If Night of the Living Dead was 1968’s blue collar horror movie, then Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was surely the white collar one. It’s a movie where not even middle-class living in beautiful New York brownstone apartment buildings can save you from what’s lurking in the shadows: the neighbors. Like Romero’s film, Rosemary is about paranoia, bodily violation, and the danger created by your friends and neighbors. As scary as mindless zombies are, perhaps the scarier things are people fully in control of their faculties, doing something evil on purpose, and a world full of “good” people who don’t believe you. And like the best movies, its origins were from the least likely of sources.
William Castle, a veteran director from the ‘40s and ‘50s, was known in the early 1960s as the king of gimmicky B-horror. His films The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts were accompanied by in-theater attractions like vibrating seats and a guarantee of medical attention should any patron become too terrified. His films were B to the nth degree and he seemed destined to stay there, but he, of course, longed for A-list status. When the rights to Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby came up, Castle mortgaged his house to secure them. He wanted to direct the film himself, believing it to be just the thing to rocket him to the big time. However, Paramount Pictures, who agreed to make the movie, wanted somebody whose name wasn’t associated with schlock, insisting on the French-Polish filmmaker behind such chilling films as Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, Roman Polanski. Castle had to settle for producing the picture, which would be the 8th highest grossing film of the year and receive two Oscar nominations.
As much as Castle must have hated to be denied the chance to direct, he couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect hand to take charge than Polanski, who also wrote the screenplay. Polanski has a very odd sense of humor that made Rosemary work, with its depiction of a young, middle-class couple moving into a bourgie Manhattan apartment who befriend a pair of elderly Satanists. There’s an air of biting satire running through the entire movie, and even at its most horrific, a wry smile might be found on the audience’s face. He probably loved terrorizing Rosemary, especially with her played by the most frail and innocent looking actress of all time, Mia Farrow.
Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a brownstone apartment made vacant by the death of the last tenant. In the laundry room, Rosemary meets a young woman (Victoria Vetri) who is staying with the Woodhouses’ next door neighbors, the Castevets (Sydney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). Soon after, the young woman is found dead, apparently having thrown herself out the window. This leads the Woodhouses to befriend the Castevets, a seemingly normal elderly couple who are very welcoming, if altogether too nosey. The topic of Rosemary becoming pregnant comes up a lot. Guy is an actor and doesn’t think he has time or money to raise a child, but he quickly changes his tune.
One night, Rosemary and Guy decide it’s time to try to conceive but the neighbors drop by with some kind of dessert that Rosemary hates. It makes her pass out, and she begins to hallucinate strange and troubling things, including the Castevets and other strange people standing naked around her bed. What appears to her to be Guy getting on top of her begins to look more and more like Ol’ Scratch himself. From there, once it’s determined she is pregnant, the Castevets tell Rosemary to go to Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who is evidently the best in the business. He has her do all manner of strange things, including eating raw red meat and taking vitamins that are clearly making her sick.
Her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) does some digging and finds some startling news, though he mysteriously dies before he can tell her. However, he leaves her a book about witchcraft and she discovers that Roman Castevet is a Satan-worshipper from way back. She now fears for her life and the life of her unborn baby, but who will believe her?
This movie is effective because it’s such a slow build. The scary stuff begins as a series of very small, strange occurrences that begin to add up over time until finally something truly scary happens. The turning point in the movie is, of course, the hallucinatory sequence culminating in Rosemary copulating with the devil to bear his seed. You know, the usual. But, once that happens, it’s another long time before anything actually fear-inducing happens. Instead the movie favors the slow escalation of tension and dread. We know something bad is going to happen, we just aren’t sure when.
There’s also the growing sense of paranoia that perpetuates the second half of the movie. Rosemary can’t seem to convince anyone, because everyone who would believe her is conveniently out of the picture. Even her kind original doctor (Charles Grodin) thinks she’s just hysterical, given that Sapirstein and Guy assure him she’s just suffering exhaustion. And the strange thing is, we find ourselves wondering. Since we’re always with Rosemary, it’s easy for us to take her side, but there’s a time when we question, just for a moment, whether or not she might actually be crazy.
But the Satanists seem to be everywhere at all times. No matter where Rosemary runs, we think maybe she’ll get away this time, only to have our hopes dashed by yet another dragging back to metaphorical and literal hell. A theme of Polanski’s work, the sinister nature of city living, begun in his French-language film Repulsion, becomes all too present in Rosemary’s Baby. It isn’t just the apartment or even the building that’s out to get her; it’s the entire city of New York, a representation of the world at large. That the city is almost always photographed in the middle of the day and often in the bright sunshine plays into the idea that the Devil is all around, and all smiles, just like the incredibly friendly Castevets or Dr. Sapirstein. Rosemary’s Baby won an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress for Ruth Gordon, whose performance as Minnie Castevet is as unnerving and creepy as it is pleasantly hilarious. And truly, that’s where the film is most terrifying.
Ultimately, the titular baby is had and the happy group of maniacs places the child in a bassinet in their terrifying apartment. Rosemary is aghast at what’s happened and has nothing but derision and contempt for them and everything they’ve done, and at Guy for going along with this for financial gain and success in acting. Still, when she finally sees her baby, she feels two things: disgust that it looks the way it does (we never see it but we can guess it looks pretty demonic), and a maternal sense of obligation to it. This makes for a more disturbing, and, again, morosely funny, ending than any sort of shock-scare thing that a filmmaker today would turn out. The Devil more or less wins, and Rosemary, the symbol of purity and innocence throughout the movie, has finally lost.
The film, as previously stated, was a huge hit, and the biggest of William Castle’s career. He had hoped to ride the success into more A pictures, but kidney failure shortly after Rosemary’s release laid him out for the next few years, and he was again relegated to B moviedom. He directed only one more film, 1974’s Shanks, in which mime Marcel Marceau plays a scientist that raises a zombie, also played by Marceau, before passing away in 1977.
For Polanski, though, the film was his big break into American films. His script for Rosemary’s Baby was nominated for best adapted screenplay and followed it with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1971 before making his masterpiece, Chinatown, in 1974. He also, in 1976, was able to complete his unofficial “Cities Are Scary” trilogy with 1976’s The Tenant, in which he also starred. Beyond simply getting to make films, Rosemary’s Baby gave Polanski the clout of being an artist who is also a box office contender. People would go see his movies now worldwide and not just in Europe.
Rosemary’s Baby set the precedent for devil movies and never tries to sensationalize, the way the later Exorcist or Omen films did. It’s a quiet, lingering, deeply unsettling condemnation of the bourgeoisie and of New Age-y guru-worship. It’s the perfect mixture of writing, acting, directing, producing, and marketing (the baby carriage on a hill is a stark and memorable image) that led to one of 1968’s most enduring films, and a pillar in the genre.
That concludes this feature about why 1968 was so important to genre cinema, but it will not be the end of looking at movies in years. In a few months’ time, I’ll be looking at 1979, which is a banner year for special effects, being the first in history to have five best special effects nominees at the Academy Awards. Those five films are: Ridley Scott’s Alien, Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker, Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole, and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Very much looking forward to discussing these movies and to share them with you. Mark your calendars for… sometime in the future!