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Rosemary’s Baby

****
1968

‘…stands alongside The Graduate as one of the paradigm shifts in how Hollywood thought about the 60’s sexual revolution; it’s a dark, wicked, ingenious work decades ahead of its time….’

Now that Halloween’s cheap thrills and tricks is over with, and inspired by Mia Farrow’s thematically linked role in Netflix series The Watcher, it’s time to take a look at a rather more refined kind of horror than the old-fashioned jump-scare. Adapted from a book by the great Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby is as much producer Robert Evans’ baby as director Roman Polanski’s. Evans developed the project with veteran William Castle, who certainly never saw a cheap scare he didn’t like, and matching him with an up and coming auteur like Polanski seemed like an unlikely combo. But even for 1968, everyone was on their best behaviour here, with Polanski sticking faithfully to the book and script, and leaving plenty of growing room for a ground-breaking performance from Mia Farrow.

Yup, this is one of these strange written-by-men films that was something of a ground-breaker when it comes to studio cinema that might be called feminist; Farrow gives a remarkable performance as Rosemary Woodhouse, a happy young wife who finds that married life is a far more sinister proposition than she ever imagined. Sure, she’s living the dream; her husband is a saturnine young actor (John Casavettes) and she’s moving into a posho Manhattan apartment; what’s not to like? Well, the neighbours for one thing; Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer are Minnie and yes, Roman, the potential Satanists who live through the partition, and whose noisy chanting keeps her up at night. A possible suicide adds to Rosemary’s nightmare fuel, and Rosemary begins to suspect that there’s a plot against her, possibly to steal her baby, or something even darker.

Aside from a dream sequence that could potentially just be a hallucination until very late in the game, Rosemary’s Baby plays its hand smartly, never quite giving the game away as to whether Rosemary is a victim of a cult or whether she’s just having a bad but understandably reaction to grinding against the patriarchal system of the time. Undergoing a mid-film haircut (from Vidal Sassoon) that’s one of cinemas most startling barnet-reductions, Farrow’s transformation is all part of her edgy, unsettling performance. The whole thing recalls Val Lewton’s 1943 classic The Seventh Victim, which explores the influence of Satanists in Greenwich Village to such similar effect that it feels like a prequel. And another telling detail is that the Satanists, specifically Adrian Marcato, are clearly identified as coming from Scotland, and not just any part of Scotland, but that hotbed of warped thinking that is Glasgow; one assumes local export Aleister Crowley is the inspiration here.

The punch line, of course, is legendary, and tips Rosemary’s Baby into the horror pantheon alongside The Exorcist, but even then, it’s clear that Rosemary Woodhouse is just a pawn in the battle between men and women, with Polanski bringing his Repulsion alienation techniques to bear on the material with great success. Even 55 years after its release. Rosemary’s Baby stands alongside The Graduate as one of the paradigm shifts in how Hollywood thought about the 60’s sexual revolution; it’s a dark, wicked, ingenious work decades ahead of its time.

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  1. I haven’t seen this for a while, but I recall the terrible sense of isolation of the central character,
    it’s one of the ultimate gas-lighting films isn’t it?
    And the scene in the telephone box has always stayed with me. What’s a modern filmmaker to use these days without those old phone-boxes which used to be everywhere?!
    Hats off to Cassavetes for allowing his essentially suspicious demeanour to be exploited for that character. I recall Michael Caine turning down the lead role in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, presumably because he didn’t want to damage his career by playing such a nasty piece of work?

  2. Brilliant movie. Knocked me out when I first saw and it has been doing so ever since. The sheer level of malevolence aginst the innocent remains shocking. Can’t believe the Central Hotel would shut off a floor it could make a fortune from, you any idea how big it is, you must be talking space for 40-50 more rooms.

    • Can’t beat a shot like that, but from a different angle, very odd seeing Charles Gordon in this!

  3. Interesting you mention Exorcist, since Levin, decades later, said he based book in part on question of what would it feel like to be haunted by fetus…all the more relevant in light of recent abortion changes in US and repercussions. Some also speculate his idea came from real articles about babies born with tails, horn protrusions… spooky how a year later Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife and 8 month old baby would be killed by alleged Satanists, and Willian Castle would develop same health problem as a character in movie…As for Crowley in Glasgow (Glas Gu), I can find no record. It does have its grey ladies, tunnels and cursed train station, a radio station with poltergeists, and then there’s it’s famous cemetery/necropolis…and a rich variety of esoteric practitioners. Dakota built 1884 as luxury apt complex, may be another place that links to The Watcher as a result of number of famous deaths occurring there. The satanist angle makes it feel like a parody circling back to the real horror, other people with strong wills and special abilities. You never have to look far to find wicked…Exorcist 1 & 3, The Devil’s Advocate, & Constantine IMO were better depictions, & Fallen was interesting. Terrible haircut but fits her personality—devil in the details?

    • FFFFFFS! How can you know more about MY home city than me! The Dakota re-opened a few years ago, and the last interview I did that was Earl Cave. I didn’t realise what an amazing history it has; the old Central Hotel is a winner two, with a whole forbidden level which the public don’t see, but with a room covered with grafitti from a lovelorn waiter who killed himself. Crowley was big in the highlands, and in London, so it’s a reasonable guess that he walked the streets here, probably leaving a few portals opens as he did so. The physical horror is weak in Baby, but the social and sexual horror is strong, so it’s more of a social document rather than a full blown Gothic horror. I dodn’t eally go in for the notion of cursed films, and this one got lucky caught a number of young talents on the up; I just dig that theme, of the young realising that the old have already made a deal for their souls. A new, young and praobably female film-maker should be working on that notion of a haunted fetus, could be played in a relevant way given what’s happening now in the US. Great comment as always.

      • Earl Cave at the Dakota? Wow! Wait, he had a twin? He says he wants to play Neil Young, former res of Laurel Canyon. Hmmmm. I’ve been to Glasgow 1/2 a dozen times the last 25 years and still have cousins in Barrhead. Have haunted the museums and quite a few bars. Do intend to one day write about my slightly perilous late night trip to Boleskine ruins, tunnels, and … I stand corrected, however. Dragged out several Crowley tomes and found mention FINALLY of visit to Glasgow where he unfortunately got a nasty STD from lady of the nite in early 1900s. He also was member of Scot Mt Climbing Club, and attended meeting in Glasgow around late 1894.
        Yes, RB wasn’t so much horrid as it was torrid…ahhh

        • I can imagine Machen turning him onto a bit of countryside activity. Fantastic intel as always. Cave was just back from doing something in Rome with Angelika Huston, would be awesome as Young. Hotel feels modern, like the old Kate Mantolini’s in LA. I guess I just dig that of all the places they could have chosen, Levin picked Glasgow. He masters in distrust, A Kiss Before Dying is another story of a woman trying to spot the predator in the midst of he social circle, only to find there’s more than one…

    • A lot of old movies don’t stand the test of time, but while this is very weak sauce by today’s standards as horror, it’s sharp as a tack when it comes to feminism and politics. Lots to talk about here.

  4. It’s been so long since I’ve seen this movie for the last time! Your excellent review reminds me of it very well, particularly the special part of sweet Mia and the evilish Cassavetes. The devil I’ve never been back in the village.

    • Just watched it this week, turned up on the Film Four player and looked mint. But Satanists are just the top of the iceberg, it’s MEN that you need to watch out for, and their female enablers! Loved to hear Glasgow getting a shout out, even if its for ALL the wrong reasons!

  5. Did Rosemary have a sister in the movie, calledd Thyme? I ask because I’m pretty sure I remember some guys singing a song about them. I don’t think it was set in Scotland though.

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