Upon my initial viewing of Roman Polanski’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking (a faithful adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel of the same name) it immediately becomes obvious is that this is a film which is happy to take its time. Compared to contemporary genre conventions, relying on either jump-scares or gore, this film’s languid pace serves as a reminder that real horror is best produced through a slow sense of dread and the creeping awareness of external malevolence. Such as it was, Rosemary’s Baby was so successful in its depiction of the occult invading the lives of ordinary people that we can easily see this 1968 production as a forbearer to such horror classics as 1973’s The Exorcist or 1976’s The Omen. The time spent on establishing a strong sense of character and place is absolutely essential to the narrative, as our protagonist is trapped in a metropolitan prison by the seemingly normal people she surrounds herself with.
We are first introduced to Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse – portrayed by Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes – as they view an apartment in the centre of New York City (filmed at the infamous Dakota building – the site of John Lennon’s assassination). I found the couple to be imbued with a remarkable sense of faith, both in their situation and one another (though how they afforded that apartment on the sole income of a struggling actor is anyone’s guess). Throughout the film, this faith is tested and ultimately shattered, but it is absolutely pivotal that this precedent is established early on. One such test comes through the presence of their neighbours, the very trying Roman and Minnie Castavets. It is with this couple that Polanski’s film strikes its greatest coupe; a seemingly ordinary (albeit extremely irritating) elderly couple who present much of the film’s levity whilst progressively unveiling a much more sinister agenda. The Castavets were played by Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, the latter of whom won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part – the only Oscar to go to a horror film until 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.
It is only after spending 40 minutes in the company of the Woodhouses that the pivotal moment of Rosemary’s devilish sexual defilement occurs. The sequence is the film’s most overt flight from naturalism, a disorientating montage of sun-kissed seafaring imagery mixed with the dungeon-like scene of Farrow’s Rosemary tied to a bed, surrounded by naked satanists. It is a testament to the power of the editing, camerawork and sound that even the incredibly hokey-looking ‘devil hands’ that reach out over Farrow’s body do not distract from the disturbing feeling of helplessness connoted in this scene. By placing the audience close to Rosemary, Polanski manages to builds a bond between us and her – had he taken a more voyeuristic approach and placed his camera further back (something found in say, Hostel?), I doubt I would have felt the same connection to the character over the following 80 minutes.
Viewing the film from a modern perspective, I definitely found a disquieting lack of agency with Rosemary. However, as the film continues we do see the development of a stronger matriarchal protectiveness. It is this very instinct with which Rosemary is able to push against those who have entrapped her (who are mostly male). To a certain extent the film does signpost the evil goings-on in increasingly ridiculous ways, from being told that their apartment used to be home to cannibalistic witches, to the women found splattered on the sidewalk outside days after they move in.Despite this, as a whole the film is an extremely effective piece of chilling horror, not least when viewed with full knowledge of the outcome. The desperation and futility of Rosemary’s plight becomes a key element, a sinister tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes.