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.