#26) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
OR “Only Demons in the Building”
Directed & Written by Roman Polanski. Based on the novel by Ira Levin.
Class of 2014
This is the revised and expanded post of my original “Rosemary’s Baby” post, which you can read here.
The Plot: Rosemary Woodhouse and her stage actor husband Guy (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) move into the Bramford, a large Manhattan apartment building with a haunted history. After settling in, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant, and becomes increasingly annoyed when their elderly neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer & Ruth Gordon) keep interfering with her plans, including making her see another doctor (Ralph Bellamy). As the months past, Guy becomes more distant and irritable, and Rosemary becomes more paranoid about the Castevets’ true intentions. No spoilers but – oh screw it, it’s been 50 years if you haven’t seen it by now you’re not going to – they’re witches who arranged for Rosemary to birth the Devil’s son. How’s that for a twist?
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “a masterpiece of the horror-film genre”, praising Farrow, the supporting cast, and Polanski’s “expressive European style of psychological filmmaking”.
But Does It Really?: I had never seen “Rosemary’s Baby” before my first viewing for the blog five years ago, and it turns out this movie is somehow even scarier the second time around. Even knowing what the big reveals were, I still got the heebie-jeebies from watching this movie, thanks in no small part to Mia Farrow’s flawless performance, and Polanski’s excellent protracted suspense (and that’s as much as I’m willing to compliment Polanski). Over 50 years later, “Rosemary’s Baby” remains a hallmark of the horror genre, a landmark in pop culture, and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: The daughter of director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow came to prominence in the mid 1960s; on screen for the popular primetime soap opera “Peyton Place”, and off-screen for her marriage to Frank Sinatra, a man 29 years her senior. Sinatra wanted Farrow to give up her career to focus on their marriage, and while Farrow initially agreed, within a year she had signed on to play Rosemary. When filming delays created a scheduling conflict between “Rosemary” and “The Detective” (a Sinatra film Farrow had been cast in), Farrow was convinced by “Rosemary” producer Robert Evans to stay with the film after showing her a rough cut of her work. Sinatra’s lawyer presented Mia Farrow with the divorce papers on the set of “Rosemary’s Baby”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Rosemary mentions several times that Guy appeared in the plays “Luther” and “Nobody Loves an Albatross”, two real plays that ran on Broadway in winter 1963/spring 1964. Also dated: the idea that a working actor and his unemployed housewife can afford a spacious New York apartment.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Rosemary’s Baby” was one of the highest grossing films of 1968, but the still very “Old Hollywood” Academy was slow to embrace New Hollywood, and “Rosemary” received only two nominations. Polanski lost Adapted Screenplay to James Goldman for “The Lion in Winter”, but longtime showbiz veteran Ruth Gordon prevailed as that year’s Best Supporting Actress, giving one of the all-time best acceptance speeches.
- In addition to the lead cast, the supporting cast is a murderer’s row of longtime film and stage actors. Among them, Maurice Evans (aka Dr. Zaius), Ralph Bellamy, the instantly recognizable Elisha Cook, Patsy Kelly, D’Urville Martin (later played by Wesley Snipes in “Dolemite is My Name”) and a young Charles Grodin!
- As a longtime scaredy cat, watching horror movies on this list is easier because – true to films of the time – nothing scary happens in the first 45 minutes. It’s the slowest burn of atmosphere and setup. With this second viewing of “Rosemary’s Baby”, I picked up on some of the subtleties that Cassavetes, Gordon, and Blackmer are playing early on. Though with the advent of hindsight, everyone is giving Rosemary plenty of red flags right from the get-go. Come on, the Castavets are pretty unfazed by Terry’s death.
- The best executed, and therefore most terrifying scene in the movie is Rosemary’s “dream”. The editing perfectly conveys the sense of drifting in and out of sleep, and the cinematography gives a wonderfully disorienting feeling as Rosemary realizes that this is no dream. Just brilliant. 5/5, no notes.
- Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer are both outstanding. Sure, Gordon’s Oscar win was as much a lifetime consolation prize as anything else, but this is inspired casting, with her quirky persona helping disguise the character’s evil intentions. Blackmer correctly balances out Gordon by playing it straight, letting his piercing, probing eyes do most of the work instilling terror.
- I somehow missed “Rosemary’s Baby” on my Die Hard Not-Xmas list. I must rectify that immediately.
- Also date: Rosemary’s “just friends” party that is a swinging ’60s shindig. It definitely stands out, but I suspect that’s the point. Guy and the Castevets have dominated and controlled Rosemary’s life so thoroughly, she’s missing out on the ’60s culture the rest of her generation is participating in.
- This occult reveal brought to you by Scrabble: America’s Good Time Game!
- If the voice of Donald Baumgart sounds familiar, it’s Tony Curtis in an uncredited cameo! Polanski wanted a voice that was familiar enough that Rosemary/Mia would feel thrown trying to place the voice while asking about her husband. Coincidentally, Curtis would go on to present Ruth Gordon with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
- Behind-the-scene controversies aside, Mia Farrow is pitch-perfect in this movie. Because the movie is solely from Rosemary’s perspective, we truly empathize with her journey, going through our own anxiety and madness as her world is turned upside down. Farrow’s tour-de-force is the phone booth conversation, captured in one uncut four-minute take as Rosemary struggles to reach out to Dr. Hill, her last lifesaver. Side note: the man who enters the booth after her is William Castle, the film’s producer, best remembered for his gimmicky horror B-movies of the 1950s.
- The finale is surprisingly low-key, yet still manages to be disturbing and unsettling. Rosemary’s outburst of “What have you done to his eyes, you maniacs!” is justifiably iconic (as is Roman’s response), and the final moments also manage to be heartbreaking. Another reason I can stomach this more than later horror movies is because there’s a restraint in the horror. We never see Rosemary’s baby, but our imagination of what he could look like is far scarier, as is our speculation of what happens next.
- Despite mixed critical reception, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a smash hit with moviegoers. Perhaps the film’s most important impact on pop culture is the rise of films involving the devil in the ensuing decades. Without “Rosemary”, there’s no “The Exorcist“, “The Omen”, “Devil in a Blue Dress” and countless others.
- This is one of those movies where the poster is just as iconic as the movie itself. A creation by legendary graphic designer Philip Gips, the “Rosemary’s Baby” poster has turned up throughout pop culture, including being replicated for Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film “Mother!”. God, remember that movie?
- Both the film and the original novel of “Rosemary’s Baby” have sequels. 1976’s “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” was a poorly received TV movie with only Ruth Gordon reprising her role (Rosemary was played by Patty Duke). Ira Levin finally wrote a follow-up novel in 1997 called “Son of Rosemary”, which disregards the TV movie entirely, and was dedicated to Mia Farrow.
- “Rosemary’s Baby” was remade in 2014 as a two-part miniseries starring Zoe Saldana. Transplanting the action to modern day Paris, the new “Rosemary” was not well received. For crying out loud, they aged down the Castevets!
- Ruth Gordon’s long showbiz career was rejuvenated thanks to “Rosemary”, pivoting from screenwriter/character actor to quirky old leading lady, most notably in “Harold and Maude“.
- Mia Farrow’s film career took off after “Rosemary’s Baby”, though in later years she opted to focus more on her family and humanitarian efforts. And the less said about her partnership with a certain problematic writer/director, the better. On a similar note…
- As for Roman Polanski, suffice it to say that he made one more really good film in America (Fellow NFR entry “Chinatown“) before fleeing the US to escape criminal charges, and remains a fugitive to this day (albeit a continually employed, Oscar-winning fugitive).
Further Viewing: This film is as good an excuse as any to bring up “The Kid Stays in the Picture”, a Robert Evans documentary narrated by the man himself (using the audiobook from his memoir of the same name). Is it an intriguing look at one of Hollywood’s most influential producers? You bet your ass it is.
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