There’s a spice garden that Rosemary investigates in the gloomy seventh-floor apartment – “mint, basil…” she catalogues. “No marijuana?” enquires Guy. This is a horror-film set on the fault-line between old and new. The on-screen events are precisely dated – from November 1965, when Rosemary goes for her first blood test, to 28th June 1966, which is the predicted date for her satanic birth.
A glimpse of the famous Time magazine ‘Is God Dead’ cover prominently time-fixes events further (8th April 1966). So Rosemary’s Baby predates other shock-cinematic ventures into diabolism – The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), or The Amityville Horror (1979), while being deliberately hip-modern in its openness. Rosemary gets a Vidal Sassoon waif-crop – very ‘in’. At her party, the young trendy guests tastefully smoke joints. Then, “it’s the first day of my period,” she casually explains to her visiting friends. Something you would never have got in the Universal or Hammer horror screamatoria. After the birth she expresses milk using a breast-pump, with a matter-of-fact honesty cinema had never before allowed itself.
Guy and Rosemary are first seen checking out Mrs Gardenia’s creepy apartment in the ‘Bramford’ building. In a pale blue blazer with an un-hip tie, Guy is an actor who’s fallen on hard times. Rosemary repeats supportively that he’s been cast in productions of Hamlet, Nobody Loves An Albatross, and Luther. Now she watches his most recent dramatic performance, in a black-and-white TV advert for Yamaha.
Meanwhile, he gets into character for another role, method-style, by rehearsing on crutches. She’s done TV ads too. “That’s where the money is,” concedes the lift-operator. They discover that the apartment block they’re considering moving into has a macabre history. There’s a story that the Trent sisters cooked and ate several small children here. In 1955, a dead infant was found wrapped in newspaper in the basement. And a warlock called Adrian Marcato supposedly conjured the devil here. Nevertheless, they agree to take the apartment.
“Do you have children?” someone asks her. “We plan to,” she says. And they work towards that by making love on the bare hardwood floor of the vast empty room, although he coyly turns the light out first, and they hear weird chanting sounds coming through the wall. Later they meet their new neighbours. Rosemary befriends ex-junkie Terry in the basement laundry room, but she soon winds up dead, apparently a suicide jumper. This leads to an early dream-insert of Rosemary’s convent-school childhood, a sequence setting the tone for later unrealities, with rippling shapes on the wallpaper morphing into dead Terry with her blood-halo spattered into the pattern.
There’s also the frightful Castavets – Roman and Minnie. As dinner-guests, Roman vehemently attacks “the hypocrisy behind organised religion.” Then, before Rosemary and Guy set aside time for another baby-making session, busybody Minnie gives Rosemary ramekins of what she calls ‘chocolate mouse’ (her mispronunciation for ‘mousse’), with an unpleasant chalky ‘under-taste’. She eats only half of it, disposing of the rest as he pauses to “turn the record over” – this, after all, is the era of vinyl albums!, but she passes out and experiences an effectively weird soundless drug-dream of being on a ship. As she half-emerges the ticking of the clock provides a strange haunting punctuation. There’s a dream-typhoon. A voice says “Catholics only.” Her wedding ring is removed. She’s looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Naked, she encounters the lift-operator.
Descending in a strange dream-logic, she lies on a bed to be approached by naked wrinklies who daub red patterns on her body. Her legs are tied down, “in case of convulsions” caused by a “rabid mouse-bite” (a reference back to Minnie’s ‘mousse’). Then there’s the demonic penetration in green-haze in-distinction. It’s around this point she realises “this is no dream, this is really happening…” She wakes with scratches, but Guy confesses to having taken her while she was ‘out’ – “kinda fun, in a necrophile way” – because after all, they’re making a baby, “you know, Dada, Mama, poo-poo.”
The mythic backstory of the movie is as rich as the script itself. Escaping the trauma of his native Poland, Roman Polanski had made three highly-rated movies in England, shot cheaply in rapid succession with collaborator Gérard Brach. His Grand Guignol masterpiece Repulsion (1965) was touted as an exploitation horror-flick to enable its distribution, yet it stands up as a perceptively observed expressionist-styled study of Carol Ledoux, an expatriate Belgian (played by the lovely Catherine Deneuve) going psychotically mad in Kensington.
Polanski was uniquely qualified to bring an outsider’s eye to bear on ‘swinging London’ foibles, enhanced by insider cinematographer Gilbert Taylor who had worked on Dr Strangelove, and A Hard Day’s Night. After filming Cul-De-Sac (1966), the more expensively staged spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers enabled his first Hollywood venture. Yet Polanski confided to Martin Amis in a 1979 magazine interview that “some of my most praised films – Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Tenant, were largely matters of convenience, done because of time or money to accommodate a certain producer. I wouldn’t have chosen them, you know?”
He began Rosemary’s Baby by scouting the Dakota building, the imposing Manhattan gothic brownstone off Central Park West, to stand in for the ‘Bramford’. Coincidentally opening with a tracking shot of the very West 72nd Street entrance in which John Lennon was destined to be gunned down. Mia Farrow who plays Rosemary, was previously best-known for her role in TV’s trash-soap Peyton Place. During filming, she was stressfully caught up in the middle of her bitter divorce from Frank Sinatra. This provides the motivation for some of her on-screen distress. Tony Curtis is the – uncredited, telephone voice of Donald Baumgart, an actor who is mysteriously stricken blind. Using Curtis was a strategic surprise sprung on Mia to get the reaction-shot. According to cult-rumour Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate also supposedly appears, also uncredited, in the party scene, although my repeated scrutiny has failed to detect her.
Nevertheless, it’s a consciously literary movie, a faithful adaptation of the Ira Levin novel published in March 1967, just three months before the movie premiered. In subtle richly-detailed interior lighting, the book-crammed walls further establish its intellectual credibility (Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male can be glimpsed), giving it art-house movie depth. The character-name Roman Castavet – as well as being an anagram of Adrian Marcato, seems to be a cunning elision of director Roman Polanski, and actor John Cassavetes (who plays Guy). While Rosemary’s ‘dream’ echoes back to, and develops, Catherine Deneuve’s hallucinations in Repulsion.
Later, an association with satanic cult atrocity would haunt Polanski through the Manson massacre that would kill his pregnant wife within a year of the film’s debut. All these elements combine to give the movie added weight, as well as small betraying details within the film itself. On her way for a secretive meeting with friend Hutch, outside the Time/ Life building, with Radio City in the background, Rosemary notices an Xmas nativity display. Her own impending birth will be the anti-nativity.
At Hutch’s subsequent funeral she’s given a book he intended for her, ‘All Of Them Witches’, that supposedly contains an anagram. She uses Scrabble tiles to work out variations of the title, ‘Comes With The Fall’? No. ‘How Is Hell, Fact Me’? No. Until she deciphers the code, the key is not the book-title, but the book-marked name of one of the witches within, ‘Adrian Mercato’. Earlier, Minnie Castavet had gifted Rosemary with a charm of ‘tannis root’, aromatic with herbs. It had previously belonged to Terry. Later, Rosemary is alerted that Dr Sapirstein might be suspect by detecting that same aroma in his surgery – cult-rumour even claims that tannis root is an anagram of Satan, and yes it is, but only if you misspell it! Apart from that one, the links work seamlessly.
Following the dream-impregnation the film follows two strands: Rosemary’s difficult pregnancy, “like a wire inside me getting tighter and tighter,” which at first causes her to fear that it’s ‘ectopic’. Inducing the same Alien body-horror of something monstrously evil – not out there, but actually growing within her. She eats raw chicken livers, sees her reflection in the toaster doing it, and is horrified. While one of Guy’s audition-rivals is suddenly struck blind, and he’s awarded the part, followed by the offer of a role in TV’s ‘Miami Beach’. His acting career is suddenly going stratospheric.
Evidence accumulates until she begins to suspect the two strands are not unrelated. That there’s a satanic plot against herself and the embryo she calls ‘Andy or Jenny’; that the coven has planned everything; that Guy is part of the plot. And that in return for her baby they’re using supernatural powers to advance his career. They were also responsible for murdering ex-junkie Terry, their first intended vehicle, when she’d proved unsuitable. Even at this late-stage there’s ambiguity, pregnancy can induce extreme obsessive behaviour, so the dream-sequence could be that, just a dream. Is she merely hormonally affected by her body-changes? It teases with the edge of credibility.
Is the horror merely in the mind of the protagonist? There are no monsters, just creepy weirdoes. The sheer irritating ordinariness of the nosy busybody Satanists seems to make them unlikely devil-worshipers, so far removed from Dennis Wheatley’s debauched aristocrats of earlier movie rituals. Her original gynaecologist, Dr Hill, at first seems sympathetic, although he doesn’t believe in witchcraft, he does believe in crazy people. But as she phones his surgery from a Manhattan booth, haltingly describing her fears, the audience sees how clearly she can be viewed, not as the victim of some fantastic conspiracy, but as plain paranoid. Dr Hill seems justified in this suspicion, and the weight of his medical opinion must count, surely?
Yet her extreme vulnerable isolation, focused through Mia Farrow’s own seeming fragility, is just as powerfully conveyed. Like Carol in Repulsion, she is cruelly, terrifyingly alone. Film-writer John Calhoun (in The Penguin Encyclopaedia Of Horror & The Supernatural, 1986), acutely observes that “those who haven’t actively turned against her are made collusive by their failure to give her distress credence,” in scenes that tap powerfully into a mother’s anxiety about the well-being of her child, while dramatising her fear of being unable to protect her offspring. As Rosemary is being led back into the apartment – heavily pregnant, she deliberately drops her keys and money, using the confusion to make her escape. She locks herself in and begins phoning frantically for help, even as they seize her, manhandle her and inject her with a ‘sedative’.
She wakes. It’s over. She’s had a boy, but there were ‘complications’, and it was still-born. There is calm. The nightmare is over. She sleeps. Neighbour Louise reads Reader’s Digest with a magnifying glass by her bedside. She even becomes convinced she must have been hysterically mistaken, until she hears a baby crying. She asks “What do they do with the breast-milk?” she expels, and she’s told “they throw it away.” But she suspects they don’t, “they take it.”
With her suspicions re-alerted she gets a kitchen-knife and tracks the disturbing sounds down, investigating the hidden sealed-off room, and it’s here that she finally encounters the Castavets’ coven, and the black-draped crib, proving her worst expectations to be true. Looking into the crib she asks “what have you done to its eyes?” She’s told “it has its father’s eyes” and “Satan is his father.” God may be dead (referencing the Time magazine cover), but Satan lives. She spits at Guy for his treachery. But into the closing moments it seems her maternal instinct is seduced by the devil-child’s babyish cries and burbling. As she moves to pick it up, there’s gentleness on her face…
There’s no neat resolution. Evil is not vanquished, even evil of the particularly mundane kind that the coven represents. Instead, there’s ambiguity. Mother-love, one of the healing forces of the universe, is being employed to nurture demonic forces. Despite her initial revulsion, the satanic child is also Rosemary’s baby, and it’s her instinctive love that wins out. It’s difficult to think of another film, before or after, with such an equal-opportunities situational-ethics-take on the sheer banality of evil.
After all, Rosemary’s Baby is what The Observer calls “the Rolls-Royce of demonic possession films.” Of course, this is a horror-film on the fault-line between old and new, and these elements are also part of its time. As with the dope and nudity, the moral equivalence is another aspect of its trendy permissiveness. All values are open to question. All preconceived ideas are open to reinterpretation. Once the 1960s were over, attitudes polarised and froze over again, such openness would no longer be possible. Rosemary’s Baby remains a unique film in so many ways.
The uncut-version DVD includes a retrospective Roman Polanski interview, and a 20-minute making-of featurette.