I still have very vivid memories of the first time when I watched Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – it was at a point in my life when my interest in the horror genre was only steadily growing and I stumbled across it as it was playing on television. I could not stop thinking about the film ever since, and thus I watched it again at my next opportunity. But I quickly begun to realize why Rosemary’s Baby had grabbed me in the manner that it did, for Roman Polanski’s American debut still feels timeless – and remains one of the very best horror films ever to have been made. It’s a horror film that isn’t limited to excelling as one of the best of its genre, but among many more reasons it has only stuck around over the years so beautifully it goes down to the bone of where our fears are built.
From the novel by Ira Levin, Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary Woodhouse, a woman who is set to be a mother who becomes increasingly paranoid about her own surroundings for they may be a Satanic cult that has plans for her own unborn child. Polanski has his hands on a perfect setup, but where Rosemary’s Baby works on a greater level is clear enough from its societal commentary which is evidently teased within background details and how it experiments with gender politics during its time – and in a sense it also feels much more resonant in today’s age, as if the paranoia of what’s set to come for oneself hasn’t already been terrifying enough.
Polanski is working around how Rosemary is seeing everything the moment her unborn child is set to come, but the way a character like Rosemary Woodhouse is established at first sight is together with Guy Woodhouse, an ordinary couple that’s only seeking more out of what they have. But the whole idea of everything being “ordinary” soon shows where Polanski crafts darkness in arguably the most clever manner, because it distorts the mundane nature of a conservative society and how it damages one’s sense of identity. And the notion that Rosemary sees her own life is being taken over by such conformity shows where her fears quickly find themselves building on the inside, building up the sense of dread that looms throughout the film.
Coming back to how Roman Polanski is playing around with societal gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby, it becomes clear from the manner to which Rosemary’s “loving husband,” Guy Woodhouse is treating her constantly. Guy Woodhouse carries Rosemary around as a marital prisoner, and he brushes off her own paranoia as part of her role: to be a loving mother. It makes clear the film’s straightforward yet allegorical narrative regarding how women are treated within society, for the whole way through we see Rosemary as an independent figure only to be pushed around by her husband as well as elders to do as they please – even to a point they are clearly manipulated by what they want resulting in eventual punishment.
But it isn’t an overtly scary film, rather instead it is scary in the sense that you are brought into the perspective of Rosemary Woodhouse, whose fragility is captured beautifully in Mia Farrow’s performance. In this role, she’s blurring the lines between her own reality and fictions, making her eventual breakdown more tragic upon a thought – because you can already feel someone calling for help, but their soul is slowly being killed off by what is only appearing as ordinary. And speaking of the ordinary, John Cassavetes reflects such cynicism beautifully just as Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon do as their own elderly neighbours, starting off darkly comic yet quickly swerving into dementedness it only becomes unsettling.
As years have passed by since it’s own release, Rosemary’s Baby has still remained one of the most unsettling films ever made – for it seems so ordinary because of what the world sees as “normal,” yet placed within another perspective it only becomes evident how much of the film’s dread begins to show. Roman Polanski’s American debut signifies not only the horror genre at its very peak but it still remains one of the quintessential American films, especially for its subversive approach to societal gender roles. And to this day, it still rings with a sense of resonance – for it has not become any less terrifying than it was upon its release.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Screenplay by Roman Polanski, from the novel by Ira Levin
Produced by William Castle
Starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans
Release Year: 1968
Running Time: 136 minutes