Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.
Many credit Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" with the birth of the modern horror film, a relocation from gothic castles and the past to the present day and a realistic boogeyman. But "Psycho" attempts to explain the psychosis of its monster (even if HItchcock is more critical of the explanation than many assume). The real advent of modern horror came with the one-two punch of "Night of the Living Dead" and "Rosemary's Baby" in 1968, both films that filter the anxieties of the time (racism and nuclear fallout in the first, free-floating paranoia and patriarchy in the second) without giving definitive answers to all of their questions. Roman Polanski's breakthrough is particularly frightening not just because it deals with the possibility that pregnancy can lead to unspeakable horror, but because it makes us doubt whether or not we can trust what we're seeing.
A perfectly cast Mia Farrow does some of the most expressive work in the history of the medium, frequently recalling Falconetti in "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in her portrayal of a girl-next-door turned gaunt, terrified mother. Part of what makes her frantic work so effective, however, is the sinister calm of the people trying to control her (and the people she'd normally most trust): friendly doctors, Ruth Gordon's sweetly satanic neighbor (an Oscar-winning performance), and her husband, played by John Cassavetes. That last bit might be the shrewdest casting on Polanski's part, with independent filmmaker turned frequent actor-for-hire Cassavetes playing a man who sells his soul and his wife's sanity for a break.
What makes the film most effective is that Polanski puts us in Rosemary's limited perspective, where we feel her paranoia but question just how much we can trust what we see. Whether Rosemary's peering around a corner to see if someone is after her, isolating her in a sunbaked building that seems just a little too perfect for its gothic exterior, or overwhelming her completely in a surreal dream sequence. And the film's ending is still among the most disturbing in horror movie history, not just because it reveals the true depth of this perversion of the miracle of birth, but because against all we've been led to believe about Rosemary, we see pure goodness resign itself to accept evil. Why? No answer.
More from the Criticwire Network:
Monica Bartyzel, Movies.com
The patriarchy is an oppressive force in Rosemary’s life, in large and offhand moments. When Guy takes Rosemary’s book of witchcraft and hides it out of reach, he places it upon a copy of the clearly displayed spine: “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” When Rosemary grasps at outside help, she’s quickly outed to the men she’s blatantly scared of as they threaten to institutionalize her. This power even reaches beyond physicality into her psyche. Her motherly instincts are used to manipulate her into caring for her evil son. Unlike many scary films where the horror is in some monstrous, evil form, the monstrous players are out-eviled by the grotesque nature of man. The fact that the men in her life are devil worshippers is overshadowed by the evil of their dominance. Her isolation speaks louder than any spells or wrongdoings. Her helplessness is deafening, and the ramifications of her acquiescence are scary. Read more.
Matt Cohen, The DCist
One of, if not my favorite horror film of all time. The slow-burn sense of dread and nightmarish imagery still chills me with each subsequent viewing.
Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
The middle child in Polanski's nightmarish apartment trilogy (between "Repulsion" and "The Tenant"), "Rosemary's Baby" is one of horror cinema's all-time slow burns, drawing viewers gradually into entertaining the possibility that the movie's series of strange coincidences and accumulating sense of dread are only subjective representations of Rosemary's unraveling mental state. In other words, Polanski plants seeds of doubt as expertly as Rosemary believes the coven next door has arranged to snatch her baby from her to use in their rituals. And Polanski's ability to prime the audience into questioning, if not outright rejecting, Rosemary's suspicions gives it an unsettling quality far outpacing many of the films it inspired. Read more.
Jake Jacobson, Westwood One
The film is so assuredly handled by Polanski and cast that it builds an excitement very early that never lets up. A true triumph of storytelling and a model of efficiency. Unquestionably an achievement.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
Still one of the creepiest movies ever made. The rare case where a story with a surprise ending gets even more dreadful once you see it coming.
More from the web:
Sam Adams, The A.V. Club
In addition to being one of Polanski’s best movies, 1968’s "Rosemary’s Baby" also most neatly reconciles his disparate directorial personae. It’s as masterfully accomplished as his most controlled works, and as intuitive as his most delightfully off-the-rails ones. The most stylistically subdued of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy,” which also includes 1965’s "Repulsion" and 1976’s "The Tenant," "Rosemary’s Baby" lets its horrors surface slowly, insinuating rather than exploding in your face like a booby-trapped birthday present. Old lady-next-door Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar, manages to do both, instilling her insistent friendliness with a hint of unease before her smile broadens into a nest of fangs. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
Although I haven't read Levin's novel, I'm informed that he works in the conventional suspense mode. We meet Rosemary and her husband and the couple next door. We identify with Rosemary during her pregnancy, sharing her doubts and fears, But when the ending comes, I'm told, it is an altogether unexpected surprise. Polanski doesn't work this way. He gives the audience a great deal of information early in the story, and by the time the movie's halfway over we're pretty sure what's going on in that apartment next door. When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen--and couldn't help her. Read more.
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
"Rosemary’s Baby" is suffused with Polanski’s style and preoccupations. His thrillers nearly always hold to a limited point of view, to depict protagonists who are alone and unsure whom to trust; and many of them also deal with how passion curdles into zealotry, and how men neglect their women (which are two more themes that figure heavily in "Rosemary’s Baby"). Polanski’s been perpetually fascinated by paranoia, which intersects neatly with "Rosemary’s Baby’s" portrait of a world bedecked with Christian symbols, always reminding people that they’re being watched from above. Even when Farrow sees the famous Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?,” the headline only reinforces the presumption that he existed in the first place. Read more.