10. Videodrome (1983) directed by David Cronenberg
In David Cronenberg’s world, sex hurts so good; it’s innately disgusting and primeval but at the same time beautiful and becoming. (Kind of like sex in the real world, when you think about it.) Bodies degenerate and mental states corrode under the influence of lust, and yet something new is engendered by the collision of bodies, bodily fluids, the ripping of flesh and the mangling of organs. Through the carrion of ugly comes the attractive flesh, the new flesh. Videodrome, as Jonathan Lethem once quipped, remains Cronenberg’s most penetrative film; he creates a world at once rooted in modernity circa 1983–a world afraid of the advent of television usurping our humanity, over-stimulated times ushering in the end times–and existing in a timeless, placeless vacuum. It’s vast and claustrophobic, prescient and paranoid, of the same lineage as early James Cameron and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. James Woods is Max Renn, the head of a sleazy Canadian station that specializes in smut and schlock. But Renn is tired of the same old boring stuff–it’s too tame, too soft. Then he stumbles upon something new, Videodrome, and he gets ensnarled in an ineffably strange scheme that could go by the codename Death By Television. The film’s distinct visceral feeling, achieved through stunning practical effects and Rick Baker’s make-up, lends a visual tangibility to the proceedings, like you can reach out and grab the tracking lines scrolling down the screen-within-a-screen. Though he claims he’s always made comedies (um, what?), Cronenberg treats his lurid material with earnestness. Like the late H.R. Giger, Cronenberg views the human body as a canvas. The filmmaker is vivisecting himself: when James Woods sticks that gun into his throbbing stomach slit, it’s like Cronenberg is reaching into himself, feeling around. Videodrome has been called his most personal film; the distant, dreamy state in which Woods’ Max Wren gradually slips is extrapolated by the lethargic pacing and skeevy black market look of the film. Though all of his films display a distinct algological fetish, Videodrome remains Cronenberg’s most upsetting film because it seems to grow more modern with age. Television is reality, and reality is less than television. Long live the new flesh.
9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme
In recent years it’s become chic to throw shade at Anthony Hopkins’ scene chewing. Maybe we’ve become so far removed from the initial impact of seeing Hopkins standing still and stoic, his posture immaculate, staring inquisitively at Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) from behind inch-thick glass. Maybe it’s because Sir Hopkins has spent the better part of the last two decades dipping deeper and deeper into the bottomless chasm of crap films, like The Wolfman and Thor, RED 2, The Rite, Alexander, etcetera, etcetera. But Jonathan Demme’s film, one of the few to successfully bridge horror and “serious” drama in a mainstream-accessible way, is still calmly creepy, as composed and articulate an American horror film as anything since Psycho. Jodie Foster plays Clarice as a vulnerable but persistent, highly intelligent woman trying to surmount the ubiquitous sexism of modern day America. (Julianne Moore’s ersatz turn in Hannibal feels more like an SNL rehearsal than a continuation of Foster’s performance.) Foster subtlety mines the depths of Clarice’s mind, holding up a façade while trying to stay cool in the face of the piggish Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald). That she finds a sort of mentor in Hannibal the Cannibal, and that Hannibal is purportedly the first man since Clarice’s father to really respect her (how fucked up is that?), lends the film its lasting dramatic edge. Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine, forever underrated) is all kinds of appalling, but the horror is really second fiddle to the characters here. Is Hopkins going for melodrama? Of course; isn’t that what every Hitchcock character does? Isn’t that what Brando does in The Godfather? NBC’s Hannibal may usurp Demme’s film as the best incarnation of the Hannibal Lecter mythos, but the film still stands on its own as a masterpiece. Thanks to that cell—more like a cellar in a dungeon erected to house the meanest, nastiest, most monstrous brutes imaginable—and Hopkins’ eloquent voice, The Silence of the Lambs is ingrained in the pop-culture consciousness like few other films.
8. The Exorcist (1973) directed by Williams Friedkin
“God isn’t real, so The Exorcist isn’t scary.” I’ve heard that so many times, and it’s the lamest, laziest bit of movie criticism possible. I hear it perennially, whenever Halloween rolls ‘round and everyone is trying to decide what scary movie to watch. If that’s your reason for disliking William Friedkin’s film, don’t watch scary movies. Don’t watch movies. Go crotchet, or whatever. Millennials and Gen-Xers who first saw the hewn and censored version on network TV got the castrated version of one of American cinema’s ballsiest films, and should track down the Blu-ray (theatrical cut!) ASAP. Adapting his own novel with deft self-control, William Peter Blatty took what was considered an unfilmable work of trashy fiction and gave hot-shot young director Friedkin some of the most upsetting, lurid material any major studio has yet funded. The director took extreme measures, what some would consider cruel or unusual, to get his desired effect: slapping a priest right before a take, firing a gun on set, building the bedroom in a literal freezer. (Both Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair were injured during filming, and the agony on their faces during two crucial scenes is completely genuine.) Of course everyone knows the head-spinning scene, the pea-soup scene, the falling down the stairs, the masturbating with the crucifix, that silly spider-walk thing that Friedkin wisely cut (it looks fine on Youtube in a 90-second clip, but within context of the film it makes little sense and ruins what’s otherwise exquisitely slow-mounting tension). Friedkin’s mise-en-scene and cinematographer Owen Roizman’s lighting are sublime, and all of these scenes are nefarious for a reason. But few non-academics talk about the pervasive sound effects in The Exorcist: when Reagan’s head rotates, you can hear the bones creaking (a jarringly similar sound as when the demon causes cracks to run down the bedroom walls) and the skin contorting. When she jabs that crucifix into herself, you hear the squish of blood and flesh being mangled by a Holy object. (The film won the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing.) It’s repulsive, of course; if it were anything less than repulsive, what would be the point? The lasting effects of The Exorcist are rooted in Friedkin’s preternatural gift for verisimilitude. As with his The French Connection and the recently-revitalized Sorcerer, the director taps the New Hollywood grime and grit, but pairs it disquietingly with the supernatural.
7. The Evil Dead (1981) directed by Sam Raimi
“We’re gonna get you. We’re gonna get you. Not another peep, time to go to sleep.” Shot on a dime in the backwoods of Tennessee (already one of the scariest states in the US), Sam Raimi’s debut feature has been an inspiration to wanna-be filmmakers for three decades. Bruce Campbell, sporting the world’s most amiable unibrow, stars as Ash, a dorky moke with a loving girlfriend and that typical dickish best friend who likes to fuck with you when you’re high. Said friend also happens to be dating Ash’s sister, which has to make for an awkward double date. (Do kids still double date?) Ash and his cohorts spend a weekend in a dilapidated cabin in the woods, where wooden swings move as if pushed by unseen hands and trapdoors are lazily concealed by throw rugs. Of course someone finds the Book of the Dead, bound in human flesh and scrawled in blood, and of course that dickish friend accidentally conjures ancient demons, and eventually Ash is hacking apart his friend, his girlfriend, his sister, and himself. While incredibly cheap and hokey, The Evil Dead is admirably earnest yet always self-aware; Raimi and co. set up the scares with dexterous understanding of placement and empty space, and the camera moves as if hopped-up on Ritalin and booze. The actors went through Hell making the movie, and it shows—they look perpetually uncomfortable and upset. But the real star of the film is the unparalleled practical effects: no one has ever used gum-string effects with such startling efficiency, not before, not since. Mixing stop-motion, in-camera hijincks, and really grotesque make-up that oozes and squishes and spews and secretes stuff of every conceivable color, Raimi, Joel Coen (yes, that Joel Coen), and Raimi’s brother Ted crank the gore to a very blithesome 11. Limbs are lopped off, bodies crawl out of the dirt, faces disintegrate, and trees…well, you know what the trees do. Histrionic and horrific but never losing sight of the inherent humor in a film of such low monetary beginnings, The Evil Dead is the rare film that’s true to its advertising: the ultimate experience in grueling terror.
6. Jaws (1975) directed by Steven Spielberg
Jaws is one of the great American films not because the aspects everyone knows—the music, the mechanical beast rising out of the murky waters, that horrifying opening scene, the three men on a boat—are as good as they’re reported to be (they totally are), but because the parts people don’t talk about are just as good. The film is a master class in formal filmmaking, from its sound to its visual editing, the camera movement to the deeply-layered compositions. Few blockbusters since Jaws have had such intricate and nuanced sound design (the way you can hear all the various townspeople talking Altman-like in the town meeting scene), and few have dialog at once so economical yet revealing. We really know these characters and care about them, even if we don’t *like* some of them: Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody; Richard Dreyfuss’ nerdy Matt Hooper; Robert Shaw’s salt-of-the-earth seaman Quint; perpetually under-loved Murray Hamilton as the knavish Mayor Larry Vaughn; Lorraine Gray, matching Scheider note-for-note as Ellen Brody (a character who was dragged through the muck in subsequent sequels). The characters are the soul of Jaws, and every actor gives a career-best turn here. Roy Scheider has been underrated for pretty much ever, mostly because he only ever had three really good roles worthy of his singular style (the other two being Joe Gideon in All That Jazz and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer, which has only recently become revered by cinephiles). Here, Scheider perfectly off-sets he inherent largeness of the movie and Spielberg’s penchant for melodrama with a grounded, unshowy performance. The way his eyes dart, the way his face sinks in desperation without his reverting to histrionics. If he had been as strident as the great Robert Shaw, Shaw’s performance wouldn’t work. (Both deserved Oscar nods.) Everyone knows the “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” line, which Scheider allegedly improvised, but notice how he continues to sustain that jarred look after the camera cuts and Quint walks to the back of the boat. (Also notice Quint’s taken-aback look, since Shaw could play off improvisation as well as anyone.) On land Brody seems hurried and busy, a man who knows what to do but also knows that everyone around him doesn’t care, doesn’t want him to do what’s right. On sea Brody is a neophyte, and Scheider doesn’t even feign manliness here. Spielberg’s known for allowing carcinogenic sentimentality to seep into his films, but Jaws has no such mush. The emotional scenes are truly emotionally-resounding: when Chief Brody plays steeple-fingers with his son (which Nick Hornby aptly observed is what makes a movie likes Jaws great—that mix of genre legerdemain and genuine emotional payoff), or when Quint, that grizzled proletariat of the sea, one of a handful who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, gets chomped in half (uh, spoiler?). But, of course, the film’s lasting legacy is how thrilling it is. Spielberg wastes no shots here, which is pretty astonishing given that Jaws pioneered the garish blockbuster phase we’ve yet to outgrow. The second half is great, but the first half, on the island, is some of the finest direction of any American film, more rooted in New Hollywood (which Jaws helped kill, but not really) than the Star Wars-style of kitsch that followed. Spielberg uses the dolly-zoom better than Hitchcock, the man who made it iconic, because he sets it up with those subtle cuts: every time someone walks passed the camera we jump a bit closer to Brody’s face. It’s touches like this that make the thrills work, and editor Verna Fields has rightfully been praised for her work. Jaws is the first blockbuster, and remains the only blockbuster to have a genuine human story for a heart. Seriously, just watch this scene and name any other blockbuster or horror movie that has the emotional tenacity of a Bernard Shaw play:
5. The Shining (1980) directed by Stanley Kubrick
For his only true horror film, that renowned maker of intensely well-crafted films of singular vision we call Stanley Kubrick decided to jettison the source material (one imagines him looking at the paperback novel with a disgusted look and tossing it over his shoulder, preferably while wearing a monocle) and make an unrepentant Kubrick flick: single-point perspective, immaculate compositions, knowing lapses of logic, long reconciliatory pauses, weathered faces casting vacuous stares into the vast nothingness. Kubrick trades in the alcoholism and child-abuse subtexts of Stephen King’s novel for a labyrinthine jaunt into the corridors of the mind. Making use of the vast soundstages allotted to him, and engendering the only major alteration to the Steadicam since its inception (he demanded that it be able to track from ground-level instead of waist-level, and cinema has never gone back), the notorious perfectionist produced a film that has been debated heatedly since it premiered almost 35 years ago. Jack Nicholson basically typecast himself for the rest of his career; as the clearly unhinged Jack Torrance, a purported writer with a perpetually baleful look adorning his face, Nicholson uses those arching eyebrows and that broad forehead to instill unease from the opening scene. Just driving a car seems like a potentially murderous endeavor for him. (This is a big reason why King hates the film, but in Kubrick’s hands Nicholson’s innately discomforting manners are fitting, not distracting.) Shelley Duvall has been unfairly derided for her arm-flailing, whimpering performance (seriously though, how would you fucking react if your husband tried to brain you with a baseball bat and you saw a man in a bear costume giving head to a tuxedo-wearing ghost?), but she’s really a great foil to Nicholson’s curated intensity. Kubrick so exquisitely sets up every shot, every reaction, that you can’t help but assuming everything is here for a reason, even if it’s not. (Not that authorial intent trumps what’s actually on screen.) What makes the film capital-G Great is how much you can read into everything, and how much you can take away. Yeah, it’s scary as a missed period, but it also demands deconstruction. The Overlook is rife with residual guilt and spectral corruption, as if all the forces in the world are set on ruining Danny’s childhood innocence. Kubrick is the master of using articulate visuals to conjure feelings of equivocation, of existential dread and loneliness. He is the master. He’s always been the master.
4. Halloween (1978) directed by John Carpenter
Though inadvertently responsible for the depraved deluge of gratuitous slasher flicks that flooded theaters in the ’80s (apposite for the Reagan Era and all its superfluity), John Carpenter’s Halloween bears but the slightest semblance to the many ersatz masked psycho movies that followed in its wake. It channels the voyeuristic gaze of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, particularly in that captivating opening POV shot (the modern Steadicam was still in its embryonic stages in 1978), and, to a lesser extent, the contamination of small town Americana exhibited in Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown. But Halloween it far surpasses both films thanks to Carpenter’s keen sense of sight and sound—his use of foreground/background is a technique every young filmmaker should study. Darkness spills onto the screen, inky black night leaking in from the frames, suggesting the enveloping evil of The Shape. The film explores the repressed sexuality of a lonely, frustrated young girl (Jamie Lee Curtis, the only actual teenager in the movie) whose friends are screwing while she’s studying; that caprice and youthful carnality manifest in those knives and stabbing weapons. The Shape isn’t the slow, lumbering brute of the sequels who seems to materialize in the most convenient places; he’s a spook crashing your slumber party, a nameless, faceless, emotionless apparition that haunts the backyards of sleepy suburbia, USA. He can be a cipher for pretty much anything. What makes Carpenter’s film different from everything that followed in its footsteps is the lack of a discernible nexus connecting The Shape to the ill-fated babysitters; there’s no reason or logic, no warning—the dumbass kids in the Friday the 13th movies and the Halloween sequels know what’s coming for them. They bring it upon themselves, really, by visiting Camp Crystal Lake, or staying in Hadenfield. Here, the adventitious slaughter of skinny young things is truly scary. They drink and smoke and have premarital sex and don’t do their homework, as kids are wont to do (or so I’m told), and they die not for their sins but for their obliviousness. Why should they expect The Bogeyman to be hiding in their bedroom? Few filmmakers probe the unknown with the resounding clarity of John Carpenter. As with the next film on this list, Halloween ends on an ellipsis, and, had Carpenter kept the rights to Michael Meyers, we would still be afraid that The Shape is out there, waiting for us.
3. The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter
(Personal note: I remember repeatedly taking out the same book on horror films from my library as a kid—I’m talking 8 or 9—and seeing the same picture from The Thing, the head stretching up to the ceiling, and wanting to see the movie from whence this disgusting monster came; when I finally saw Howard Hawks’ version, whose VHS box simply said The Thing, I wondered why that part never happened in the movie. I felt cheated. I was a stupid child.)
Coming off the disappointment of The Fog (which did well at the box office but quickly faded, and has since gone on to achieve minor cult status), Carpenter was finally persuaded to abandon his indie roots and took a gig shooting a script for a major studio, taking up the reins after Tobe Hooper dropped out. (Can you imagine a Tobe Hooper-helmed The Thing? Ew.) Set in the forlorn icy tundra of Antarctica (sadly devoid of penguins, though who knows how Carpenter of special-effects guru Rob Bottin would have employed them), The Thing uses a clashing coterie of self-aggrandizing manly-men to tease out deep-seeded selfish survivalist instincts. A parasitic entity of alien origin, whose true appearance is never revealed, is rapidly infecting the crew of an American outpost. It seems like nothing can stop this Thing from spreading—not guns, or brawn, or big bushy beards (none of which is in short supply here). They can kill It, but they never really know which man has become It until he’s sprouting slimy tendrils and consuming his friends piecemeal. Distrust and malice settle upon everything like a thin veil of frost. Carpenter envelopes his cast in a complex web of paranoia and delusion; they have no real leader, so each man wants to appoint himself leader. (Well, almost each man. But the weak and meager bite it just as hard as the cock-sure.) It’s one of the keenest, most incisive looks at masculinity in a horror flick—this is a group of men who turn a fight for survival against a monstrous being into a pissing contest. Whereas most horror films, Carpenter’s included, cast a pretty but fiercely independent young girl as the hero—the Final Girl—The Thing shows that there is no Final Guy. The last man standing is still fucked, left in Antarctica with no chance for survival. The classic theme of an inability to distinguish man from monster has been around since the days of Robert Louis Stevenson, but rarely has it been taken to such extremes. Kurt Russell is aces as the hard-drinking helicopter pilot MacReady, but virtually everyone is on their A-game here—you’ll never be able to look at Wilford Brimley (the guy from those diabetes commercials) the same after seeing him shove his fist in someone’s mouth. The Thing is one of horror’s most startling accomplishments, a film that disturbs and entertains in equal measure. It’s also an oddity in Carpenter’s oeuvre, with its relatively larger budget, intricate special effects, and huge cast of character actors, plus the inclusion of Ennio Morricone’s score (Carpenter contributed some electronic filler to act as glue between Morricone’s pieces, which were composed without his having seen any footage of the film). Carpenter has made some great films in his long, strange career, but this is still his best. Watch it on a first date and you’ll wake up alone. (Trust me.)
2. Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott
Another personal anecdote: When I was a kid, probably only just on the verge of stepping into the double-digits, I got Alien on VHS as a birthday present. It was the first legitimate, not-illegally-copied, non-Disney VHS I can remember owning. At that point I had the Terminators and Predators and Jaws and Cronenberg’s The Fly (which I referred to as Jeff Goldblum’s The Fly) and Aliens (which I saw before Alien, oddly) and all sorts of inappropriate films on tape, all of which was adorned with those white labels bearing black Sharpie scribbles indicating the contents of the tape. But Alien, in that shiny black packing with the green font and that bulbous egg, that engendered something in me. I blame that movie for my many social inadequacies.
Alien immediately announces its intentions to usurp any and all light-hearted notions of sci-fi spurred by Star Wars from its opening shot proper: after the one-word title slowly appears on screen, we see a large industrial spaceship called the Nostromo slowly creeping across the screen, foreground to background, a squalid, blue-collar version of George Lucas’ opening. The crew is comprised of a pretty staggering set of ’70s marquee names: John Hurt (who dies the best death in horror history, bar none), Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwrght, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and newcomer Sigourney Weaver, playing the first real badass heroine in American cinema. Most people forget that Weaver wasn’t billed as the star, and she doesn’t even become the main character until half of the crew has already been slaughtered. This is to her favor, as well as ours: whereas James Cameron would depict Ellen Ripley as a woman warrior with a crew cut and inexplicable killing prowess (I love Aliens, but it’s definitely of a far lower-brow than Alien), Scott and co. treat Ripley as an actual person. Revelatory, I know, a woman being a person, and mainstream American blockbusters are still struggling with this concept 40 fucking years later.
The crew of the Nostromo discovers a beacon calling out for help (or perhaps a warning? No, of course not) on a planet at the outskirts of the universe. They go to investigate, and they find a derelict spaceship on the planet’s surface; inside this ship is a multitude of eggs, kissed by a thin layer of mist, which have been sitting in desuetude for who knows how long. Very quickly one of the eggs hatches, and people start to die.
Scott, still a patient and articulate filmmaker back then, lets the camera linger in the stygian confines of the industrial spaceship, its walls ribbed with pipes and wires and tendrils that act as a foil to the interior of the derelict alien spaceship. The alien ship on LV-46 is a monolithic mass of indecipherable secretes, replete with apparatuses that seem to blur the line between organic and artificial. The long halls, as caliginous and unwelcoming as the River Styx, are comprised of 90 degree angles and straight lines, its emotionless, efficient, slick and sleek design not unlike that of the killing machine that will soon be stalking the vents and pipes. At once vast and claustrophobic, the world of Alien looks like nothing else that came before it and, save for James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel, nothing else that came after it. Scott would only displays a sense of formal bravura not afflicted with ostentatious flourishes once more, in Blade Runner, before he set down an undulating path of flops and hits and white-washed big-budget epics devoid of spectacle.
The film unfurls at a deliberate pace, that proverbial slow-burn: after almost 45 minutes of small-talk and bullshitting about unions and equal pay, a monster invades the ship, and the intensity is cranked way up. They collectively try to enucleate the creature, first with a net and an electronic poker thing (which Spielberg would use to similarly abortive affect in The Lost World), then with flame throwers. Nothing works, and the flagitious fucker, with its serrated icicle teeth and accurate, phallic head, tears them apart.
H.R. Giger’s creature, adapted from his own lithograph called Necronom IV, is bipedal but slow, a creeping menace that lurks in the shadows and whose movement we never really see. When one unfortunate character encounters the creature in the tight corridors of the ship’s air ducts, the creature thrusts out its arms, fingers splayed, like a spider waiting for its prey and then snatching it. Cameron’s creatures in Aliens are more insectoid, with hard ridges adorning their long head, a bigger blade replacing the tiny barb on the tip of their tail, and a queen with long, spindly legs who runs after her prey.
1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski
When he made Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski wasn’t yet so deeply burdened by the crushing weight of misanthropy that (understandably) arose after the brutal murder of his 26-year-old pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His subsequent films, especially MacBeth and Chinatown, are steeped in inexorable mourning; they’re almost funereal in their relentless ontological dread. One ends with a beheading, the other with a single shot through the back of the head. In the case of the latter, it’s a mother and rape victim who’s killed, and her blood and viscera that’s splattered all over her daughter.
Rosemary’s Baby ends with a mother cradling her new-born child, surrounded by a room of her friends.
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes, cast against Polanski’s wishes) move into a beautiful building on the Upper West Side of New York. Guy is an aspiring thespian, though so far he’s only done commercials, and Rosemary is a happy homemaker-to-be. (It’s unclear as to how they acquire so much money, but whatever.) Soon after moving in, a young woman throws herself out of the Woodhouse’s neighbors’ window. These neighbors, who used to own the Woodhouse’s apartment, are the elderly and eccentric Castevets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer, fantastic) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon, who deservedly snagged the Oscar), who, in their grieving, cling to Rosemary and Guy. The young couple becomes simulacrum children for the senescent couple.
Rosemary becomes pregnant (by Guy, ostensibly), and things immediately begin to go awry in their relationship. (It doesn’t help that he claims to have impregnated her while she was unconscious.) She sees a doctor who has strange, “natural” remedies for every ailment, and soon Rosemary has become gaunt almost to the point of emaciation.
Polanski refuses the temptation to use gaudy style and instead grounds his film in staunch realism. His camerawork is brilliantly economical—he avoids cuts as often as possible, favoring long takes that capture as much as the 1.85 framing allows, and moving the camera when necessary (as when the Woodhouses first check out the apartment). Nothing is nugatory here, and only upon repeated viewings does it become clear that, as with Chinatown, every shot and line progresses the story in some way. (Ira Levin’s novel is also flensed of the plethoric bits, though Polanski extrapolates the tragedy lurking within Levin’s schlocky horror, further proving that trashy novels make for great cinema.) But the real beauty of Polanski’s classical compositions is the way he hides things from viewers so subtly: people are frequently clipped by doorways and walls, partially obscured at the ends of hallways. The most notable example is when Guy sits down with Roman, and Polanski has them just out of view, just on the far side of a doorway, and we can see whorls of smoke writhing towards the lights but we can’t hear their whispers. Neither can Rosemary, and that’s essential: we never know more than she does.
Mia Farrow is in every single scene of the film. Polanski submerges Rosemary in the claustrophobia of the big city, and he taps into that lonely, forlorn feeling shared by most housewives at the advent of counter culture enlightenment. Rosemary is modest, you could say domesticated; even getting a haircut pisses off her husband. She leads a bromide life, and the deeper into the story we get, the clearer it becomes that the myriad men in her life are all manipulating her in some way. She loses most of their couple’s quibbles, and though she seems complacent—jovial, even—to submit to Guy, there’s always that lingering sense of something spoiled, or ruined, like it’s too late (something a lot of emotionally abused women say when asked why they don’t leave), and Rosemary is caught in the unseen slipstream of marriage. Her individuality, her own well-being, is already corroding. Most contemporaneous reviews of the film, while widely ecstatic, fail to point out the disconcerting depiction of a modern marriage, probably because they didn’t have the benefit of a half-century’s worth of progress. She lives in her husband’s umbrage. For all the Satanic stuff and the creepy paranoia that suffuses the film, Rosemary’s Baby is truly frightening because it so earnestly captures the banality and ruination of being a house wife in 1966. It resonates with anyone who’s witnessed a shitty marriage, and in 2014 that’s almost all of us.
Of the various occultists and backstabbing friends, only two people come away from the movie still tainted by the stigma of villainy: that annoying, bespectacled lady who yells at Rosemary to get away from the baby, and Guy. The Castevets are never unctuous or snide, never malicious. Even after Rosemary meets the Satanic Spawn she birthed, Minnie and Roman are warm and loving towards Rosemary. This warmth, while ironic and unsettling, is oddly the most optimistic ending to any Polanski film. The anti-Christ may be here, but Rosemary has finally found a purpose in life, after what we assume is years of saying, “Yes, dear,” to Guy. No one is asked to atone for his or her sins (though you do get the sense that Guy is, probably for the first time, in that doghouse). Rosemary is going to be a mother to her child. Hail Satan.