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From Krzysztof Komeda’s perfectly haunting musical motif to its sublimely Gothic urban atmosphere, in and around Manhattan’s Central Park West neighborhood, “Rosemary’s Baby” is one of the most well-crafted and viscerally effective horror films ever created.
Based on Ira Levin’s novel, the paranoid narrative taps into primal fears regarding childbirth, rape, and cults, i.e. organized religion. Deceptively, the film’s most poignant theme is that of indoctrination through rape.
Rosemary’s painful transformation is shocking. The film’s opening, just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to America’s ongoing national sense of horror and outrage about the ongoing spate of political murders that included JFK, and his brother Bobby Kennedy.
Roman Polanski’s precise compositions are enduring for their keen degree of detail. Intimate close-ups and liquid camera moves create a seamless filmic palate of Gothic fantasy. Contrast and context expand from such scenes as where the Satanists celebrate 1966 as “year-one.” Here is a dark capsule of all religious idolatry. Evil nuance and maternal suspense boil. Hitchcock’s visual influence shows up when Rosemary pours a milkshake of witch-juice down the kitchen drain. The plot unfolds like a great mystery novel. Rosemary solves an anagram from a book’s title, which provides a secret clue to her fraught predicament.
Polanski makes expressive use of Manhattan’s famous gothic-styled Dakota apartment building at 72nd and Central Park West, where John Lennon would be shot down just over a decade later.
From the film’s enigmatic aerial opening sequence (overlooking the Dakota) to cinematographer William Fraker’s brilliant work, “Rosemary’s Baby” is everything a horror film should be. Every frame communicates an undertow of creeping subtext about a Christ child for Satan born of human flesh.
Mia Farrow is impeccably cast as Rosemary, a frail newlywed bride to Guy Woodhouse, an ambitious New York actor (gleefully played by John Cassavetes). The young couple moves into an apartment inside the Dakota where a group of witches and Satanists have set up shop.
The walls are paper-thin. Before they can even unpack, Cassavetes’s wisecracking character takes the bait offered by Minnie and Roman Castevet, an elderly couple of next-door neighbors, to join their Satin-worshiping group behind Rosemary’s back. Ruth Gordon’s scene-stealing performance as Minnie is at once comical and foreboding. Guy’s acting opportunities open up almost immediately when he wins a role by default due to the sudden blindness of another actor. What makes it all worse is that Guy is a likable person. You can’t help but empathize with him.
Most inventive are the film’s surreal dream/nightmare sequences that terrify Rosemary. During one such sequence, the heavily drugged Rosemary realizes that the ritual rape she experiences before a group of nude Satanists is “not a dream.” Polanski goes so far as to show the demon beast as he lies on top of the vulnerable young woman. Before William Friedkin shocked ‘70s era audiences with “The Exorcist,” Polanski had set the table with “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The palpable sense of dread, suspicion, and conspiracy that Roman Polanski creates puts a sour taste in the viewer's mouth that remains for days after seeing the film. The sense of grotesque suspense that Polanski generates is suffocating. As the second installment in Polanski's "trilogy of apartment films," ("Repulsion" was the first, “The Tenant” was the last.), "Rosemary's Baby" pulsates and seethes with the quaking fear of an unknown birth. If ever there was a pro-birth-control horror movie, this is it.
Not Rated. 137 mins.