In the afterword to the 2003 edition of Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby (reprinted in the booklet included with The Criterion Collection’s new Rosemary’s Baby Blu-ray edition), Levin writes about how the success of the movie touched off a wave of occult horror movies in the ’70s, and adds, “Here’s what I worry about now: If I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost 40 years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?” Levin’s asking this somewhat puckishly, but it’s a valid question. There had been schlocky B-movies about devil worshippers before, but Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby was a big Hollywood studio prestige project, with high production values and a striking blend of nightmarish fantasy and naturalism. And as Polanski leads the audience step-by-step through Levin’s queasy plot, he pushes them toward a conclusion straight out of a Louvin Brothers gospel song. Oh yes, brethren: Satan is real.
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It helps that both the book and the movie ground their fear of the demonic in the very common anxieties of first-time mothers. Mia Farrow stars as a mousy newlywed who moves into a swanky New York apartment with her actor husband John Cassavetes. Soon after they arrive, they meet their eccentric elderly neighbors, Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, and quickly see an uptick in their fortunes: His career takes off, while she gets pregnant. But Farrow senses that something’s not right. She has strange dreams—almost like memories—of participating in arcane rituals. And she feels weak and ill nearly all the time. She begins to suspect that Blackmer and Gordon are in some kind of cult, and are planning to harm her baby. Yet aside from one old friend with an interest in witchcraft, everyone she rants to dismisses her conspiracy theories as the typical overreaction of someone about to have a child.
Rosemary’s Baby isn’t a horror movie in the typical things-that-go-boo! sense. Polanski (who also wrote the screenplay, closely following Levin’s novel) is more interested in creating a creeping sense of unease by making everything seem plausible. Nearly every supernatural incident in Rosemary’s Baby can be read as a dream the heroine is having, exacerbated by her very ordinary worries: about an insensitive husband who’s always ducking out for suspicious reasons; about intrusive neighbors who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions; and about doctors with all kinds of weird, unconfirmable advice on diet and health for expectant mothers. It matters too that all of this is happening in New York, a city already full of kooky characters and old buildings with their own twisted histories. And it matters that it’s taking place in the mid-’60s, where Farrow falls between a generation of expected-to-be-submissive housewives and a generation of expected-to-be-self-actualized feminists.
Behind the scenes, Farrow faced a similar dilemma, as shooting on Rosemary’s Baby went on so long that it broke up her marriage to Frank Sinatra, leaving her an emotional wreck on the set toward the end. Meanwhile, Polanski clashed with Cassavetes, who preferred improvisation and rawness to Polanski’s yen for precision. But Polanski channeled all of that bad energy, aided by the support of veteran genre-movie producer William Castle and young Paramount executive Robert Evans. Polanski also relied heavily on the creative mix of gothic and modern sets from production designer Richard Sylbert, and the nerve-jangling score from Krzysztof Komeda. And he brought his own outsider’s sensibility, which he used to subtly satirize the pretensions of New York society types.
Rosemary’s Baby is suffused with Polanski’s style and preoccupations. His thrillers nearly always hold to a limited point of view, to depict protagonists who are alone and unsure whom to trust; and many of them also deal with how passion curdles into zealotry, and how men neglect their women (which are two more themes that figure heavily in Rosemary’s Baby). Polanski’s been perpetually fascinated by paranoia, which intersects neatly with Rosemary’s Baby’s portrait of a world bedecked with Christian symbols, always reminding people that they’re being watched from above. Even when Farrow sees the famous Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?,” the headline only reinforces the presumption that he existed in the first place. This is how Polanski and Levin cannily exploited believers, by convincingly delineating a world that’s stacked against the individual, whether she wears a cross or dangles an upside-down cross over her hellspawn’s cradle.
Key features: An informative 45-minute documentary about the making of the film, with new Farrow, Evans, and Polanski interviews; plus, a 20-minute radio interview between Levin and Leonard Lopate, and an hourlong Polish documentary about Komeda.