Next up in the Tour through Hell, Phil takes a look at ROSEMARY’S BABY, a seminal flick that bores him, despite its iconic status. Read on to see why Phil doesn’t understand its status as a classic.
ROSEMARY’S BABY gets a lot of credit for starting a trend in horror. It posited that the devil could be born in among us, in a high rise in NYC, and left audiences scared to think of exactly what he would do when he grew up. If it weren’t for this film, it’s likely THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN would never have existed. But those films raised the bar by being grotesque and vulgar (the former), or by adding a distinction of class and upping the stakes by putting the whole world in peril (the latter), a little more explicitly. And herein lies the problem I’ve always had with Roman Polanski’s seminal horror film: it’s so turgidly paced that it’s almost a Nothing Happens flick. It’s so slow, I’ve aptly renamed it ROSEMARY’S BORING.
It even starts off with a mundane task: Rosemary and her husband Guy are apartment shopping. They tour a new place, and discover a closet hidden behind an armoire. Middle aged, down on his luck actor Guy is happy to take it, and the couple moves in. They meet a parade of oddball neighbors, including Minnie and Roman Castevet, and at this point, the film could’ve turned into a kooky comedy about nutty neighbors. But odd things start to happen. A young female dives to her death out a window. Guy’s acting career picks up once an actor goes blind. Rosemary gets pregnant, and she’s suddenly cut off from the outside world. The Castevets only want her to see their doctor, and when her friend Hutch suddenly falls into a coma, she’s left to the mercies of people who may be grooming her unborn child for sinister things.
If only the film were as jazzed up as my description. Instead, Polanski goes for the slow burn here, to the point where there are long stretches in which nothing really happens. Scenes of Rosemary in bed, freaking out about what people are injecting into her, are still scenes of Rosemary in bed. Lots of conversational scenes earlier on foreshadow what dark things may be coming, but they amount to people talking.
People so often misunderstand climax, and think it’s the big scene 30 seconds before the credits start to roll. But climax is truly the turning point in a piece, and this is the only horror film where I can argue the climax is when the protagonist gets a new haircut. An iconic haircut from the world famous Vidal Sasson, but still.
ROSEMARY’S BABY works best as a dual study in paranoia and bizarre characters. At the forefront of both are Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the Castevets. Gordon has always played one-offs, and this performance won her an Oscar. The couple is insane, reacting to things like no rational person would, and pushing themselves into the lives of Rosemary and Guy, with Guy’s acceptance. They juice things up during their scenes, in a lunatic way. Polanski populates the film with an offbeat cast of talented actors, including quirky Charles Grodin, Ralph Bellamy and Maurice “Dr. Zaius” Evans. All the other characters attached to the Castevets create an ever tightening web around Rosemary, driving her to question if she’s being used as a vessel for horrifying things. The conception scene is exemplary of her disheveled state of mind, with the naked neighbors in the room, and some devilish thing mounting her. But is she really just paranoid? The scratch marks on her back would suggest not.
The explanation Guy gives her is even more disturbing than what we see. Guy is the pivotal figure in the film, a struggling actor who may have sold his wife out to be the devil’s whore so he could further his acting career. John Cassavetes is decently creepy as what appears to be a disgustingly self-serving character. His desperation is evident in every frame of film the character inhabits.
Stylistically, Polanski employs odd camera angles and lighting throughout much of the film to keep the viewer off kilter. He aims to ratchet up the plot with these techniques, but even these won’t save the film from its dragging plot. The film is 136 minutes long; had he shorn it down to 110 minutes, he would’ve had a much more compelling film.
ROSEMARY’S BABY was originally optioned by William Castle, toward the end of his career. Paramount agreed to make the film, but fearing his reputation as a gimmick guy, wouldn’t let Castle direct it. I surmise it would’ve been a much more fun film under Castle’s hand, and it certainly would not have dragged.
As it stands, ROSEMARY’S BABY is a seminal film that launched the devil back to the forefront of American horror. As with DAWN OF THE DEAD and FRIDAY THE 13TH, I don’t necessarily think it deserves its iconic status. It’s a slow moving story that drops dead at times, and it’s really only in the last few minutes that anything exciting happens (and no, that’s not the film’s climax). It did open the door for much better and more fun Satanic films to come. And for THE OMEN, I thank it.