"He Has His Father's Eyes." ROSEMARY'S BABY Criterion Blu-Ray Review
Released in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby set off a cinematic Satanic panic that would continue to reverberate at the box office throughout the following decades. The Exorcist and The Omen both owe it a debt for popularizing demon-spawn, Ghostbusters borrowed its central idea of a devil cult setting up shop in a swank Manhattan apartment building, and Satanic thrillers like The Devil Inside and The Last Exorcism continue to dominate the multiplexes to this day. Not only did Roman Polanski’s breakthrough blockbuster foster a fear of modern-day devil-worshippers lurking around every corner, it also tapped into a common terror of generational warfare. For Rosemary Woodhouse (pixie-like Mia Farrow, in her star-making performance), not only are the kindly old neighbours against her, but even the child in her belly might be an enemy. At a time when the generation gap was never wider, Rosemary’s Baby triggered alarms across the psyches of the entire Baby Boom generation. Not only can you not trust your elders, it told them, but even your own children might be the spawn of the Devil himself.
Rosemary and her husband, struggling actor Guy (John Cassavetes), take an apartment in the lush Bramford building in Manhattan despite rumours of turn-of-the-century devil worshippers having lived there. The kindly but annoying senior citizens who reside at the Bramford seem harmless enough at first, but Rosemary comes to question their motives, particularly when her sudden pregnancy—accompanied by a surreal dream sequence of demonic rape witnessed by the naked, chanting neighbours—coincides with Guy’s big break as an actor (a rival for a key role is mysteriously stricken blind). Strange chanting and flute-playing can be heard through the walls, and the busybody neighbours keep giving Rosemary weird herb-derived smoothies to drink. The increasingly gaunt and paranoid Rosemary comes to suspect that the irritating oldsters are, in fact, witches who want to use her unborn child in some sort of ritual. The truth, it turns out, is much worse.
I first saw Rosemary’s Baby when I was in high school, and I didn’t get what the big deal was. I was waiting for big scares and monster makeups, neither of which were the point, but try telling that to a teenager reared on The Evil Dead and Poltergeist. I revisited it a decade or so later, and I finally understood that Polanski was going for a more adult form of horror, combining parental anxieties with urban paranoia. The film, based on Ira Levin’s novel, posits a world where God might very well be dead, and His opposite number’s bidding is done by smiling senior citizens. Polanski’s direction puts you right inside Rosemary’s head, making you question the motives of her husband and neighbours while you simultaneously question her sanity.
Just issued in a sparkling new transfer from the Criterion Collection, Rosemary’s Baby has never looked better. The cavernous-yet-claustrophobic hallways of the “Black Bramford” (in real life, the Dakota Hotel, on whose steps John Lennon met his untimely end), the garish, tacky outfits worn by the neighbouring Castavets (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), the pale, skull-like face of the increasingly paranoid Rosemary—everything pops on the stunning new Blu-ray release. An anecdote-filled documentary featuring Farrow, Polanski, and producer Robert Evans (who turned Paramount Pictures’ fortunes around with the risky film’s runaway success) is bursting with fascinating historical details. Farrow received divorce papers mid-scene from then-husband Frank Sinatra, when she refused to walk out on the behind-schedule production to appear in his competing movie The Detective (the films opened on the same weekend, and Rosemary’s Baby crushed its competition). Sidney Blackmer was convinced his character’s joyous cries of “God is dead! Satan lives!” in the film’s climax would lead to his own eternal damnation. Producer William Castle, known for schlock-gimmick flicks like The Tingler and The House On Haunted Hill, was desperate to direct Rosemary’s Baby, seeing it as his shot at respectability (Evans wisely edged him out, giving him a cameo role instead). And Roman Polanski clashed often with John Cassavetes, himself then a director of early art-house fare like Faces and Shadows, over Polanski’s rigidly controlled approach (Cassavetes preferred a more improvisational approach, but Polanski wouldn’t allow it). No matter which baby-daddy you want to give credit to—Polanski, Evans, or Satan himself—the 44-year old Rosemary’s Baby hasn’t aged a day.
Lifelong genre enthusiast. I made the comics SCENESTER and SLAM-A-RAMA (both available at tucocomics.blogspot.com and slamaramacomic.com), I write comic and movie reviews for NerdSpan (nerdspan.com), and I'm sure I do other stuff that I'm not remembering right now.