The 1960s were known for their free love and rampant good times, they birthed the Hippie movement and a sexual revolution that placed smiles on many American faces. With good vibes in ample supply, it was almost a guarantee that someone, somewhere, would come along to shake up the establishment. That someone would actually be a tag-team duo, best-selling Author Ira Levin and Director Roman Polanski (Chinatown 1974, Venus In Fur 2013), who would together deliver a smash hit of demonic proportions. On Wednesday, June 12, 1968, Rosemary’s Baby arrived in American theaters, and Psychological Horror was never quite the same!
The 50 year old film revolves around a young couple, Guy (John Cassavetes: The Dirty Dozen 1967, Love Streams 1984) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow: Hannah and Her Sisters 1986, Crimes and Misdemeanors 1989) Woodhouse, who move into an upscale apartment building in New York City (which is portrayed in exterior shots by the infamous Dakota). Oddly, their good friend Hutch (Maurice Evans: Planet of the Apes 1968, The Jerk 1979) has tried very emphatically to dissuade the couple from the move, suggesting that there are some seriously sketchy goings-on occurring in the building.
Ignoring this, Guy and Rosemary take up residence in their new home and are almost immediately befriended by an older couple, Minnie (Ruth Gordon: Harold and Maude 1971, Every Which Way But Loose 1978) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer: The Count of Monte Cristo 1934, High Society 1956) Castevets. Almost immediately, strange occurrences begin to happen, starting with the tragic suicide of a young woman, Terry (Victoria Vetri: Hawaiian Eye 1962, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth 1970), who had been living with the Castevets.
On the positive, Guy, who is a struggling actor, lands an important role shortly after the move. Buoyed by this success, he suggests to Rosemary that they start their life together off right and have a baby. On the night that the couple intend to attempt to conceive, Rosemary experiences a dreamlike fog wherein she envisions being raped by a demonic entity. Realizing the insanity of her own thoughts, Rosemary is hesitant when she awakens, but fully freaked out by the scratches she discovers across her body. Explaining this away with a shrug, Guy confesses that she passed out the night before, but he still had sex with her in hopes of conceiving a child. (Great guy, right?)
Low and behold, to no one’s surprise but her own, Rosemary ends up pregnant. When she informs Minnie that she will be seeking out obstetric care from one Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin: King Kong 1976, Midnight Run 1988), recommended by a good friend, she is urged instead to see a Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy: The Awful Truth 1937, Trading Places 1983). This doctor directs Rosemary to partake of a daily health drink, which will be mixed and provided by none other than Minnie. Of course!
As it progresses, this miraculous pregnancy sees Rosemary suffering severe pains, losing weight, and turning unusually pale, all while craving raw meat and chicken livers. When he stops in to check on his friend, Hutch is horrified by Rosemary’s appearance and curious that she is being fed something called “tannis root” by the Castevets, he begins to do some research. Before he can report back to Rosemary, however, he falls into a coma. Eventually, he regains consciousness long enough to provide his daughter with a cryptic message for Rosemary – “The name is an anagram” – along with a book on witchcraft.
What follows is a story that alludes toward Satanism and evil cults, demonic babies and all things Psychological Horror. Based off the 1967 best-selling novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby was a runaway hit, lavished with acclaim from film critics and fans alike, and would ultimately, in 2014, be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Siting the film’s “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” contributions to American cinema, Rosemary’s Baby was indoctrinated into a preserved collection that includes the eclectic likes of 1939’s Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, 1942’s Casablanca, 1960’s Spartacus, 1972’s The Godfather, 1985’s The Goonies, and 1988’s Die Hard.
While the film is closely associated with the likes of 1973’s The Exorcist and 1976’s The Omen, both of these latter offerings would go on to see successful franchises while Rosemary’s Baby would spawn only a made-for-TV sequel, 1976’s Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, and the 1997 Ira Levin novel, Son of Rosemary. Look What’s Happened was considered a flop, though it saw Ruth Gordon reprising her role as Minnie Castevet. In 2008, for the film’s 40th anniversary, a remake was briefly considered, though the idea would never fully pan out and would die a year later. Although, six years later, in 2014, NBC turned Rosemary’s Baby into a four-hour mini-series starring Zoe Saldana as Rosemary.
The film would be an American directorial debut for Polanski. Tragically, a year after its release, Polanski would find himself inextricably intertwined with a real-life, modern day cult, the Manson Family, who murdered his eight-and-a-half-month pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969, during their Helter Skelter spree. It is rumored that Polanski had wanted to cast Tate in the role of Rosemary. Other ladies associated with the role included Tuesday Weld and Patty Duke, but Rosemary ultimately went to Mrs. Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow. Her acceptance of the role is said to have incensed Sinatra, who wanted her to give up her career when they married. Subsequently, he had his lawyers serve Farrow divorce papers in front of the entire cast and crew midway through filming.
Despite being a vegetarian, Farrow committed fully to her role as pregnant Rosemary and did, indeed, eat raw liver for one scene. Going even further and taking major risks, Polanski urged Farrow to take a stroll into real Big Apple traffic, promising her that no one would hit a pregnant woman as he strolled behind her with a hand-held camera. She was, in fact, not hit by any drivers that day, and survived to provide vocals for the opening sequence’s lullaby (“Sleep Safe and Warm”).
The conspiracy theories and interpretations of Rosemary’s Baby abound, from religious allegories and Satanic insinuations to belief that the film is a meditation on the horrors of pregnancy. Some have gone on to accuse the film of being misogynistic – offering up a docile and clueless lead female character who is nothing more than a uterus – and even Farrow, herself, has referred to her character as just this, a “victim.”
In truth, by 2018 standards, Rosemary is clearly not a strong heroine of awe-inspiring proportions, but a meek young woman who has blind faith in everyone she encounters; she is soft-spoken and naïve, believing that her husband has her best interests at heart. For his part, Guy is abusive, at best, a man who would willingly rape his wife in her sleep, or better yet, offer her up to the Antichrist in the name of career success. No matter how you slice it, Rosemary’s Baby is hardly a banner-waving production for Women’s Empowerment and Women’s Rights. (Point proven, Director Polanski has been wanted in the U.S. on charges of rape for the past 40 years.)
Despite this, there is a contribution to film here that is intriguing and worthwhile, if solely for its contributions to the evolution of modern cinema. Polanski may be many things, but he was a noteworthy director who championed the continuous take and contributed a film that is still taught in many film schools and college film courses today. For its successes, Rosemary’s Baby continues to see itself referenced in pop culture, most recently by the popular R&B artist SZA, who included soundbites from the film in two of her songs, “TERROR.DOME” and “Kismet.”
Whatever the case, no matter the interpretation, at 50 years, Rosemary’s Baby continues to be an important entry into the oeuvre of Horror. Love it or hate it, study it for its camera work or lambaste its screenplay for misogyny, the film is a contribution that laid the groundwork for future explorations in Psychological Horror, the occult, and all things demon babies. For this, we salute you, Rosemary’s Baby, and thank you for reminding us of the terror inherent in living and breeding in the big city!