A true classic of the psychological horror genre, Rosemary’s Baby was based on Ira Levin’s chilling tale of devilry and witchcraft from 1967, and was faithfully adapted for the screen and directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown / The Pianist). Levin was already a celebrated novelist and playwright when he produced arguably his finest work with Rosemary’s Baby, a thrilling tale full of suspense and paranoia which was a revelation for the genre when released. Levin would also write a number of further successful novels converted into films during his career, including A Kiss Before Dying (1953) and The Stepford Wives (1972). He also wrote Deathtrap (1978) the longest running comedy/thriller on Broadway, which was also adapted into the 1982 movie starring Christopher Reeve (Superman) and Michael Caine (Zulu / Sleuth). Rosemary’s Baby brought the subject of satanism into the mainstream, and the film would act as a catalyst for the genre which would explore the themes further with movies in the following decade such as The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).
The film opens with the eerie sound of a melancholic lullaby sung over the dark, bleak mood setting musical score of Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda (a regular collaborator with Polanski), while the camera shot pans over the leafy New York skyline of Manhattan’s Upper Westside. We meet Rosemary Woodhouse, played with a real passion for the source material in the iconic role of her lifetime by Mia Farrow (The Great Gatsby), and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes – The Dirty Dozen) as they view a property in The Bramford, a luxurious gothic apartment block. Rosemary is smitten and despite learning the previous occupant of the property had died in mysterious circumstances, and that The Bramford has a dark history seeped in suicides and devil worshipping … they shrug this off and sign a lease!
On their first night in their new home they make love as they picnic on the empty living room floor. And despite discovering that they can hear their neighbours through their bedroom wall, who appear to enjoy throwing parties where strange music and chanting takes place, all seems well at first for Rosemary and Guy. Rosemary soon meets Terry (Victoria Vetri) in the laundry room one day, who introduces herself by explaining that has been staying with the Castevets, Rosemary’s elderly neighbours who have taken her in from the streets where she had been living as a dope addict. Terry is wearing a beautiful silver necklace with a strange smelling herb in the locket, which she tells Rosemary is a good luck charm the Castevets had bestowed on her.
Rosemary and Guy are walking home after a night out and discover a crowd around the bottom of The Bramford. Terry is laying on the pavement in a bloody heap, seemingly having leapt to her death. It is during this somewhat shockingly graphic scene for the time, that we meet Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon) Castevet, who are both shocked and appalled at what has happened to their house guest. The next day Minnie visits Rosemary and invites her and Guy over for dinner. Guy arrives home disappointed as he has lost the part in a play to another actor. He is in a bad mood, but they go to their neighbours and as the dinner speak turns to that of the Pope and Catholicism, it appears the Castevets seem to have controversial views of religion.
The Castevets appear to take great interest in Guy and his actor career, and while Minnie and Rosemary wash the dishes, Guy and Roman appear to be involved in a deep conversation. They head home and laugh at the terrible food and quirky old couple, however Guy appears to be oddly intrigued by Roman and announces he is going to go and speak with him again the next night. Rosemary says she will stay at home, and remarks how strange it was that they had appeared to remove lots of pictures from their walls prior to their arrival. The next evening while Guy is with Roman, Minnie arrives disturbing Rosemary’s peace and she gives her the same silver locket that Terry had been wearing when she died, telling Rosemary that the herb inside is called Tannis Root, and will bring her good luck. The next day the phone rings and Guy learns the actor who had beaten him to the Broadway role has mysteriously gone blind, and he is offered the career changing part after all.
Guy’s mood is lifted, he and Rosemary have a candlelit dinner and after apologising for his recent self centred behaviour he suggests they have a baby. While they are eating Minnie arrives at the door and delivers them two chocolate mousses for their dessert. As they eat Rosemary complains about the taste which Guy seems to take offence with. When his back is turned she bins the dessert pretending she has eaten it. As she is clearing up she becomes dizzy which Guy tells her must be due to amount of booze she has drunk. He takes her to bed where she passes out and starts to dream. Guy undresses her while she is dozing, and the film moves into an abstract dream sequence. Rosemary is laying naked on a bed next to a roaring fire. She is surrounded by other naked people including Guy who says; ‘She’s awake, she sees’. Minnie Castevet replies; ‘She won’t be awake so long as she ate all the mousse’! She is tied down to the bed and red paint is applied to her body. Guy mounts her, but he has the hands and eyes of a beast. Rosemary screams; ‘This isn’t a dream, this is really happening!’ and a pillow is placed over her face.
The next morning she awakes dazed and confused and is covered in scratches. She says she dreamt she was being raped by something in-human, and in a disturbing admission Guy admits to raping her in her sleep while she was passed out. Naturally she is upset at this but he shrugs it off as no big deal saying he just didn’t want to miss the chance for her to fall pregnant. Rosemary soon finds out that she is indeed with child and in her elation forgives Guy. Minnie and Roman visit with wine to celebrate and insist on putting her in touch with a friend who they claim is the best doctor in town, an elderly gentleman named Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy – Trading Places). Rosemary says she is happy with her current doctor, but they won’t hear of it and set her up with an appointment the next morning regardless. They toast to a fine and healthy baby, with Rosemary also enjoying a large glass of wine … a sign of the times!
Dr. Sapirstein advises her not to read books or listen to her friends regarding her pregnancy, as each is different. He also advises her to stay away from mass produced pills and will have Minnie make her a daily vitamin drink. But soon she starts to suffer from terrible abdominal pains, loses weight and turns incredibly pale. She is visited by her close friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) who is surprised to learn she is pregnant due to obvious weight loss and her general poor appearance. As they are talking an oddly nervous Roman rings the doorbell and she invites him in to meet Hutch. Rosemary tells Hutch about the Tannis Root ingredient in her necklace which is also a key ingredient in her daily vitamin drink, and Hutch takes great interest in this as has never heard of it before. Guy then arrives home early from his rehearsal, and it seems that he has rushed back for some reason. Hutch leaves and discovers one of his gloves is missing from his coat pocket. That evening Hutch calls and seems somewhat panicked, asking Rosemary to meet him the next morning for a coffee as he has something important to discuss with her. Guy immediately heads out to get ice cream and we hear the ring of the Castevets door bell.
The next morning Hutch does not show for their meeting and Rosemary discovers that he has been hospitalised having slipped into a coma. Rosemary begins to feel distant from Guy, and isolated from her former life as she only now sees the Castevets and their circle of friends, many of whom live within The Bamford and who are all smothering of Rosemary and her pregnancy. She throws a party for her and Guy’s older friends, insisting that you have to be under sixty to attend, ruling out all of her neighbours. At the party Rosemary’s friends are also aghast at her appearance and cannot believe she has been in pain for two months, demanding that she speaks to another doctor to get a second opinion. After the party she tells Guy and he becomes angry and defensive of Dr. Sapirstein, but as they argue her pain miraculously stops. She is ecstatic, she can feel her baby moving but Guy is reluctant to touch her belly, recoiling back instead. Then she takes a phonecall and learns that Hutch has died.
She attends the funeral and learns that Hutch had woken up the morning of his death and requested that Rosemary was given a book, with a cryptic message that the name on the book is an anagram. The book is called All Of Them Witches and Hutch has underlined a section about a fungus called the Devils Pepper (Tannis Root). The book features a chapter about a man called Adrian Marcato, a former resident of The Bramford who had reportedly raised the devil in a ceremony conducted inside her apartment block. Reading further into the book she discovers that the satanist had a son called Steven Marcato, an anagram of which spells out Roman Castevet … the penny drops! She tells Guy what she has discovered and he ridicules the notion. She tells him about covens of witches described in the book who use the flesh and blood of babies in their satanic rituals, and she is terrified the Castevets want her child for this reason.
After learning that Guy has then thrown away the book Hutch had left her, she visits a book store and purchases more material on witchcraft, reading a passage about spells that can make people paralysed, blind or put them into a coma. She learns that witches need the possession of a victim in order to cast a spell, and remembers Hutch’s missing glove. She then calls the actor who went blind providing Guy with the theatre role, and discovers they had met for a drink the night before his affliction and had swapped ties. She is piecing together the puzzle of everything that has been happening since moving to The Bramford, and is distraught at Guy’s apparent involvement.
Rosemary goes to see Dr. Sapirstein and discovers in conversation with his receptionist, that he is also an advocate of Tannis Root. She leaves the surgery as she now realises he is a part of the conspiracy and calls her former doctors office, stating she has an emergency and must see him straight away. She tells the doctor everything she believes has been happening to her, but in her heightened state appears positively crazy, and as she falls asleep in his surgery Guy and Dr. Sapirstein arrive to take her home. They tell her to come quietly and not to make a scene, or she will end up in a mental hospital, and all sit silently in the cab ride back. She manages to escape when in the lobby and locks herself in her apartment, but the whole coven have somehow found their way in. She struggles screaming, and is pinned down and injected with a sedative before going into labour … the screen fades to black.
When she awakes Guy is sitting on the bed. He tells her she had a baby boy but that there was a complication and it has died. She screams that they are all witches and lying, and she is given another sedative. As she recovers Guy gaslights her into thinking she has been acting crazy the whole time and starts talking about them trying for another child and moving to Hollywood, where he is going to become famous. But while laying in bed she hears the cry of a baby coming from Minnie and Roman’s apartment. When alone she makes her way over with a kitchen knife in hand and finds the whole coven sitting with Guy, and her baby in a black cot. A look of horror comes over her face as she looks in at her child, screaming; ‘What’s wrong with his eyes’!?
Roman explains that she has given birth to the child of the devil and the Covern begin to chant; ‘Hail Satan!’ Guy tries to reason with Rosemary; ‘They promised me you wouldn’t be hurt and you haven’t been really … We’re getting so much in return’. She looks at him with pure rage and spits in his face. Roman asks Rosemary to be a mother to her child and she approaches the black manger as her baby cries. She peers in again, and encouraged by Roman begins to rock him to sleep. The camera pans out and the movie ends, returning to the eerie music of the intro, which we now realise is Rosemary singing the lullaby.
Rosemary’s Baby is a film which flows incredibly well, staying faithful to Levin‘s snappy novel which for anyone who has read it knows just how much of a page turner it is, as it leaves a trail of breadcrumb clues throughout for the reader to piece together. Mia Farrow plays the role of Rosemary superbly, with a real method performance especially as the character becomes ill during her pregnancy where she is visually striking. She was perhaps unlucky not to be nominated for an Oscar in 1969 (which was won by Barbara Streisand for her role in Funny Girl), while Ruth Gordon did pick up an award for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Minnie Castevet.
The movie was originally offered for Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho / The Birds) to direct, however after declining the opportunity it was handed to French-Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, who wrote the screenplay in just three weeks and was reportedly paid $150,000 from the films modest $1.9 million budget. Rosemary’s Baby would take over $30 million at the US box office alone. His direction during the many bizarre dream sequences of Rosemary and specifically during the rape and conception of her baby, allowed Polanski to stylishly flex his artistic muscles, which were relatively unique for a mainstream movie at the time. The film may seem a little dated for todays audience, however it is an absolutely fine representation of its time, epitomising the style of late sixties New York, and is a must watch for anyone with a passion for the history of horror! KZ
Words by – Mark Bates
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