|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 03 October 2000|
Today's horror movie freaks are often puzzled when told that 'Rosemary's Baby' is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. There's no blood, there's no violence to speak of, it's all about pregnancy, and the only monster is glimpsed but briefly. Because too many of today's horror movie buffs equate horror and action (as others equate science fiction and action) to the degree that they think that horror HAS to have lots of action, they end up bored by 'Rosemary's Baby.' Because they want explicit blood and guts, or at least a wisecracking monster, they miss the implications of the story and the carefully-build suspense.
To heck with them. For the rest of us, 'Rosemary's Baby' is indeed one of the greatest horror movies ever made, far better than the more blunt and obvious 'Exorcist.' This is horror movie as poetry, horror more like that of 'The Innocents,' the original 'The Haunting' or the classics produced by Val Lewton back in the 1940s. It's horror of the mind, not the sight, but it is strong, and it goes bone deep and lingers. Director Roman Polanski, making his first American film, created a masterpiece.
It began as a novel by Ira Levin, a bestseller (to which he has recently written an evidently ill-advised sequel) that studios puzzled over. It was about the Devil impregnating a young, ordinary Manhattan wife. Would anyone accept this? William Castle urged Paramount to buy it for him to direct, but someone -- in the interviews, Robert Evans claims it was him (and he may be right) -- realized that Castle's old-fashioned directorial style wasn't appropriate for the material. Polanski had been wanting to come to the States, and Hollywood wanted him. Evans lured him with the prospect of directing 'Downhill Racer' (Polanski loved skiing), but then got him to read the galleys of Levin's novel. Polanski was hooked.
As the movie begins, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) move into a famous old New York apartment building. Though it has another name in the film, it's the Dakota -- where John Lennon was later killed. He's an actor whose career seems on the verge of taking off; she is content to just be a housewife. She's religious -- a Catholic -- but pretends not to be, because Guy doesn't care about religion.
Lonely Rosemary meets another young woman living there, but she soon dies -- falls to her death -- bringing Rosemary and Guy into contact with Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castavet (Sidney Blackmer), the elderly couple the dead girl had been living with. Minnie is a gabby old bat, wearing too much makeup, and is inclined to be amazingly nosey and pushy, but Rosemary's too good-natured to spurn her overtures of friendship. Roman is a stuffy old bird, but he and Guy enjoy talking privately.
Eventually, while having a strange dream involving JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy, the pope and the Devil, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and on the urging of the Castavets and Guy, abandons her obstetrician (Charles Grodin!) for Dr. Abe Sapirstein (an authoritative Ralph Bellamy), an older man with strange ideas. After a few months, Rosemary's old friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) is shocked by her appearance, and argues against her seeing Sapirstein. Then Hutch dies....
A book could be written just on how Polanski made 'Rosemary's Baby,' analyzing it shot by shot. It's one of the few films in which absolutely every choice seems to have been the right one, from casting it with a sprinkling of Hollywood veterans (Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, Sidney Blackmer, Elisha Cook, Jr.), some Broadway regulars (Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans) and a relative newcomer in the lead.
This role established Mia Farrow as a star, and in the classic phrase, she's never been better; she's rarely been anywhere near this good. Her slender, gawky, almost boyish figure, her huge luminous eyes, and her ability to seem both truthful and half-cracked at the same time are all precisely perfect for the role of Rosemary Woodhouse. She's so much the central character that she appears in every scene. It's one of the best -- and longest -- performances by a woman in horror movie history, completely convincing, completely engaging -- we never lose sympathy for her, even though she seems a little slow at times. But even then, we're so in tune with her that we never become impatient; Rosemary is our girl.
The rest of the cast, all of them, are secondary to Farrow. Cassavetes is perhaps too right on as the duplicitous, self-serving Guy; we should have liked him, too, at least at the beginning, but he always seems to be using Rosemary one way or another. We don't have the sense of betrayal that the script clearly wants us to have. It's not that Cassavetes gives a bad performance; it's that his frowning brows and crafty smiles give away the game too soon.
Ruth Gordon's performance won her the supporting actress Oscar. She's funny and annoying and then, at the end, terrifying in the utter power of her convictions. Unfortunately for Gordon, though, for the rest of her movie career (which 'Rosemary's Baby' revived), she mostly played variations on Minnie Castavet. She even played Minnie herself again, in the awful TV sequel, 'Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby.' (Ray Milland stepped in as Roman following Blackmer's death.)
The hand-picked cast is remarkably good; the Satanists, all ordinary-looking people, are frightening because they're so ordinary. Bellamy is excellent, as is Maurice Evans. Tony Curtis is also fine, doing an unbilled voice over as an actor replaced by Guy. And producer William Castle has a little cameo as a man outside a phone booth.
The crisp, cool photography by William A. Fraker evokes New York, and captures the dark ambiance of the Dakota. Richard Sylbert's production designs are realistic and imaginative; he's one of the three people interviewed as well. Christopher Komeda's score, particularly the dark lullaby theme, is one of the most memorable and unusual of the 1960s, when a lot of experimentation was going on. The disc is presented in mono, however.
The interviews are with Richard Evans, who pats himself on the back at every opportunity, Sylbert, and Roman Polanski himself, who seems reticent and modest. The interviews are fine, but a full-length commentary track by Polanski would be much more welcome.
Otherwise, there's nothing particularly distinguished about this DVD; it's too bad that Paramount didn't give this classic thriller the treatment it truly deserves. But at least it's now available in a fine print.
If you liked this movie, you might also enjoy; Chinatown, The Innocents, The Sixth Sense