwashing but then seems miscast as he fails to much intimidate once he becomes a fiend. It’s Gordon, covered in dollar-store makeup and befit with a haughty New Yorker accent, though, who steals scenes as the wolf in gussied-up sheep’s clothing.
So much about Rosemary’s Baby is so ineradicable that it’s no wonder it both became a cultural landmark and a much-imitated horror piece as soon as it made its way into theaters. It was a big name during the 1969 awards circuit, but it also became a green light for other comparative horror movies, like 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz and 1974’s It’s Alive. There was a poorly-received made-for-television sequel, Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, released in 1976, and Levin himself wrote a continuation of the original story, Son of Rosemary, in 1997. In 2014, NBC even produced a four-hour, two-part miniseries starring Zoë Saldana. But nothing came close, or will ever come close, to the mastery of the 1968 classic. To paraphrase Sidney Prescott at the climax of Scream 2 (1997), one should avoid fucking with the original. A
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t’s all too perfect. They haven’t been house-hunting for very long and yet here pops up this upscale, wonderfully spacious apartment. It’s in an ideal location — close to all the hot spots in New York City but not at the center of them — and is going for an agreeable price. How lucky they are. Just married and already with a great place to come home to. Now all they have to do is have a few kids.