Without actress Mia Farrow, Roman Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby perhaps isn’t the classic that we know today. Inhabiting the crucial and now infamous lead role with such sheer force and authenticity, the slender actress would become a trailblazer for disturbed female characters for a long time after this film would be released. Natalie Portman, who won the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan and Nicole Kidman in Birth immediately come to mind, the latter of whom Farrow’s performance seems inevitably linked to; these are oppressed heroines grappling with forces usually unbeknownst to them. Polanski’s film is crafted in such a way that it offers Farrow’s Rosemary little room to breathe or even function. There’s no shortage of dread within, as the music that bookends the film suggests an undercurrent of the unpleasant; a trait that rarely lets up throughout the rather extended running time. What’s most surprising is how a film made nearly 45 years ago can put most modern horror films to shame.
As the film opens, Farrow’s naive Rosemary Woodhouse and Guy, her husband and a struggling actor (John Cassavetes) move into an old and troubled Gothic New York City apartment building. Their presence is immediately made known to their elderly and eccentric neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet, who take a quick interest in the couple. As a result, Rosemary and Guy are subject to keeping up appearances, though Guy’s bond grows deeper with the two, much to the chagrin of Rosemary. Strange things begin to happen: a woman Rosemary meets in the laundry dies a mysterious and brutal death, Rosemary has strange and vivid dreams about a demon raping her, and Guy starts to become distant. After Rosemary becomes pregnant, it becomes quite clear that her neighbors have their own motives associated with the baby.
It’s fascinating to watch such horror unfold while holding back from fits of explicit violence or gore. Ostensibly a psychological horror film, Rosemary’s Baby might be the sneakiest body horror film of all time, solely due to the complicated intrusion of Rosemary’s body (in this case her pregnancy) by an outside presence. Plot particulars aren’t necessarily crucial as Polanski shoots most of his film from the point of view of Rosemary, a trait that supplies an abundance of hazy tension and paranoia. Rosemary’s credulous state is enhanced by her increasingly dire tussle with those plotting against her, she’s clearly mismatched, but to what extent? There’s no shortage of hallways and corridors for Rosemary to maneuver through, each episode becoming complicated as those manipulating Rosemary are those she loves and trusts. We eventually view the apartment as a nesting ground for a supposed satanic cult, is it real, is Rosemary really in danger?
Polanski’s tone and pacing is appropriately measured to the point that we ourselves feel enclosed in the apartment just like Rosemary. Filmed primarily indoors, one could make the case that Rosemary’s Baby is indeed a horrific chamber piece through and through. Polanski depicts the act of pregnancy with an unthinkable sense of danger. The film’s final act is the real treasure here, as we’re appalled by what we see and don’t see. Ambiguity reigns supreme in Polanski’s film, as Rosemary’s fate is rightfully tied to her child. What’s most startling is perhaps how believable it all is, mirroring and perhaps outdoing Hitchcock in a sense. Both calculated and precise, Rosemary’s Baby is a workmanlike rendering of performance and paranoia, a film that would provide the groundwork for its director’s brilliant career.