Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski’s first American film. He has since established himself as one of the greatest directors of his generation, personal controversies aside. Looking back on this 1968 film, it’s not hard to see why. Partly due to Polanski’s astute direction of the psychological material, and partly due to excellent and believable performances from the entire cast, Rosemary’s Baby is a forty-year-old film that still feels modern, despite its story having been fully assimilated into popular culture by now.

It’s unlikely that anyone seeing this film for the first time is unfamiliar with the premise. A woman moves into an apartment with her fledgling actor husband and together they meet a forbiddingly friendly elderly couple. Rosemary and Guy agree to conceive a child, only the conception ends up being a drugged nightmare for her. Now pregnant, she begins to lose her sound body and mind, until she can’t help but suspect a satanic conspiracy surrounding the growing child in her womb.

Mia Farrow was chosen by producer Robert Evans rather than by director Polanski, and her performance changed her career. She undergoes an excellent transformation, from a charmingly cute girl in a yellow dress to the sickly and pale expectant mother that she becomes. Although the revelation in the end is as culturally spoiled as Luke Skywalker’s father, Farrow’s convincingly terrified realization is enough to bring chilling horror to the audience.

John Cassavetes does a great job being deceptive and untrustworthy as Rosemary’s husband Guy. When the film begins, he seems like an all right guy, perhaps a little focused on his career but believably in love. By time the actor who beat him for a role goes blind, however, he has become obviously corrupted, and it becomes just as easy to hate his character and yearn for Rosemary to realize his treachery.

Perhaps the best performance comes from Ruth Gordon as the elderly woman who gets involved in Rosemary’s life and pregnancy. Even if she weren’t an agent for Satan, Gordon’s character would succeed in being hellishly obnoxious. Every action and inflection she performs is perfectly honed annoyance, and her facetious friendliness jump starts our sympathy for Rosemary before she even becomes impregnated.

When she is implanted with Satan’s seed, she experiences it through the effects of a drug slipped into her mousse; the audience accordingly experiences it in the same way, for Polanski unites Rosemary’s perceptions with the viewer’s. We never get to see anything that she is unaware of, and are restrained to what she hears through walls or dreams while she’s asleep. Her dream sequences are filmed handheld, bringing an unstable air to them, and are variously accompanied by disquieting unsynced sound or silence, broken only by breathing and a clock ticking. These sequences are some of the most surreal and effective of the film, and I actually found the single most terrifying moment to be when she realized that she was experiencing reality and not a dream while being raped by a demon. Truly horrifying.

The rest of the cinematography only bolsters the film’s quiet terror. Long takes and static deep focus shots help build suspense while hard lights and shadows symbolize the confusion that our central character is marred in. There’s also an intriguing theme of the disempowering of women, as Rosemary begins to catch on to the plot she has been entrenched in and yet finds it impossible to get help.

Most of the things that happen to Rosemary and the people around her have become predictable through repetitious use in other films of this genre. In fact, there have been countless films since Polanski created this masterpiece that have tried to evoke the same sense of paranoia and terrifying cultic conspiracies. But even with that as the case, watching Rosemary’s Baby will show that those imitators never come within reach of Polanski’s work.

Final rating: 8.5/10

–James A. Janisse

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