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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.