46 years old and still scaring: Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassevetes)

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassevetes)

(FYI,this is full of spoilers)

I started watching Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel the other night on a whim. I have seen the film many times and my intent was to just watch the first 20 minutes or so because it was very close to my bedtime.

Well, that didn’t work out.

Rosemary’s Baby is such a strange but highly successful mix of dread and humor. Early on Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) meet their eccentric neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) and their loopy presence (especially Hollywood treasure Gordon) runs counter to their diabolical plans. Minnie’s constant nosiness is hysterical; the way she manhandles Rosemary’s mail or slips a pointed question in between her constant jabbering. My favorite Gordon moment this viewing was the way she eats her dessert; it feels like a natural, from-the-hip bit of business that is positively droll.

Ruth gordon

Ruth Gordon

I love how once his deal with the devil is put into motion Guy’s smooth demeanor takes on a repulsive layer (Cassevetes always seemed to naturally walk the line between charming/dangerous so that was a great bit of casting) while, simultaneously, Rosemary’s physical appearance takes an ugly turn for the worse (“It’s Vidal Sassoon”). The young, hip Woodhouses are both hoodwinked and abused by this wicked band of seniors and it is exactly this older generation vs. younger that provides Polanski opportunities to pepper scenes with jet-black comedy. The finale is a great example of this. As Rosemary enters the room where her baby is (surrounded by the old Satanists dressed like they just got home from Sunday service), the big reveal is not really played big/deadly serious but rather works almost like a punchline; the oldies declaring “Hail Satan!”, one woman scolds Rosemary for being out of bed, the young Asian man with the camera snaps pictures, Krysztof Komeda’s music score cackles in evil delight, Minnie is concerned with the mark in the floor from the knife falling out of Rosemary’s hand. The scene constantly shifts between horror and humor.

The genuinely scary stuff comes earlier. Rosemary’s rape, framed as a fever dream, is still terrifying and visceral. It is a scene that could easily cause the film to falter but, miraculously,  even with hairy claws and make up it all works. Rosemary’s phone call to Dr. Hill from a city payphone is pure Polanski as his camera snakes around the booth, milking our mounting fear for her. Dr. Hill handing Rosemary over to Dr. Sapirstein and Guy, her brief escape at their apartment only to be recaptured and then going into labor is chilling stuff indeed. Polanski’s hand held, close-quarter, camera along with masterful editing by Sam O’Steen & Bob Wyman (notice how many times a scene ends one or two beats before you expect; creating visual tension), all gorgeously lensed by D.P. William Fraker create a kind of stylized/cinéma vérité blend.

It can’t be overstated how much the performances make this film work. I have already mentioned Gordon and her wonderful, Academy Award winning performance but the movie hinges on Rosemary. Mia farrow is never anything but fully committed to Rosemary. Her first trimester suffering is not all short hair and chalky make-up; it’s fused with gut wrenching performance. You can see her naivety slipping away from her as the film progresses. And there is a kind of boldness she takes on as the film heads to the finish which contrasts Guy’s progressive slinking into the background under the weight of his shame.

Polanski with camera

Polanski with camera

Polanski has made a career out of making the mundane sinister, poking at our psychological fears. Rosemary’s Baby takes the mundane, human situation of having to be polite to your old, pushy neighbors and throws the curve that you have actually opened the door to monsters.

Oh, yeah I wanted to mention that I love all of the rich character names: Rosemary Woodhouse, Minnie and Roman Castevet, Hutch, Dr. Sapirstein, Elise Dunstan, Mr. Nicklas, etc.

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