Revisiting the Devil in the Details of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

In celebration of Halloween, we’re rerunning our essay on Rosemary’s Baby, one of the most haunting and wonderful films of all time. Take a read below and check out what other terrifying features you should be watching tonight.

“But I love him, Bob. I love him. I’m going to have to quit,” Mia Farrow said helplessly after her husband, Frank Sinatra, told her that if she was not done shooting Rosemary’s Baby by mid-February that he would divorce her. She was set to star alongside him in The Detective and Sinatra refused to delay his shoot date simply because Roman Polanski’s perfectionist obsessions were pushing Mia’s shooting schedule further and further back.

“If you walk out in the middle of my film, you’ll never work again,” crooned producer Robert Evans. Now in hysterics, Mia continued to cry, “I don’t care, I don’t care. I just love Frank.” So to quell her sobbing, Evans brought Mia into his executive screening room and showed her an hour of Rosemary’s Baby cut together. “I never thought you had it in you. It’s as good, no, even better than Audrey Hepburn’s performance in Wait Until Dark. You’re a shoo-in for an Academy Award.” Yes, the world is an entirely different place when love is involved, but the world is also a very solipsistic place when satisfaction of the ego is in full view. Devotion tends to evaporate when you realize the person you love the most stands in the way of finally achieving something great. And when the lights when dark, Mia’s pleas of, “I don’t care,” turned into Rosemary Woodhouse’s “All of them witches.” She didn’t hit the road and run of—just as swiftly as she made her decision, she was served divorce papers by Sinatra’s lawyer on the set. And that, according to the notorious Evans, is how this kid stayed in the picture.

The studio heads at Paramount wanted William Castle, a veteran director, to helm the film but Evans wanted Roman Polanski—bad. He knew that the young Polish director, who had made Repulsion, Knife in the Water, and The Fearless Vampire Killers had just worked with Marty Ransohoff, someone whom Evans says, “whatever he liked, I hated, and vice versa. When I heard Marty ranting all over town about what a no-talent Polanski was, I knew Roman was the man for me.”  Knowing that Polanski was an avid skier, Evans lured him over to his house with the enticement of directing Downhill Racer. “He looked at the titles of the books on my shelves. Within five minutes he was acting out crazy stories—somewhere between Shakespeare and theater of the absurd,” recalls Evans. Eventually he told Polanski that Downhill Racer was out the cards, the director’s seat had already been filled, but if he read this book by Ira Levin and liked it, his next ski trip could be billed to Evans himself. And so thus their working relationship began and Levin’s 1966 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was set for a screen adaptation. The two got along famously, although things weren’t always easy—but what good ever comes from easy? “Fighting is healthy. If everyone has too much reverence for each other, or for the material, results are invariably underwhelming. It’s irreverence that makes things sizzle. It’s irreverence that gives you that shot at touching magic,” says Evans.
When it came to casting the film, Farrow had been Evans’s number one choice for the leading role of Rosemary Woodhouse, a naive and loving housewife who becomes trapped in a haze of paranoia and obsession once she begins to believe that a coven of witches is scheming to steal her unborn child for a human sacrifice. Polanski worried that the “ethereal quality” she possessed wouldn’t translate onto the screen, but at the end of the day Evans won the battle and 45 years later, it’s still impossible to imagine anyone else fitting the role with such a haunting presence. And for the part of her husband, Guy Woodhouse, a narcissistic actor who sells his unborn child to the devil in exchange for personal fortune, Polanski had his eye on Robert Redford. But he was taken. Naturally, Warren Beatty was upset that Evans never bothered to offer him the role, to which Evans responded, “It’s yours Warren, but you’re not right for Rosemary’s Baby unless you play it in drag.” Eventually they went with a young actor by the name of John Cassavetes who had recently starred in The Dirty Dozen. At the time, this was hardly ideal casting, but when you watch the film now with all the knowledge of Cassavetes’ maniacal demeanor and volatility matched with an endearing charm the role of Guy only makes complete sense—someone that Rosemary loves so deeply yet is so blind to.
Rosemary and Guy are a young couple who have moved into a large new apartment in the Bramford, an antiquated (and supposedly haunted) New York City apartment building. They quickly become friends with their elderly neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castevet, who are a bit eccentric and nosey, but who at first pose no danger. The Castevets invite the Woodhouses to dinner at their home and the two couples begin to spend a lot of time together—particularly Guy, acting as if they serve as a parental figure missing from his life. When Rosemary becomes pregnant, Guy and the Castevets insist that she begin to see an obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (also the name of Polanski’s dog), who tells Rosemary that rather than taking the usual prenatal vitamins, Minnie will make her a special herbal drink to have everyday to aid in the baby’s health. Over the first few months of her pregnancy, Rosemary suffers from extreme abdominal pain, which the doctor tells her will “go away on its own.” She begins to loose weight and her complexion pales as she craves raw meat and chicken liver—to her own disgust. She senses something is wrong and doesn’t want to lose the baby. Meanwhile, Guy’s career is on the rise since his understudy role turned into a lead when the main actor inexplicably goes blind.

Rosemary consults her old friend Hutch about her feelings of unease, and he is disturbed when he hears that her drinks from Minnie have been containing tannis root; he tells Rosemary he is going to look into what she has been consuming. A few weeks later, Hutch mysteriously falls into a coma only to regain consciousness right before his death to leave her a book about witchcraft. When Rosemary attends his funeral, she receives the book along with a cryptic message: “The name is an anagram.” She eventually realizes that Roman Castevet is actually the son of a former resident of the Bramford who was accused of worshipping Satan. This leads her to realize that her neighbors must be part of a coven of witches out for her baby and that Guy is cooperating with them in exchange for help in his career. From there, Rosemary spirals into a web of paranoia and doors with no exit. She’s trapped from that moment on, only to realize everyone in her world has sinister intentions and there’s nowhere to turn.

What works so incredibly well about Polanski’s adaptation of Levin’s book is how it avoids the pratfalls of the typical “horror” or “suspense” genre. It’s a brooding, anxious psychological horror-thriller that’s more of a slow breathing on your neck or a chilled hand grazing your spine rather than a swift jab at fright. The danger of the film is of another world: of the Devil; it’s beyond our mortal grasp and is therefore compelling in that it leaves us unable to know where to run. It’s not only frightening because of the outside powers that be, but speaks to the fear of one’s own mind. The Castevets, Dr. Sapirstein, and Guy all lead Rosemary to believe she’s the crazy one, and she is therefore trapped in a disassociated bewilderment at what reality really is. Her pregnancy also leaves her a vulnerable target for blame, allowing Rosemary to fall prey to their satanic demands.

Polanski gives us plenty of information early on in the film, and his attention to detail allows us to get to know the characters well from the very beginning; the slow reveal of their idiosyncrasies and personal details only heighten the suspense and make their later changes even more poignant. The horror in the film comes from the normalcy of it all. Rosemary’s live goes on as usual as this thing grows inside her. This sense of waiting creates an anxiety and therefore echoes Rosemary’s growing sense of paranoia. Polanski uses interior space and blocking to create a sense of claustrophobia. The Woodhouses’ apartment, which once seemed huge and open, now feels like a confined trap that Rosemary is locked in.

But one of the most important and most chilling scenes in the film comes in the form of Rosemary’s dream. The Castevetes have drugged her with a mousse dessert and, as she falls into a slumber, a dream sequence begins that is disturbingly realistic. The sequence hops from one moment to the next, inviting in fear and sexuality from the most unlikely of sources. Voices penetrate the dream as in life they are wont to do; this is not your typical haze-lit daydream. The dream’s bizarre world that moves from a boat, where Rosemary is being publicly undressed, to scaffolding where she lies under Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is like a surrealist manifestation of her subconscious desires and anxieties. Naked figures surround her as a creature of some kind begins to claw at her flesh and rape her. Rosemary yells, “This is no dream, this is really happening!” The voices she hears in her dream mirror the reality of what is consciously happening in waking life, as Guy impregnates her, giving us two worlds that Rosemary is inhabiting—both evil. She is stuck in the nightmare, but would reality be any better?

The pay off at the end of the film, no matter how frightening, is that it’s finally a confirmation for Rosemary that she is not insane, that all the events she has experience actually happened. It’s a successful film because it wraps you around its crooked finger, never letting you know for sure just what to believe, and therefore consuming you in the fears that Rosemary faces. Mia Farrow’s face works as a wonderful blank canvas to project your fears onto as we see the once vibrant and beautiful mother-to-be wither away and succumb to her paranoia. We never see the demonic newborn, only the look of pure, unfettered horror on Farrow’s face. It’s a choice that at first feels like a tease, but then you realize that the act of not seeing is even worse—the imagination can make of it what they may.

In an afterword to the 2003 New American Library edition of Levin’s novel, he said, “Lately, I’ve had a new worry. The success of Rosemary’s Baby inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras. Two generations of youngsters have grown to adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?” Let’s chew on some tannis root about that one for a while.

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