Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby has a reputation as one of those horror films that, even by the standards of the pre-MTV, pre-Michael Bay generation, is a very slow burn. It's well over two hours long, and the real horror plot doesn't even kick in until the beginning of the third act. In fact, for much of its runtime, it has more in common with a domestic drama than a religious thriller, about the titular Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) coping with her pregnancy, the poor advice given to her by her neighbors and her doctor on what to do during her pregnancy, and the work struggles of her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), a Broadway and television actor looking for his big break. The only indication we get that this is a horror movie is the famous scene where Rosemary and Guy conceive their baby, imagined by Rosemary in a dream (or is it?) as being raped by Satan himself while throngs of devil-worshipers carry out a ritual around the two.

Allow me to say this right off the bat. If non-stop thrills and chills are what you're looking for, turn away now, because this film will probably bore you to tears. If you know what you're in for, however, you'll be treated to a movie that truly sneaks up on you, waiting for just the right moment to strike and kick into high gear. It is precisely the seeming banality of the first two acts that makes so much of the film so effective, with director Roman Polanski and an all-star cast led by Mia Farrow all at the top of their game. While I felt that time and countless imitators had lessened the impact of the big reveal, its slow but constant buildup of dread, combined with its striking imagery once it does hit the fan, make it a deserving classic that any self-respecting fan of horror movies ought to see at least once.

The scares in this film don't work on the same level that they do in many other horror movies, new or old. Hardly any jump scares at all feature here, especially in the first half of the film; rather, the horror is situational, inserting just a few out-of-place things here and there to give you a sense that, beneath the domestic drama playing out, something is very, very wrong. This is not a film that goes out of its way to spring you out of your seat, but rather, one that fills you with a sense that you're not safe even if you get up and leave the room. It's a testament to Polanski's skill that he can run this thread of slowly-building dread for almost two hours without it getting to the point where it feels like he's just stalling for time before the big blow-out. Say what you will about the man's personal faults, but there's a reason why even his most vehement critics will stop short of criticizing Polanski's actual body of work. He made a masterpiece of a supernatural thriller that takes its sweet time to get moving, but which makes the process suspenseful in its own right. The result is a film that's as much about the increasingly unpleasant journey as it is about the horrifying destination, and given that the big reveal at the end (spoiler: the baby is the Antichrist) is pretty much common knowledge by now, this helps keep the film feeling fresh and makes it eminently rewatchable.

Plus, there's the fact that, once things start going down, the imagery here remains genuinely iconic even if you know how it ends. There's actually an urban legend claiming that Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, was a technical consultant on this film and played the Devil in the famous rape scene. It's false, of course, but watching the finished product, it's one of those things that you could totally imagine having actually happened. The fact that it has persisted for half a century is a testament to how immediately memorable this film's Satanic villains are, as is the fact that so many tall tales of "real life" Satanic covens seem to borrow so much of their iconography from this movie.

The same thing goes for Polanski's script, adapted from the novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote The Stepford Wives and who touches on a lot of the same territory here. Much like Stepford, Rosemary's Baby is told from a decidedly feminist point of view, the horror coming from Rosemary's inability to control the circumstances of her pregnancy and motherhood while her husband and his new friends take increasing command over her life in order to see their evil plans through. It is a film about losing control, about being valued only for your womb's ability to bring a monster to life. Mia Farrow absolutely nails both Rosemary's helplessness and her mounting frustration with her situation, her efforts at resistance and escape always being thwarted. The same thing goes for John Cassavetes as Guy, a man who starts out as a loving husband but, as he's drawn in by his Satanic neighbors, grows into a detached, distant man who sees Rosemary as little more than a vessel for the Son of his new God. Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon as the neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet start out harmlessly enough, absolutely nailing the stereotypical old, bothersome New Yorkers, with the knowledge of their true agenda laying just under the surface and making those characters so much more chilling.

Score: 4 out of 5

Rosemary's Baby is not for everyone. It's slow, and the payoff was spoiled decades ago. However, it is a very rewarding film for those who put the time into watching it, and it is a worthy entry in the canon of horror cinema.

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