My Cinematic Shortcomings: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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Rosemary’s Baby was Polanski’s break through to American audiences and the result is an unsettling tale of horror that scares in ways you don’t see coming.

Focusing on an upper-class couple as they move into a new apartment, Rosemary and her husband, Guy, get settled in and adjust to their annoying neighbors before things start to get weird. As the couple decides to have a baby, the dark history of their building begins rearing its ugly head.

Based off a then unpublished novel, Polanski was brought in from across the pond to bring in that psychological terror that he had been capturing for foreign audiences. Polanski slowly builds out the pieces and carefully ramps up the tension until we can’t tell which way is up as Rosemary becomes more and more unhinged as the film/her pregnancy moves along. The script is apparently very faithful to the text, but Polanski does a great job of filling the film with weird imagery and keeping you just off balance enough that you can’t anticipate what is going to happen next. The film is fairly straightforward with a lot of the mischief inside this building and it is amazing that it can flat out tell you what’s going on yet keep you guessing if what you are hearing is true.

It’s hard to describe how or why, but the film never stops feeling unnerving once Rosemary has quite the unsettling dream sequence involving, seemingly, everyone in their building and a special guest visitor. Part of this has to be due to Mia Farrow’s great performance as she is just unhinged enough that we can both root for her and not entirely trust her at the same time. Polanski runs her through a ringer, and traffic, and she is able to keep up with it every step of the way. She is put through so much we eventually can’t help but side with her though and in those final few scenes you just want her to come out on top. This makes the final moments all the more heartbreaking (I was rooting for kill it), but at the same time Farrow was able to sell me on her final decision as Rosemary. It’s really some standout work when you think back on the film.

A number of other elements work wonderfully in the film starting with the appropriately annoying neighboring tenants. None is worse than Ruth Gordon as Minnie and I was hating her for half the film so much that I thought she was a terrible performer. But we are supposed to feel what Rosemary does and Gordon does a great job of doing just that. That realization around Gordon helps put you in Rosemary’s head space and really sets the tone for the rest of the film going forward. Ralph Bellamy is also great as Rosemary’s doctor, Dr. Sapirstein, and you just want to grab Rosemary and tell her to run. Gordon and Bellamy are a pair of great villains in the film and John Cassavetes rounds out the trio by being a weaselly little bastard that sells his wife to the devil for his future. Watching him rationalize his actions for “them” is infuriating and it comes so late in the game you hate him even more because of Rosemary’s final choice.

Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby gets your emotions running high and once he has you he doesn’t let go. The film works so well that you can see most of the twists and turns coming, but you can’t/don’t want to believe them as they unfold on screen. Filled with marvelous direction and great performances, Rosemary’s Baby is a horror film that doesn’t need blood, guts or even tradition “scares” to put you on edge. Polanski fills the film with excellent tension and atmosphere that few films can match and if you have missed the film like me after all these years I highly suggest you change that.