Monday, October 26, 2009

A Frank Review of "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

The Short Version? There's something very wrong with this girl's pregnancy.
What Is It? Thriller
Who Is In It? Woody's ex, Dr. Zaius, half of Old Hollywood's best character actors.
Should I See It? Yes.

Young couple Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse rent a new apartment in the big city, thanks to his work as a commercial actor. The elderly new neighbors are a bit much, a new friend comes to a bad end, and Guy's career takes a hit. One night, Rosemary wakes up from a night of rough sex and disturbing dreams to find herself pregnant. Her desirable condition brings with it increasing stress, illness, and paranoia. Rosemary suspects a nefarious conspiracy surrounding her baby, but is she just going out of her mind?

Whatever your feelings about Roman Polanski as a man, he remains one of the finest film directors of all time. Rosemary's Baby was his American mainstream debut, combining Hitchcockian tension with Kubrickian chilly satire. Lacking a uterus, the exploitation of prenatal anxiety doesn't hit me like it might female viewers, so the film works for me more on an intellectual level than a visceral one. The conception sequence is an exception, especially Rosemary's brilliant "oh shit" moment midway through. However, the film commits a cardinal sin of horror, keeping the leads at arm's length in terms of audience empathy, and the distance leads to more dark comedy than deep concern.

Based on the descriptions in the book, Polanski originally envisioned Tuesday Weld and Robert Redford in the leads. I daresay that would have made a better picture. Producer Robert Evans pushed for Mia Farrow, who naturally comes off as a space cadet, which hurts audience identification. Sickly thin in the Twiggy mode, Farrow easily sells the possibly Rosemary is just nuts, but even if she's right, you're not entirely confident in her parenting abilities. When push comes to shove, Farrow is just too weak to be appreciated in a post-feminist era. Meanwhile, as the baby's parentage and Guy's motivations become more questionable, you really need a handsome, earnest leading man to sell Rosemary's sticking by her husband for so long. Instead, John Cassavetes comes off as a sleazy creep, even when he's supposed to be the dream husband, so you're never rooting for him to stick around. However, the leads are buoyed by stellar supporting work from Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Charles Grodin and more. Gordon in particular has an off-kilter delivery that's in turns obnoxious and overwhelming to the precise correct levels as needed, often foregoing anything resembling normal punctuation or inflection. Like Polanski's direction, it steers the viewer to an uneasy place perfect for the material.

As a horror film, Rosemary's Baby is bound to disappoint modern audiences. It works best as a psychological thriller with a strong vein of dark humor. It's lovely to look at, and enjoyable overall, with a damned fine ending.


  • "Making of" featurette Too much archival footage for most tastes.
  • Retrospective Interviews Too short, given the overall quality. Well worth your time.

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