Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Country: USA

Rosemary’s Baby is a very important film in two regards. Firstly it confirmed the promise of Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski and proved that he was able to handle a large budget and the pressures of Hollywood. Secondly it became one of the keynote films in establishing a new modern horror, a type of horror that didn’t reside in distant gothic landscapes populated by sadistic aristocrats. The problem with the brand of gothic horror pedalled by Hammer and to a lesser extent Roger Corman was the very restricted and simplistic world view the films offered. Depictions of good and evil were strictly demarcated, with the latter overcome by the forces of faith and rationality to maintain a conservative status quo. This did not reflect the world as it was in 1968 and Gothic allegories became increasingly irrelevant. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) blurred notions of good and evil, more realistically offering shades of grey reflected in the monochrome cinematography. Ira Levin in his novel Rosemary’s Baby built upon this, by cleverly fusing soap opera/melodrama with witchcraft in a modern milieu that nevertheless paid lip service to gothic conventions with a suitably eerie apartment block.

Polanski was a director perfectly suited to make a film detailing the gradual alienation and psychological breakdown of a vulnerable female. He had explored similar territory in Repulsion (1965), and would later take the theme even further by casting himself in The Tenant (1976). In all of these films the spatial claustrophobia of the apartment is central to the anxiety. The apartment block in Rosemary’s Baby has a history of tragedy and of evil, and this is brought to life extremely well in the way the building is almost personified. The corridors squeeze the characters, and Polanski’s camera offers a tight and restricted view. The walls are thin, the décor tasteless to the eye, the neighbours strangulating in their platitudes and good intentions. Into this is thrown a young upwardly mobile couple. Rosemary played with wide eyed vulnerability by Mia Farrow begins having strange dreams and suspicions, and her mysterious pregnancy only adds to the creeping paranoia that begins to overtake her life. The terror lies in the lack of freedom that Rosemary encounters, she has nowhere to turn as the cult draws nearer.

Much of the horror lies in the inevitability of the plot. As an audience we become certain long before Rosemary that she is pregnant with the devils child. Rather than dilute the suspense, this becomes the films masterstroke, because it affords Polanski the opportunity to really ratchet up the paranoid tension. The modern day coven of witches remains hidden by a tight network of bourgeois society folk. It is made up of doctors, and scholars, and is firmly associated with the upwardly mobile world that Rosemary’s husband Guy (John Cassavetes) so desperately craves. He sells himself out in order to progress up the Hollywood ladder, which offers a bleak view of the acting profession and the desperate measures required to succeed in the modern world. This is a horror film with an unusual amount of subtlety, subtlety that Polanski had not shown in either Repulsion or Dance of the Vampires (1967) - and perhaps shows evidence of artistic maturity. The narrative patiently builds up, and aside from a very striking dream sequence in which we briefly see the Devil making love to Rosemary, the film is marked by a visual blandness. The film offers particularly rich rewards to those seeking to explore issues of gender and psychoanalysis. But what really impresses some forty years on is the level of commitment shown by the excellent Mia Farrow and the patience and subtlety behind the camera of the brilliant Roman Polanski.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Brillian paranoid film, love the tension and the suspense as the film nears its completion...the final frames are a master stroke as you put it. Angel Heart was a bit influenced by this films ending I think, but it was better achieved on Rosemary's Baby.

  2. Your review just made me want to watch Rosemary's Baby again Shaun! Evocative stuff. This is perhaps one of the VERY few film adaptations of a book that is just as good, if not better, than the source material. Polanski did well to stick so rigidly to Levin's paranoid and feverish text.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys - absolutely the film is cut above the novel James. I also think The Shining is a much better film than the book it was based upon. Polanski does paranoia very well, perhaps better than any director in the last 40 years.

  4. Shaun, The Shining is a much better film than its source material! It's one of many many horror films that are better than the books they were based on. Don't Look Now and The Birds are other classic examples.

    As for Rosemary's Baby, I like it but I don't think it's anywhere near as good as Repulsion. But then Catherine Deneuve is a much better actress than Mia Farrow.

  5. Shaun, Great review. This reminded me of the film 'The Astronaut's Wife'(1999) with Jonny Depp and Charlize Theron...which has been said to be considered as a modern version of 'Rosemary's Baby'. However I feel without any of the originality or tension. Have you seen it?


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