Sunday, June 1, 2014

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Directed by:
Roman Polanski

Rosemary's Baby is, simply put, one of the finest horror films ever made, and, as a result, sits right next to PSYCHO (1960) and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) as one of the genre's all-time most influential films. Aspects from this have bled over into hundreds - if not thousands - of later genre offerings; a ricochet effect we're still feeling heavily to this day. A huge critical and theatrical success upon release, it was not only directly responsible for the big 'devil' craze of the 1970s, resulting in THE EXORCIST (1973), THE OMEN (1976) and many other hit films, but also a film that removed audiences from the relative safety of period Gothic horror and fantastic monsters by setting its action in contemporary times and steeping its supernatural elements in the 'realism' of its audience's spiritual beliefs. Most don't believe in vampires, werewolves and giant atomic monsters, but they do believe in Satan. In Rosemary's Baby, you're not on the lookout for fang-sporting fiends, grotesque malformed monsters, crazed mad doctors or crackling knife-wielding madmen. Your friends, your neighbors and even your loving spouse are the real threat. Much of the true horror here lies in the idea that those you love and trust can be conspiring behind your back to do you harm... and doing it with a assuring, disarming smile on their face.

Mia Farrow has the title role; perhaps the finest in her entire career, and really one that was worthy of an Oscar nomination she didn't receive. At first, Farrow imbues the character with a bright-eyed innocence and sweet, delicate fragility, but that begins to slowly fall by the wayside as her character is subjected to various strange occurrences and begins to doubt both the safety of her surroundings and the intentions of everyone around her. Her Rosemary isn't a super-heroine. I've even seen people refer to her as being "stupid" and "annoying" and "weak," but those same people probably either cannot put the film in context to when it was made, cannot accept the fact not everyone is as cynical and world-weary about people as they are or don't get that this film is documenting Rosemary's journey from young, naive, sheltered, religious country girl to a more cautious, more guarded woman who comes to the grim realization that her trustworthy, non-presumptuous nature is being used against her. Rosemary must cast passivity to the wind and start asserting herself in order to save not only herself but also her own baby, whom she feels is being targeted for a ritual sacrifice by a coven of witches.

John Cassavetes portrays Rosemary's arrogant, self-serving husband Guy; a struggling New York City actor with loftier ambitions than the commercial work he's been landing. As we'll later find out, he'll also take the phrase "stepping on a few toes" to a whole new level. As the film opens, he and Rosemary move into a large and creaky old brownstone apartment building called The Bramford in Manhattan. Living right next door are Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon) Castevet, who seem like mild annoyances at first; just another harmless, lonely, somewhat eccentric old couple who probably don't realize how intrusive and nosy they're being. After a private consultation with Roman, Guy suddenly starts spending a lot of time with the elderly couple. Rosemary becomes pregnant, the Castevet's and other elderly tenants in the building start showing an unnatural interest in the baby and Rosemary begins to believe that there's a conspiracy against both her and her unborn child. Through casual observation and a little help from her writer friend Hutch (Maurice Evans), our heroine starts seeing signs that the everyday people she's been associating with and normal events taking place in her new life may be anything but everyday and normal.

Rosemary's Baby is a film that is so entrenched in our movie-going subconscious that recapping the plot blow-by-blow is an act in sheer redundancy. The important thing to point out is that this does a superlative job drawing a sense of distrust and paranoia out of the mundane, and does so with an astounding amount of subtlety, black humor and attention to even the smallest of details. I've noticed on multiple viewings that nearly every scene, every line of dialogue, every action, seemingly incidental art direction and even the colors of clothing worn throughout are done with a specific purpose in mind. In fact, this movie is so detail-oriented and well thought-out that one can pick up on brand new things each and every time they sit through it, regardless of how many times they've sat through it. It's that good.

Legendary schlockmeister William Castle, he of the famous theatrical gimmicks ("Emergo," "Percepto," etc.) had purchased the rights to Ira Levin's best-selling novel. Instead of trying to take on this material himself, and to help secure funding from Paramount, he wisely handed the reigns over to Polanski, who'd by then already made his mark with his English-language debut Repulsion (1965). The same themes from both it and RB also seeped into Polanski's The Tenant (1976), which completed his lauded "Apartment Trilogy" of psychological horror films.

The entire cast, from top to bottom, is first-rate. There is simply not a weak link in here. Aside from those already mentioned, smaller roles are skillfully played by Ralph Bellamy as a doctor who discourages our heroine from reading pregnancy books, Elisha Cook Jr. as the building superintendent, Patsy Kelly as an annoying friend of Minnie's, a young Charles Grodin as another doctor, Playboy Playmate Victoria Vetri (billed as "Angela Dorian" here), Phil Leeds and Hope Summers. Tony Curtis provided an unbilled voice cameo and Castle himself can be seen outside a phone booth. Rumor has it that Joan Crawford and Van Johnson even filmed a scene (playing themselves) but it was removed from the final cut of the film to reduce the running time.

Rosemary's Baby would earn two Oscar nods; a nomination for Polanski's adapted screenplay (which sticks to the source material very closely) and a win for Gordon, who manages to be irritating, funny and menacing in about equal measure. The atrocious made-for-TV "sequel" LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY (1976) is best left forgotten and same can be said for Levin's follow-up novel Son of Rosemary. A remake directed by Angieska Holland and starring Zoe Saldana (changing many details from the book and relocating the action to Paris) debuted on NBC TV May 2014.

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