Today, Roman Polanski delivers Rosemary's Baby.
The road to bringing Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby to the big screen began with legendary producer/director William Castle, who was interested in getting the film rights to the book before it was even published. Castle took the project to Robert Evans, who was on his way to becoming a Hollywood legend himself, then in the early days of his position as head of production at Paramount. During his days at Paramount, Evans would revive the company and get a lot of classic films made under the banner of the studio. Evans wanted to make the movie, but didn't want Castle to direct it. He felt that Castle's association with B movies might drag down the public perception of the film. Castle had made several great, gimmicky fright flicks over the years - House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, etc. - but Evans was thinking A picture on this one. There was a talented, up and coming Polish director who had caught Evans' attention, and he decided to offer this filmmaker a chance to make his first American movie.
With that filmmaker, Roman Polanski, at the helm and Castle and Evans backing him up, the resulting very faithful adaptation of Rosemary's Baby has gone on to be widely considered one of the best, and is certainly one of the most popular, horror movies ever made.
Mia Farrow, then best known as Frank Sinatra's wife, stars as Rosemary Woodhouse, who gets a chance to rent a newly vacated apartment in the Bramford building in New York City with her theatre actor husband Guy. The Bramford had a bad repuation around the turn of the century, its former tenants include a pair of cannibal sisters and a witchcraft practicioner who claimed he had conjured up the devil himself. But that was a long time ago, this is the swinging '60s, and Rosemary is able to put the building's past behind her and move in anyway. It's a decision that she'll soon come to regret, as very strange things begin to occur around and to her.
The first friend she makes in the building dies from an apparent suicide, and more people around her will die over the coming months. As her husband becomes close to their elderly neighbors the Castevets, his luck and demeanor begins to change. He's able to land an acting gig when a rival suddenly goes blind for no apparent reason. He changes his mind about having a child and becomes determined that they should have one as soon as possible, so into the idea that he even tells Rosemary he had sex with her while she was asleep on the prime night for conception.
Rosemary had passed out after eating some odd tasting chocolate mousse delivered by Minnie Castevet, and the intercourse session was much different from her unconscious perspective, even more disturbing than the idea that Guy had his way with her sleeping body - Rosemary dreamed that she was raped by a monstrous creature, perhaps Satan himself, while a cult of nude onlookers stood around the bed. Among the onlookers were Guy and the Castevets. During the event, Rosemary exclaims, "This is no dream, this is really happening!" And she may be right.
Rosemary becomes pregnant, with a June 1966 due date (6/66!), and this is when the most disturbing stretch of the film begins for me. It's not the implications of Satanism and witchcraft or the apocalyptic possibilities of the birth of the Antichrist that trouble me the most, it's the element of "body horror". Rather than gaining weight, Rosemary starts losing weight. Her doctor is a friend of the Castevets, who forgoes giving Rosemary vitamins and instead has her drink a herbal cocktail made by Minnie, a cocktail that contains Tannis root, the same stuff that's inside the charm necklace the Castevets give her. Tannis root has an unpleasant smell and looks like a mold or fungus, and Rosemary is consuming it daily. This may contribute to her sharp, severe abdominal pain, which lasts for months. She gets gaunt, pale and sickly looking, and as she clutches her stomach in pain, this hypochondriac viewer can't help but cringe in empathy and imagine what damage is being done to her insides.
The cast is great. Farrow comes off a bit awkwardly to me in the early section of the film, but when things go bad and her maternal and self preservational instincts kick in, she really rises the occasion, the character becoming stronger as the film goes along. The supporting cast includes indie filmmaker John Cassavetes, Sidney Blackmer, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Grodin, and an Oscar-winning turn from Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet. The score by Christopher Komeda is memorable and haunting, particularly the lullaby that features vocals by Farrow.
Rosemary's Baby is one of many classics made under Robert Evans' watch, and one that has ranked highly in the horror genre for almost forty-five years now. What can I add that someone else hasn't already said about it? It's not one of my personal top favorites, and anyone who knows my taste would likely guess that I could do with it having a shorter running time than its 136 minutes, but I don't want to attempt to chip away at Rosemary's Baby.
The film earned over ten times its budget at the box office and had a huge cultural impact in several ways, from the media fascination with Mia Farrow's Vidal Sassoon haircut to the fact that its success kept drive-in projectors busy for the next decade showing Satanic-themed horror movies looking to replicate the movie's success. And its followers weren't all just throw away cash-ins, classics like The Exorcist and The Omen also came out of the devil movie trend.
So SHOCKtober has again found me wandering into Jay Burleson's territory to talk about a Roman Polanski movie. I'm sure this isn't the only time Rosemary's Baby will be covered on this blog, as Burleson has previously said that he intends to write an Appreciation article on the film someday.