Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Director:  Roman Polanski
Cast:  Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
Plot:  A young couple move into a new apartment, only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbors and occurrences. When the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life.

Genre:  Drama / Horror / Mystery
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Supporting Actress.  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Adapted Screenplay.
Runtime:  136min
Rating:  M18 for mature and disturbing themes, nudity, and sexuality.

Lured to America to direct the screen version of Rosemary’s Baby, a novel by Ira Levin, Roman Polanski took the opportunity to launch himself as a star director in Hollywood. Famous in Europe for his thrillers such as Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), and Cul-de-sac (1966), Polanski’s work in Rosemary’s Baby is hailed by critics as pitch-perfect. The film is also consistently mentioned as “one of the scariest horror films of all-time” and “a horror classic” by film magazines and polls.

Now, I am not quite favorable with these lavish praises on a film I would classify as a psychological drama rather than horror (in the purest sense of the word). But really, what is horror?  What makes a film “horrific”?  Is it scares that make you jump?  Or is it the dreadful atmosphere of suspense?  Or is it a conceptual idea that chills you?  Are these definitions so subjective that it is only right to discount them?  Or are they distinct parts that describe an increasingly vague genre?

Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) who lives with her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), in a newly bought apartment flat.  Guy is a struggling television actor who, to the delight of Rosemary, finally wants a baby.  They have an old couple for neighbors who are caring and generous, but their actions become more suspicious over time. Soon, a pregnant Rosemary starts to hallucinate, feels pain in her abdomen, and begins to suspect a cultish plot against her baby, or does she not?

The “horror” comes from elements of Satanism and witchcraft.  In a dream sequence halfway into the film, Polanski employs surrealistic images of what I would describe as the ritual raping of the protagonist by the Devil.  In the final act, which I will not reveal in its entirety, Satan is hailed.  However, it is important to note that Polanski’s film is not a “glorification of evil”, but an inquiry into a person’s psychological well-being and self-awareness.

Polanski’s fine direction allows the film to grow in psychological creepiness, and he does a steady balancing act attempting to suggest supernaturalism while retaining a strong sense of reality.  Perhaps the best aspect of Rosemary’s Baby, apart from the very faithful adaptation of its source material, is that the film is plausible enough to be taken seriously.

The all-round excellent acting by the cast plays a large part in creating believable characters.  Farrow, especially, gives us a character whose fears we can relate to.  We are with her till the very end, to that famous and ambiguous last scene of her rocking the cradle.  What lies inside the cradle is clearly the stuff of nightmares, but Polanski refuses to give us the money shot – the devil baby – which makes it all the more “scarier” by leaving it to our imagination.

Generally, Rosemary’s Baby is a decent film.  But moments of cinematic brilliance that we have come to associate with a skillful director like Polanski are few.  I find something lacking overall, of which I can’t quite pinpoint.  Perhaps it didn’t live up to my expectations of a “horror masterpiece”.  Or maybe the feeling of satisfaction was replaced by a sense of queasiness I felt towards its ambiguous ending.

In a nutshell, Rosemary’s Baby is good but not great.  For some reason, it didn’t haunt me as much as it did for many others.


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