Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

It’s likely you’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby more times than you can count. You probably even know some choice lines of dialogue (“Typhoon!”), and can recite them at the drop of a hat. Maybe you’ve passed by the Dakota building in New York City, wondering if the Trench sisters are still chewing… something. Okay, maybe you’re not that obsessed with the film, but it’s definitely a classic — especially to Satanists.

But, is it even possible that some of you have not seen this fine motion picture? If not, then let’s bring you deprived and incomplete readers up to speed on what I’m talking about. (I will also be paying attention to the novel as well as the film, seeing as both are deserving of sizable accolades.)

Rosemary’s Baby finds our two lead characters, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, embroiled in what slowly reveals itself to be a Satanic conspiracy to bring the son of Satan into the world of flesh. However, Rosemary is on the unknowing end of this plot, and it is her increasing discovery of these occult doings that sets the stage for the two hours and 14 minutes of this celluloid adaptation.

The story’s epicenter lies underneath a foreboding apartment house on Central Park West referred to in both the novel and the film as “Black Bramford.” The Bramford itself adds a tenebrous aura to the developing plot with its dark, skinny corridors and exhaustively tall, Victorian ceilings, almost to the point of the building becoming an actual character.

The appearance of the apartment does not go unnoticed, least of all to Rosemary. Soon after Rosemary and Guy move into their new home, she proceeds to have the apartment painted white, perhaps an unconscious residential exorcism to wipe away the Bramford’s historical residue: the lingering ghosts of two child-murdering/ cannibalistic elderly women and a cult leader’s sanguinary activities and subsequent death. The de facto sterilization of the Woodhouse apartment is starkly contrasted to the less homogenized atmosphere of the apartment belonging to the old couple they soon meet.

These neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castavet, are a quirky and flamboyant pair who, as it turns out, are also the leaders of a Satanic coven, and who not only help Guy’s floundering acting career via their devotion to the Devil, but also convince him to aid them in borrowing Rosemary’s womb for the conception and birth of Satan’s son. But, not without a fight from Rosemary. (As a side note, Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for her portrayal of Minnie, the only person involved with Rosemary’s Baby to be awarded.)

As the plot evolves, Rosemary takes steps to protect her baby from the coven, a baby she assumes to be a future blood offering to the Devil and not the partial by-product of diabolical genetics. Much like the symbolic painting of the apartment, all of Rosemary’s efforts to escape the reach of the Devil and his acolytes are in vain: formerly trusted people prove to be part of the coven, while others die unexplainable deaths or are cursed.

The baby is born and kept by the coven, unbeknownst to Rosemary, who is told that her child died during the birthing process. After numerous incidents of hearing a distant baby crying, Rosemary decides to investigate. With knife in hand, she passes through a secret passageway connecting her apartment to the Castavets’ and stumbles upon the real conspiracy: that the coven didn’t want to kill the child, but rather to praise and celebrate his existence. This concept, along with some presumedly obscure references, was hardly coincidental.

Purportedly playing the extremely brief part of the Devil as well as being an uncredited “technical advisor” for the film, was none other than Anton Szandor LaVey, High Priest and founder of the Church of Satan. LaVey reflects on what happened at the movie theater in which he and others saw the film: “People got very angry — stomping their feet and showing general disapproval. Sometimes the reality of Satanism is a lot more terrifying to people than their safe fantasies of what it’s supposed to be. For the first time they’ve been confronted with a Devil who talks back.” In essence, moviegoers didn’t get the predictable “good triumphs over evil” ending — the coven succeeds in their goal, and the movie ends with Rosemary tacitly accepting her child and the circumstances, with almost a hint of pleasure on her face. Perhaps this is the true terror of Rosemary’s Baby and why this film remains as one of the most terrifying horror movies of all time: the supposed “bad guys” actually win in a film for a change.

LaVey’s influence on this film appears in subtle forms as well. The son of Satan, according to both Ira Levin’s book (which, by the summer of 1968, had sold 2.3 million copies) and Polanski’s film, is born in 1966, which is also the year that LaVey announced the formation of the Church of Satan, one year previous to Levin’s penning of the story. (This highly suggests that Levin had researched or was aware of LaVey’s high media presence in the mid- to late-Sixties.) In an earlier scene in the movie (and also appearing in the novel), Roman Castavet, at a New Year’s party, proudly exclaims “To 1966, the Year One.” Though many movie critics at the time felt that this specifically parodied the use of “Anno Domini” in reference to a year following the birth of Christ, this was an erroneous assumption. Within the Church of Satan, 1966 is specifically called “The Year One” in tribute to the Church’s year of inception; again, this is one year previous to Levin’s novel. For the initiated, this may have also attributed to the film’s suspense, or served as a humorous Satanic in-joke.

And, judging from Polanski’s previous efforts (which include Repulsion, Cul-de-sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers), suspense seemed a reliable addition for this motion picture. This may explain why he removed a specific scene in Levin’s book: when Rosemary left the city and spent some time alone in a cabin in the woods to evaluate her situation. In terms of pacing, this scene would have also allowed the viewers time to contemplate, enough to relax and, hence, release the tension that Polanski struggled so hard to instill. This, at an advanced moment in the plot where such a pause would be awkward and, perhaps, disastrous.

Excluding the omitted scene, Levin’s novel practically reads like the script to the movie, almost as if he envisioned his story to evolve to the Big Screen. The text is largely in dialogue form and, subsequently, easily translatable to the film medium. This is telling as Levin has had many of his books turned into adaptations including The Stepford Wives (1975), The Boys From Brazil (1978), and Sliver (1993), to name a few. This strongly implies that Levin might write with a vision of a motion picture to follow, in turn, making Polanski’s job that much easier.

Since Polanski did use the book in a largely verbatim sense, this is much of the reason why the first half of the film comes under scrutiny. The first half does indeed move slowly: many scenes of Rosemary and Guy’s daily life, decorating the apartment, discussing careers, having dinner with the neighbors and other seemingly mundane matters. It is my contention that this is necessary for character and plot development. In order for the story to work, the viewer must care about the characters, and this doesn’t come by thrusting stock figures into a scary script, unless you’re attempting to make another Friday the 13th or Temple of Set. The terror in this film is beyond such ham-handed and product-oriented tactics. Rosemary’s Baby shuns the now-cliché hack-and-slash game in favor of psychological warfare. Perhaps unintentionally, it would be this film that would spawn a barrage of cinematic gorefests throughout the 1970s and, most notably, the 1980s.

And, with few exceptions, many of these 90-minute bloodbaths have been relegated to the bargain bin at video stores while Rosemary’s Baby remains a classic. I would say that the longevity of Polanski’s masterpiece lies in the immutable reality that visual shock value cannot adequately compete on equal ground with psychological tinkering. For example, it is one thing to show an audience footage of the dead bodies of Nazi concentration camp victims; it is another to ponder the ideology behind the extermination of an entire group of people. To know that the latter has greater impact in the long run is to understand the intelligent effects of this film.

One fairly revealing item from Levin’s novel that Polanski not only includes but makes reference to more than once is the Pope’s visit to New York that actually occurred in real life during the time that Rosemary conceives her child in the story. Levin thought it would be an intriguing contrast and add to the drama. During the ritual/ impregnation scene (which does appear in the book), Rosemary asks for absolution from a Pope-like figure and receives it. It is interesting to note that during this time, Anton LaVey was referred to by the media and others as “the Black Pope.”

But, like many things in life, this film isn’t perfect. Though the presence of Rosemary’s dream sequences was explained in Levin’s book, Polanski’s version of these sequences was vague, surreal, and bordering on drug-imagery: trends in ‘60s filmmaking, influenced by a subculture that Polanski was intimately familiar with. While these scenes may have sparked some fascination with select audience members at that time, they appear as visual masturbation and almost schizophrenic to the modern breed of moviegoer.

And the critics are somewhat correct about the non-Rosemary characters being a bit less important. Somewhat correct. True, the story is about Rosemary and her baby (if it wasn’t, it would probably be called something else), but I see most of the other characters as more than just stock. Roman and Minnie carry a great sympathy and sweetness (read: Lesser Magic) only the aged can deliver, and the more this is played up, the more startling (for the non-Satanists, anyway) the news of them being consorts of the Devil really is. Guy, Rosemary’s husband, is consistently portrayed as a bad actor (as opposed to John Cassavetes being a bad actor, which in this production, he wasn’t). The well-crafted revealing of Guy being both an unsuccessful actor onstage and an equally bad liar to Rosemary offstage is balanced deftly, and took a convincing performance from Cassavetes to make it believable.

However, the critics are dead on the mark concerning less than memorable performances from Ralph Bellamy as the conspiring obstetrician, Dr. Saperstein, as well as that from Maurice Evans as Rosemary’s shortly-lived confidant, Hutch. These characters were necessary but could have been played by actors half as competent as the aforementioned two without damaging the story. Even more so, all other characters could have been delivered by less experienced actors, perhaps even extras.

Considering that the novel and film are in many ways similar, I’d argue that the latter is superior, but not by a landslide. The omission of the cabin scene found in the book, Polanski’s experience with the genre, the appropriate use of music (brilliantly and, to some extent, innovatively composed by Christopher Komeda, known for providing the soundtracks to many of Polanski’s films), while remaining sizably faithful to Levin’s vision bring the film version barely above its literary predecessor. Polanski also keeps alive the spirit of the original in the sense of its subterfuge: that current of iniquity and decadence flowing underneath a mantle of charm, respectability and grace which Levin aptly directs in his book.

Perhaps the ultimate conclusion is that Rosemary’s Baby shows us both sides of the human coin, that we are both benevolent and brutal, and that these forces are indivisible, no matter how many dualistic labels and religious sun-fearing people deceitfully subscribe to. When all other fun fear is shed, the deepest layer of terror is the realization of human nature.

[- Matt G. Paradise]
Movie on IMDB

(This essay was taken from the book, Bearing The Devil’s Mark and is available through Amazon)

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