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Dissecting the Classics – Rosemary’s Baby

October 14, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Rosemary's Baby

Now that Blade Runner is out of the way, the rest of this month will be dedicated to horror films. I know, you’re probably shocked I didn’t take the opportunity to review a Friday the 13th film. I considered it, but ultimately I’ve only seen the first two and wasn’t impressed. So instead I’m going with a genuine classic… from a director I’d rather stop writing about sooner than later.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Rosemary’s Baby

Wide Release Date: June 12, 1968
Written and Directed By: Roman Polanski
Produced By: William Castle
Cinematography By: William A. Fraker
Edited By: Sam O’Steen and Bob Wyman
Music By: Krzysztof Komeda
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse
John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet
Maurice Evans as Hutch

What Do We All Know?

The late 1960’s are an interesting time in American film history; films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate were setting the stage for the greatest decade in film history (the 1970’s) and films like Star Wars, The Godfather and Annie Hall, among countless others. Today’s spotlight film set the stage for horror classics like The Omen and The Exorcist, films which captured the very real fears of many religious Americans of the time.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby is considered by many to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. It isn’t a slasher or a ghost story or a Universal monster movie, and but for a few scenes it barely qualifies as a supernatural thriller. Instead, what is scary about Rosemary’s Baby is the hyper realism of the situation, preying on very real fears and exaggerating them slightly to make a movie where the devil himself is behind the fear.

What Went Right?

For a two hour plus movie, the plot of Rosemary’s Baby is pretty simple. Rosemary and her husband Guy move into an apartment with overbearing elderly neighbors; her husband takes to them and Rosemary goes along with it despite protest. Things take a sinister turn when Guy helps the neighbors perform a ritual that leads to Rosemary being raped by Satan, which she believes is a nightmare. As Rosemary’s health declines during her pregnancy, she unravels the mystery of her neighbors. But it’s too late; her son is born, the heir of Satan lives… and despite some shock, Rosemary seems content with the situation in the final shot.

Mia Farrow carries the film with a vulnerable performance that has her running a gamut of emotions. When we first see her she is innocent to the point of infantilization, and is submissive to her husband and to her elders. As long as he has a nice home and a baby, she is content to ignore the flaws of the people around her and trust they are good people. Only after she is impregnated does she start to show personal agency; a more modern, boyish haircut, reading books and seeking secondary medical opinions. All of these are discouraged by her husband, who only sees her as a tool to enhance his acting career. In Rosemary, we see the fears of women in the 1960s; a lack of control of their bodies and their lives, as society at large, their husbands, their religion, and their biological ability to bear children all holds them down. Sadly, those fears are still extremely relevant almost 50 years later.

While the very real life fears of the film may be in the background for some, the movie’s supernatural terror takes center stage in two disturbing and iconic scenes. The scene in which Rosemary is raped by the devil is utterly terrifying, and the final scene where the Satanists proclaim their victory over God is also scary. Perhaps the most frightening thing about that scene is that Rosemary decides to care for her child. Is she planning to work against the cult? Or is she willing to play the role of mother and housewife even after everything these people have done to her? In the literal face of evil, is Rosemary still submissive to the powers abusing her and her body? Does she really have a choice?

Another reason the film is so effective is the realism of the film. Long, sweeping takes give us the impression that we are living in this movie instead of watching it. The antagonists are nosy neighbors, abusive husbands, and untrustworthy doctors. Yes, Satan exists and is revealed to be behind it all, but the evil is everyday people. In this way, we can see the influence of Rosemary’s Baby in recent horror films like Get Out.

What Went Wrong?

Is Rosemary’s Baby a feminist piece, or is it against feminism? While it’s easy for me to see the film as an argument that women need to fight the oppressive patriarchy for control of their bodies, one can easily interpret the film in other ways. Rosemary is only happy when she embraces the role of a submissive, girlish housewife, and at the end when she embraces motherhood in spite of the abuses that led to the situation. Is her search for agency caused by the devil inside her and inherently evil? One could certainly interpret the film in this way.

Complicating the matter is the writer and director. I know some will argue that I should separate the art from the artist. But is it really possible to separate the content of Rosemary’s Baby from child molester and coward Roman Polanski? For me, it isn’t. A film about an innocent, childish young woman being raped by the devil so that her husband can achieve fame and success is directed by a man who raped a child and fled the country to avoid prison and still was able to make films. That’s tough to deal with. But in many ways, I feel it only enforces just how real the horror of the film is and why it endures. That said, if anyone refuses to praise the film because of Polanski, I can respect that opinion.

And In Summary…

Rosemary’s Baby is an incredible film, a masterful and terrifying thriller. While the director’s real life crimes do cast a shadow over the film, I feel that the only way to deal with it is by being honest and having conversations about those problems. And Rosemary’s Baby is a film that addresses those problems and makes the fear of them very real and very powerful to its audience. And that is the result of much more than just Polanski’s contributions.

If you can, I do suggest watching the film and experiencing what it has to offer. Mia Farrow leads a fantastic cast, William A. Fraker’s cinematography creates a very real world, and the screenplay faithfully translates Ira Levin’s novel and all of the issues he chose to address. It’s an all time great thriller with a lot on its mind, well worth seeing and analyzing.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner

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