Earlier in the year, I wrote an article on whether a horror movie has to be scary to be considered a successful horror movie. In reality, Rosemary’s Baby is not scary, but it is unequivocally one of the finest horror movies ever made because it strives to confront and horrify. Despite being made just before the full force of the New Hollywood movement, where the ongoing impact of the Hays code was truly dissipated, the undeniable weirdness of Rosemary’s Baby and its incredibly taut atmosphere continue to disturb audiences today. Underneath the banalities of Roman Polanski’s urban world is a land of warped dreamscapes and even more warped realities that consume our protagonist Rosemary’s psyche at every turn.
Polanski saves much of the explicit, physical horror until the end of his film, and instead spends well over two hours constructing set-piece after set-piece of psychological paranoia, until the film cracks under the weight of all the darkness it has been subtly building up. For most of the film, Polanski only poses questions, with each question prompting another question, and never provides answers. Are all these visions and representations of Satanism real? What is happening in reality, and what is happening in Rosemary’s dreams? Is our frail hero Rosemary actually at risk? Or is her hysteria purely self-generated? The ambiguity of the events that take place makes Rosemary’s Baby eternally chilling and confounding.
Polanski prompts us to ask similar questions of ourselves when we watch the film. Is our paranoia purely self-generated? If we weren’t interpolated to feel Rosemary’s obsessive fear, would we ever truly believe that the people she loves are out to destroy her? Would we trust her biased views of her husband and her neighbours? Would we just judge her visions as mentally unstable hallucinations?
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a New York apartment neighbouring the quirky Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). After falling pregnant, Rosemary seems to uncover a sordid world of witches covens and Satanist rituals. Eventually, Rosemary gives birth – gives birth to, as the final scene reveals, the spawn of Satan.
It is with a biased lens that Polanski constructs his film, making us believe Rosemary’s fears, and this is why the film is so great. What Polanski presents us with is largely fact and reality, even though we don’t know this until the very end. This is because he makes these realities so deeply weird that, as an audience, we are constantly questioning the veracity of the film’s plot. He repudiates straightforward narrative order by creating something that is, until the shocking but not unexpected resolution of the final five minutes, a pure enigma.
This is achieved through some brilliant performances. Mia Farrow’s performance makes it impossible for us not to empathise with her, as her fragile frame, meddled mind, whimpering activities and softly spoken cries for help seep out of every frame. John Cassavetes reminds us that he was not only a magnificent director, but also a great actor by delivering one of the finest supporting performances in cinematic history. He looks like he’s about to crack in every scene, barely holding together the lies, immorality and deception that he has been propagating, muttering the occasional witticism. Even though we do not entirely know what he has done, we can tell that he is never really convicted or assured of his actions. Even in the final scene, he lingers in the background as if trying to eschew responsibility for his actions. Because of the relative nuance and subtlety of these performances – relative for its time – Polanski earns the histrionic performance from Ruth Gordon, which won her an Academy Award.
Polanski’s blend of supernatural horrors, like witches and Satanism, with real-life horrors, like rape, suicide and urban isolation, adds to the disturbing timelessness of the film. The dissonantly eerie, sinister music matched with the dull and wintery urban environment forms an uneasy dichotomy that is unconformable yet enthralling to watch. Though the film is never particularly startling or scary, it is unforgettably immersive, chilling and, yes, horrifying.
The film is horrifying because of the underlying idea that, at every turn, Rosemary is in danger and that there is no-one she can trust. Polanski draws this concept out for as long as he can, perpetuating a relentless Murphy’s Law where everything that could go wrong for Rosemary does. The gripping set-pieces where Rosemary incarcerates herself in a phone booth, rearranges Scrabble letters to discover some horrifying truths and is surrealistically impregnated are suffocatingly suspenseful; a tension forged through the taut editing and wonderfully claustrophobic cinematography by William Fraker.
The final shot of the film is a close-up of Rosemary’s distraught face as she rocks her baby’s cradle. Unlike Alien’s Ellen Ripley, who is able to balance her stoic heroism with her maternal instincts, Rosemary is torn between caring for her demonic baby and stoically leaving to start a new, refreshed life. Ergo, so are we.
Much like the film’s intense build-up, the conclusion to Rosemary’s Baby leaves us with no easy answers.