In the last 5 years popular culture has seen a small resurgence of slow-burning psychological horror films with entries like It Follows, Hereditary, Mother, The Babadook, and The Witch. In light of these recent hits, perhaps it’s high-time to re-visit Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby on its 50th birthday.
Rosemary’s Baby follows aspiring actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) as they move into a new apartment in New York. The film builds a sense of unease and paranoia as Rosemary becomes pregnant and begins to suspect that a cult of satanist’s is after her baby. The film, released in 1968, paved the way for other classic horror films like The Excorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).
Before one tries to pin down Rosemary’s Baby it is important to distinguish between terror and horror, that is ‘the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization’. This is what makes the film so powerful; a sense great foreboding evil that crescendos into the films finale. For most of the film the horror lives inside of Rosemary, unconventionally it is never seen by the viewer, it is rather the possibility that her baby may not be healthy and human but instead unnatural or even the spawn of the devil. This uncertainty builds as Rosemary transitions from sheltered Catholic girl and doting wife to the devil’s incubus and a potential conduit for his offspring. As the film unfolds we follow Rosemary as an oppressed woman who must deal with forces who are far beyond her comprehension. Rosemary’s pregnancy functions very much as an inversion of the Biblical Mary and Baby Jesus story, yet as canon Rosemary is not venerated but rather slips into a Catholic self-hatred in an inversion very much like immersion in Satanist subgroups.
A large part of this paranoid uncertainty is the outlandishness of the presence of Satanists all as is contrasted with much of the film which explores the banal normalcy of the couple’s life. Very little actually happens in terms of plot over a film that is nearly two and a half hours. Indeed, this sense of realism is increased by Polanski’s use of minimal editing and unbroken long shots which never leave Rosemary’s spectatorship and create a greater terror of her entrapment.
Unusually, most of the film is set inside the apartment or in broad daylight. Rosemary’s Baby could be classified as a chamber horror, the brief moments of escape into New York provide little respite or ease for Rosemary from the terror of her domestic life. The apartment that they move into is well lit and clear, yet paradoxically labyrinthine and decaying. It is a sort of metropolitan gothic that swallows the couple up as they are entrapped within its confines in the mise-en-scène.
In a post-#metoo social landscape, Rosemary’s Baby takes on another level of terror. Husband, Guy makes an altered Faustian pact with his neighbors and offers the devil his wife’s womb in return for a successful thespian career. As Rosemary is manipulated and exploited by her peers she is also infantilised and disempowered. Continually weakened and silenced she is the epitome of an experience that many young women had within the Hollywood system of yesteryear. The film is shot almost entirely from the perspective of Mia Farrow’s weakened heroine, this is the rarest of older American films experienced from a woman’s point of view. Disempowered by old patriarchal systems her experience makes it easy to see the horrors that many had go through.
Rosemary’s Baby is streaming on Amazon Prime and screening in cinemas throughout the year.