Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rosemary's Baby

What an ironic title for Rosemary's Baby (1968), even if it is accurate. Yes, it is Rosemary's baby at the center of everything, and she most definitely is it's mother, but what's astounding is how little say she has in the matter. From her husband to her doctor to her nosy neighbors, everyone has got an opinion about what's best for Rosemary's baby (what's best for her is never really considered, whether it be physical pain or the emotional wringer she goes through) and what she must do during her pregnancy; they all act like it's theirs. That almost all these people are part of a Satan-worshiping coven that using Rosemary to breed the Antichrist is almost beside the point.

Rosemary's Baby, or as I like to think of it, the movie one should never show a pregnant woman (along with Inside or It's Alive), is based on a novel by Ira Levin and directed by Roman Polanski (and produced by schlockmeister showman William Castle), and it's a horror movie that for the longest time doesn't feel like one. It begins as a story about a young couple who move into a new apartment, deal with some kooky new neighbors, and decide to have a baby. The horror elements creep in gradually, slowly. The movie takes its time establishing a believable, realistic setting and characters, so that when the screws begin to turn, they feel that much tighter, and when the ending is reached, it feels like a nightmare come true.

The young couple are Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), and the overly friendly neighbors are Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). Guy is a struggling actor, but after the person who got a big role ahead of him mysteriously goes blind, Guy gets the part. Soon, he and Rosemary decide to have a baby, although the conception is not as romantic as Rosemary had in mind, what with the blacking out, freaky dreams of begin raped by a demon-like man in front of a group of naked people, and Guy's revelation the morning after that he ... took certain advantages.

But Rosemary is pregnant and excited and nervous and all the other states one associates with the impending role of motherhood. The Castevets take a keen interest in her pregnancy, making her special vitamin drinks, setting her up with a doctor friend of theirs, and generally butting into her life. After a while, Rosemary becomes convinced a group of warlocks and witches are plotting to take her baby when he/she is born and that Guy might be complicit, but the truth is far worse. Guy's not the father; Satan is.

I just gave away the entire plot of the movie, but I don't feel too bad about it. I mean it is nearly fifty years old, and the surprise twists and revelations are widely known, even among people who haven't seen the movie. But Rosemary's Baby is not one of those movies ruined by the foreknowledge of what's going to happen; like the sense of impending doom, knowing what horrible things are going to occur makes them all the more horrible because we, like Rosemary herself, are helpless to stop them.

Recently, I watched The Devil's Due, a found-footage take on this sub-genre I've seen it referred to semi-affectionatley as "The Devil, Your Child, and You," and it was pretty weak. A boring couple goes through a pregnancy, and occasionally something grotesque or ominous happens (always front and center for the camera via splattery, in-your-face special effects). The success of Rosemary's Baby is how it manages to take all those emotions and experiences of being pregnant - the excitement, the nervousness, the fear, the people who mean well and are always offering advice for what they think is best for you, trips to the doctor, questions about diet and routine - and turns them on their head, and the result is a paranoid, foreboding, and disorienting narrative in which you're not entirely sure whether something evil really is afoot as Rosemary suspects or if she's just imagining things because she's tired, confused, and hysterical.

Rosemary's Baby is a horror thriller, but there are no slashers stalking in the shadows, zombies rising from their graves to eat people, or even for that matter many jump scares. Even the witches and warlocks, far from dawning cloaks and cackling madly from broomsticks, are presented as fairly ordinary people, neighbors you recognize and like. The horror stems from Rosemary's dawning realization of how trapped she is; everywhere she turns, someone she thought could help her ends up but in league with the coven.

The real horror is not being in control of your life. Rosemary is denied choice in just about every decision about her pregnancy, from when and how to conceive to what doctor she sees (when she tells Guy she wants a second opinion, he tells her it wouldn't be fair to the current doc), what she drinks, and where she goes. Attempts to take control back or assert herself are met with mockery (the reactions to her new haircut), condescending responses (doctor knows best), and threats (locking her away in an insane asylum is mentioned as a possibility).

Performances are uniformly great. Farrow is appropriately fragile and vulnerable, and Cassevetes, well in a movie featuring Satan and his followers, he plays arguably the most loathsome character, a man who sells out his wife to the ultimate evil for his career; buried beneath the surface, though, you can sense he has some guilt about what he's done. The best performances are by Gordon and Blackmer, so convincing as both the friendly next-door neighbors who are annoying (her) and charming (him) and yet sinister when revealed as agents of the devil.

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