Thursday, October 08, 2009

Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Spoilers and perhaps slightly-too-defensive caveats ahead.

Now, I know that before I begin this entry properly I'll have to spend a great deal of time explaining insisting that my writing about this quintessential horror film has nothing — Noth. Ing. — to do with recent news events and Internet debates. I didn't choose to write about this film to coincide with its director's arrest. If anything, recent events made me want to postpone writing about this movie. But since I'm a semi-professional, and since this movie has been on the list of films I've wanted to write about for a while, I figured I should buck up and write about the damn thing.

It's also especially tough to avoid making parallels between the film's pivotal scene where the heroine is drugged and taken advantage of sexually to the real life crime the director's been arrested for. (This is definitely a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, since it's really tacky and smarmy to note the parallels and really bullheaded and stupid not to.)

So, I'm going to do my best to just write about the film itself and director Roman Polanksi's work on this film only. This entry won't be getting into the debate about his arrest. Seriously. There are several other places on the Web for that, if that's what you're interested in. By all means, visit those sites getting into the debate over his arrest and contribute your opinion there.

Here, we're going to be talking about Polanksi's 1968 film, Rosemary's Baby, not his crime or arrest. Okay? Okay.

Right. Here goes.

I'm going to have to be honest (and run the risk of getting cyber-slapped again) by stating I'm not wild about Rosemary's Baby. But I hasten to add that I don't dislike it. Far from it, in fact. But in case you haven't noticed, with some exceptions, I generally prefer my horror films to be more visceral than atmospheric.

(Case in point: my favorite horror film of all-time is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and if Tobe Hooper's film is on one end of a made-up spectrum of intense visceral horror films, Rosemary's Baby is about as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can get.)

I have another problem with Rosemary's Baby: in many regards, I find it flat-out dull. There, I said it. With a run-time of about 135 minutes, I often find the movie less tense and suspenseful and more plodding and dragging. You don't really want to be checking your watch during a horror film, and to be perfectly honest, I often find myself doing that at least once every time I watch it. Don't tell me it's just me.

Okay, now with the negative out of the way, let's talk about the good. Because, like I wrote, I don't dislike this movie. Although I ultimately prefer visceral and intense to atmospheric and eerie, I will say that Rosemary's Baby is very successful in being atmospheric and eerie. There are sequences in it I find genuinely chilling and disturbing (I once awoke from a nightmare inspired by the aforementioned impregnation scene and was so freaked out by it I couldn't get back to sleep for at least an hour). And its underlying theme, a vulnerable person dependant on people who turn out to be manipulative and evil, is quite unnerving and haunting.

Rosemary's Baby introduces us to young housewife Rosemary Woodhouse (played by Mia Farrow) and her struggling actor husband Guy (legendary indie filmmaker John Cassavetes) as they move into a large New York City apartment. When they move in, they meet their neighbors: Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), a quirky and intrusive yet seemingly well-meaning elderly couple.

Despite Guy originally not wanting to get close to the Castevets (since they live right next door, they'll never get rid of them), he actually starts to bond with them as Rosemary tries to keep her distance.

When Guy gets a role for a play under odd circumstances (the original actor inexplicably goes blind), Guy bonds more with the Castevets and becomes more emotionally distant towards Rosemary. Rosemary confronts him on the fact that they're drifting apart, and Guy agrees. So, he suggests they have a night in of romance and baby-making.

On their night in, Minnie brings over two cups of chocolate mousse. Rosemary finds hers tastes...chalky, and throws it out after a few spoonfuls. Then, she gets really dizzy and passes out. Guy takes her to the bed to lie down and undresses her.

Then she experiences some very odd and creepy dreams in arguably the best and eeriest sequence in the film (the one I will admit is straight-up, no-holds-barred frightening). The dream(s) culminate with her being surrounded by a group of old naked chanting people (as well as her husband), as she is raped by some demonic-looking creature. Because she didn't eat the entire drugged mousse, she has a brief moment of clarity, realizing this is no dream, but really happening.

However, the morning after, Rosemary thinks it was indeed just a dream, and a few weeks later discovers she's pregnant (due, of course, in 6/66). Guy insists they tell the Castevets, who in turn insist she ditch her current doctor and see Dr. Sapirstein as her obstetrician. His advice, of course, should set off alarm bells — to read no books, to listen to no other advise, to consult no other doctors — but, alas, they don't. For the first three months of her pregnancy, Rosemary suffers severe and constant abdominal pains, loses a lot of weight, looks incredibly gaunt and sickly, and develops cravings for raw meat and raw chicken liver.

Still, no alarm bells or red flags. Oh, Rosemary, Rosemary, Rosemary.

That Rosemary is not only being sheltered and isolated from the real world, but is unaware she's being sheltered and isolated from the real world, gives the film its terror. That these people isolating her are her neighbors and her own husband adds to the terror. That this manipulation and isolation — being given malevolent guidance from a nefarious obstetrician, being given a horrible concoction to drink that causes constant physical pain, being cut off from second medical opinions or trustworthy friends' advice — is also happening when Rosemary is pregnant, that is, in an extremely physically and emotionally vulnerable state, augments this terror even more.

One thing leads to another. And another. And another. takes a very, very long time (9 months in the film's world, though it seems to us like 10 or 11) for Rosemary to discover that yes, her neighbors are part of a coven of Satan worshippers, Guy had made a deal with them to let the devil impregnate his wife in exchange for a boost in his acting career and her son is the spawn of Satan.

The coven convinces Rosemary to mother to her son. The movie ends with Rosemary clearly acquiescing (she adjusts the baby's blankets, rocks him in his cradle and sings to him).

Unlike The Exorcist, which I found maintains its raw power even after multiple uses, I find Rosemary's Baby to drag upon repeat viewings, and I'm really waiting for the grand finale where Rosemary realizes the truth. At first, yes, I had a creepy, "What the hell is going on?" feeling when I first watched it. Since then, I've had more of a, "How much longer before the 'Hail Satan!' scene?" sentiment upon subsequent viewings.

I regard Rosemary's Baby in a similar way that I regard Dario Argento's Suspiria: it's creepy and atmospheric, but at the end of the day, it's a movie I more admire from a distance than actually enjoy and engage with. It's more chilling than genuinely horrific. Though, unlike Suspiria, Rosemary's Baby did once manage to shake me from a restful slumber and give me the heebie-jeebies, so I'll admit that it does have some game.

Hailing Satan collect,

James "Irresponsible Son" Comtois

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Blogger jamie said...

I've never been a fan of "Rosemary's Baby," actually. I agree that it drags. I also find the ending to be a little.. hokey? Like, the perhaps-outdated idea that just because something came out of your womb means you automatically accept it - even if you know it's - literally - devil spawn. (I've always liked to think that Mia Farrow chucked the kid out the window moments after the movie ended.)

However, the presence of the amazing Ruth Gordon can make up for a lot.


10:37 AM  
Blogger Teresa said...

I've always thought the movie was interesting precisely BECAUSE of the ending. Because all the mothers I know, whether they kept their children or not, whether they've suffered post-partum depression or not, have all had a strong attachment and love for their children. That's not an "outdated idea." It's not an idea at all. It's something biological. Women (hell, female animals of all species) are designed to protect their young at any cost. You hear all the time about women doing seemingly superhuman things to save their young, like being able to lift cars and whatnot (not over their heads or anything, but you know what I mean), because the mother instinct is one of the strongest things there is.

Also, I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Rosemary's Baby ISN'T a horror movie. It's a thriller. So if you sit down to watch it as if it's supposed to be similar to something like The Exorcist, of COURSE you're going to be disappointed. It's a thriller that happens to be about motherhood. The fact that it has anything to do with Satan is incidental. The story is about Mia Farrow protecting her baby from any and all comers, including the person she first thinks is the baby's father, her doctors, everyone. And I love the statement it makes that, in the end, no matter what, she will continue to do that. The arc of her story is that she overcomes obstacles and stays true to her goal. Whether we agree her goal is a good idea after we see who the kid's daddy is is also irrelevant. The movie is set up for its ending, an in that way, it succeeds.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Though, not to split hairs, if it is indeed a thriller (and not a horror film), it's about as un-thrilling as a thriller film can be.

3:16 PM  
Blogger macrogers said...

Teresa, I wrote and coproduced a play a couple years ago called "Hail Satan" that was partly inspired by my feeling that "Rosemary's Baby" ended right when things were going to get interesting. What if she did raise the kid? What would that be like? Could you raise the Antichrist to not be the Antichrist? The "Omen" movies touched on that a little, but not enough for me.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

This movie is intensely boring in places. The drama, the strange pain and the neighborly interference, is all somewhat static, and also repeated over and over. I don't really put this in the same film world as The Omen, it actually feels more like a companion piece to Eraserhead.

And, I've had a child, and I've gotta tell you, the utter lack of instant love you have for your offspring can be really surprising. I am deeply in love with my kid now, but it took a while for that to happen. I felt very little biological imperative.

It sickens me to realize this, but if I thought that baby was satan-spawn, I would have very easily stopped the whole thing right there.

3:36 PM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

Glamorous, glamorous Satanism. This movie is gorgeous, and if you ask me there aren't nearly enough "fashion horrors" as I like to call them.

Have I wandered into some parallel universe where people don't drool over mid century furniture and mini dresses and Vidal Sassoon? Horror aside, this movie is a landmark for fashion. Doesn't anybody here know that? Doesn't anybody CARE?

Polanski's attention to detail is superb, and I find that the movie gets better with repeat viewings. The film is loaded with minor creepy details that you won't notice until until the 5th or 10th or 200th viewing. It's everything good about the sixties, plus some old satanists in Chanel. What's not to love?

Drags? say WHAT? If anything, the movie needs to focus less on horror and plot and more on contact paper, haircuts, women's lib, and jazz records. Plus... the Dakota! I'd crap out a dozen demon babies if I could live there.

This movie also has one of the best lines from any horror movie ever.

"What happened to your hair?"
"I've been to Vidal Sassoon."

Gah! Best movie ever! Congratulations. You all killed me. I'm dead now.

10:38 AM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

What? No come back?

You're burnt!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I've actually been giggling like a ninny at your previous comment since you posted it, sir. Seriously, I've been a wreck for days.

But how can we argue? If it was all about contact paper and Vidal Sassoon, it may very well be a better movie.

Okay, enough foolishness. Onto more foolishness.

2:59 PM  

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