Can it really be already 40 years since Roman Polanski’s paranoia classic proved that big-budget, intelligent and truly creepy horror had a place in mainstream (even Oscar-honoured) cinema? Time for a tribute, then, to one of the very best fright films ever made.
It has been claimed that, such is the fidelity of Polanski’s vision of Ira Levin’s original novel, if you’ve seen the film of Rosemary’s Baby, you don’t need to read the book, and vice versa.
It is this reviewer’s opinion that you’re missing out if you miss either of them – but, Polanski’s film of Rosemary’s Baby, which numbers among the very best cinema adapations ever (and it was produced, amazingly enough, by 1950s and 60s schlock-meister William Castle) amounts to so much more than Ira Levin’s (admittedly very well-written and gripping) original novel.
It’s happy times for young couple Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) – he’s a talented but as yet under-employed theatre thesp looking for his break into movies, and she’s a beautiful, broody housewife delighted at the prospect of moving into their suite of rooms in The Bramford, a gloomily gothic but beautiful New York apartment building. Their former landlord, Hutch (Maurice Evans), is sad to see them go and, over a ‘last supper’, entertains them with tales of The Bramford’s creepy, even diabolical, history, which involves Satanists, dead infants and cannabalism. Rosemary and Guy don’t take his warnings seriously, of course – they’re getting the apartment for a song and, besides, bad things have happened in every old building, right?
Well, the first bad thing to happen during their new tenancy is the suicide of a young girl, Terry (Victoria Vetri), that Rosemary had been getting to know at laundry time. She had been a guest of Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) Castevet, the Woodhouses’ next-door neighbours and, to help the Castevets get over their pain, Guy and Rosemary accept Minnie’s invitation to join them for dinner. The Castevets (and Minnie in particular) slowly become more involved in the Woodhouses’ lives and, when Rosemary falls pregnant after ‘Guy’ makes love to her when she’s ‘drunk’, things start to get really weird…
Forgive the somewhat vague synopsis – it’s there for the benefit of those who have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the film. And what a treat you have in store – a consummately brilliant, superbly acted study in (justified?) paranoia. Rosemary slowly becomes convinced that both her neighbours, and even her new gynecologist Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who was hired for her at the insistence (and expense) of the Castevets, may have their own designs on her unborn child – when she discovers that Roman is the son of celebrated 19th-century Satanist Steven Macarto (‘the name’s an anagram’ – the message Hutch left Rosemary from his death-bed), it would appear that her worst fears are confirmed. She has no idea…
Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of a real neighbour from Hell (the first such gong to be awarded to a horror film since Frederic March scooped Best Actor in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)), and the rest of the cast are exemplary but, what really makes the thing sing (or shriek) is Polanski’s profoundly witty and disturbing screenplay and direction.
As Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre, Rosemary’s Baby can almost be read as an incredibly dark shaggy-dog story – ‘What have you done to his eyes?’, Rosemary shrieks at the climax. Roman’s response? ‘He has his father’s eyes.’
A marvel – and, as with classics such as Psycho (1960), The Great Escape (1963) or Jaws (1975), it’s the sort of film that’s always worth just one more view. And, if you’ll excuse me, that’s exactly what I’m going to do now. See you at The Bramford…
Check out the excellent (and rare) original trailer for the film here – and, here, you can enjoy the haunting title song, sung by Mia Farrow.
PS. The Dakota, located on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West in New York City, was the actual building Polanski used for the exterior shots of The Bramford (and it’s been steam-cleaned since the film was made, which unfortunately makes it look a good deal less creepy). John Lennon once lived there with Yoko Ono – on its steps, on 8 December 1980, the Beatle was murdered.