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Oct 30, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 29: ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)


The thing that struck me most about this viewing of Rosemary's Baby (checking my records, this is #6 for me) was just how bright and sunny the picture is. Horror pictures are usually dark with much of the action taking place at night. Here we have a film that opens in daytime with cheery pink titles and takes place in a bright - albeit older - New York apartment. Not exactly the menacing tone that I have experienced in horror pictures over the last 30 days (although my previous entry, the 1997 Funny Games, had the sadistic killers wearing starch, tennis whites).

But what if it's a boy...
Upon reflection it doesn't take long to realize just how ludicrous the plot of Rosemary's Baby sounds when spoken aloud. A young couple moves into an old New York apartment building where the residents are part of a Satanic coven, and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is drugged and handed over to them by her struggling actor husband (John Cassavetes) to be raped by Satan and give birth to his child. It also doesn't take long to realize how devilishly enjoyable the film is - well, aside from the rape part that is which is never a comfortable scene (especially what we know about director Roman Polanski's sordid past - and looks like he made the news today, once again evading arrest and extradition back to the U.S.).

Look! I know who directed this picture!
What struck me this time is just how quickly husband John Cassavetes agrees to this crazy scheme. At first, he doesn't want anything to do with the intruding elderly couple from next door (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this picture) but then latches onto them while it is Rosemary who then wants more distance. Polanski chooses to never show us anything other than Rosemary's point of view, so we never hear or see the coven convince Cassavetes. Of course it is the coven blinding a professional rival that opens up a career changing role for him that pushes him into agreeing, but the idea that he even considers any of this in the first place puts him in lone contention for lousy husband of the year award. After Rosemary is raped and finds scratches on her body, he cavalierly takes credit for raping her while she was passed out. Nice guy! Even during the rape while she is in a trance and can see much of what is happening, his concern for her safety is minimal. There is a moment during the initial meeting with the older couple when Rosemary is in the kitchen doing dishes when she peers over to see smoke drifting from around a doorway indicating Cassavetes and Blackmer (whose character's first name is Roman and last name is Castevet) talking. She enters the room and from the look on Cassavetes face, the conversation has been an eye opener but he doesn't get up to leave or warn Farrow. What was said to him? How did they phrase it? Blackmer couldn't have just come out and said "hey so, we'd like you to help us allow for Satan to rape your young wife." Whatever it is, it is one of the great mysteries of this picture, and one of the elements that heightens the paranoia for us, and later Rosemary.

Everyone is out to get Rosemary
There are an abundance of shots down long corridors, peering into doors with walls blocking out characters on the phone and shots from behind Farrow during phone conversations. Even during conversations that Farrow has on the phone, we hear her voice as if eavesdropping on the conversation even though the camera is with her in the room or in one case, in close proximity within the confines of a phone booth. When she finally does turn around it is when she figures out that something is up and attempts to take control of the siutation. It heightens the idea of paranoia as there are many things happening just right outside Farrow's hearing that is setting her up for a horrible fate. For the most part, she is oblivious but then the second half of the picture has her worried that the coven plans to steal her baby and offer it up as a sacrifice. The 1992 documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography discusses the work of Director of Photography William Fraker on this picture at length. I recall the comment being made that those long shots down corridors with characters engaged in conversations around the corner have the effect of making the audience want to 'peek around' to see and hear what's going on.  I couldn't agree more. Their dialogue is faint enough so you catch a brief idea of what is being said, but just enough out of earshot to keep them at arm's length. Poor Rosemary. These people have no problem carrying out their plan right under her nose with her own 'trusting' husband and in her own apartment.

This picture makes us all eavesdroppers.
Another interesting twist is that outside of the initial rape (which no matter how you look at it is horrendous), Farrow's Rosemary is never in any physical danger from these people. In fact, she may be the only victim in horror picture history to actually be under the protection of her attackers. They need her to deliver a healthy baby, then later supply it with milk. How long did they plan to keep her in the dark? Keeping the baby in the next apartment where the walls are known to be wafer thin was not the brightest of ideas.

Sorry but looks so much like his father.
It is also a picture with plenty of humor in it and it is obvious that Polanski took great delight in how pulpy the source material (a novel) is. The fact that the picture takes place in 1966 which is mentioned multiple times. Flip that 9 around and you have 666. Also the baby is born 6/28/66. The final scene where Farrow confronts the coven is filled with humor rather than foreboding. Like when she shoots down Blackmer attempting to speak, or when everyone starts 'hailing' Satan, or when one of the coven members gets irritated at her constantly muttering 'oh God', or upon dropping a knife into a floor Ruth Gordon is more concerned with the damage it causes rather than the fact that this woman just entered the room brandishing a weapon with the intent to cause harm.

I guess praying is now out of the question.
Ruth Gordon easily wins her Oscar here with a light performance that verges on comic relief. Her thick New York accent and constant babbling, referring to Mousse as 'mouse' makes her a constant irritation to Rosemary. She is the last person you'd want hanging around you. Assigned as the 'watcher' of Rosemary during her pregnancy, and supplying her with vitamin drinks to keep the baby healthy, she never forces herself to the point of being suspicious instead giving Rosemary space yet hovering just far enough to keep an eye on her. You have to admit that Rosemary for the most part is extremely trusting of these people and naive, especially when her doctor (Ralph Ballamy) prescribes juices made by Gordon rather than drugs from a pharmacy.

A true scare - Ruth Gordon's hair in curlers.
Costume designer Anthea Sylbert keeps Mia Farrow in stylish clothing, making her the best dressed pregnant woman of 1966. With lovely dresses and stylish hats, she's the Kim Kardashian of the era (just Google pictures of Kardashian when she was pregnant with North and you'll see she is always dressed to the nines). Farrow even shows up to the graveside of her closest friend in a stylish hat and bright mini-dress, again going against the dark tone of the event and that other horror pictures generally employ. Then of course there is that famous haircut that has Farrow constantly announcing it is 'Vidal Sassoon' which becomes the source of several jabs from Cassavetes. Not that she is always bright and cheery looking, the makeup during a difficult period of the pregnancy makes her look gaunt and pale, almost like one of the spirits from Ju-On (2002).

All dressed up for...a funeral?
Back to Cassavetes' character. While nothing really bad comes to him because of what he has helped set up - at least that we see - I don't think he gets off easy at all. I mean he's made a pact with the devil and has allowed his wife to be raped to help with his career, and that is the lowest of the low. It wasn't like they came across as the happiest of couples before the event. During their first night in the apartment, it is she that suggests that they have sex and he silently and dutifully takes off his clothing without a trace of excitement or anticipation. One can assume these two are going to split given her final scene with him, not to mention he can't even look at her once things are in play. Notable is the moment when Farrow tells him she's pregnant and he reacts with an uncomfortable 'that's great' and rushes off to tell the Castevets. Huh? That should have been red flag #1.

I am the worst husband ever!
Rosemary's Baby is a classic and the recent Criterion Blu-ray is astoundingly great. The HD transfer is so crisp and clean that it was like viewing it for the first time (it's also available in HD on Netflix streaming). I think it is even more poignant in this era where domestic abuse, women's rights, sexual harrassment and incidents like #Gamergate are front and center in the headlines - not to mention Mia Farrow's recent allegations towards Woody Allen that made the headlines earlier this year.

Criterion also makes a pact with the devil and comes out shining as usual..