There’s been much recent debate over why we shouldn’t be watching the films of Roman Polanski. We have recently published a couple of articles here, at Diabolique, arguing for why we need to separate the artist from the art. I don’t want to rehash that again, but I do need to state: I cannot stop watching the films of Roman Polanski, because Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece, a film so close to my heart, that in order to do that I would have to give up a piece of that heart, and quite frankly, I am not prepared to do that.
It’s difficult to fathom that fifty years have ticked by since the release of this film. That snapshot in time, when the trajectory of horror film changed forever. Rosemary’s Baby, alongside Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, both released in 1968, made such an impact on genre film that things were never the same again. Out were the castles and period settings. In came contemporary horror, everyday people, and things that might just happen to you. Without Rosemary’s Baby we might not have The Exorcist (1973) or The Omen (1976). We almost certainly wouldn’t have had the slew of marvellous satanic-themed films that bombarded screens in the seventies. Even things like Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark (1972) — another of my favourite films — would never have been made, having been directly influenced by Polanski’s film.
So consider this my love letter to a film that has shaped so much of our cinematic culture, it would be a very sad world if had never been made. An even sorrier one if people forgot how important it is, and stopped watching it. A film isn’t a person. It’s a team effort, free of anything that might have happened in the private lives of those who made it. And that’s why Rosemary’s Baby, to me, makes a perfect case in point for making that distinction. Some may say I am biased. And yes, I am. But I refuse to apologise for defending a film that has given me so much joy over the years that I couldn’t imagine life without it.
My obsession with the film started at a young age. I was in that awkward pre-teen period, where I was itching for more transgression in my horror film, and becoming increasingly curious about matters of the profane. My interest in the occult started around this time as well. So finding the film at this exact point in time was fortuitous, to say the least. It was like the perfect marriage of two of the things which fascinated me the most: witchcraft and horror. Two of the things which have continued to inform my taste in film and literature, as well as influencing the type of subjects I gravitate to in my writing.
Yet, I didn’t find Rosemary’s Baby frightening. It didn’t have that same impact that say Hammer horror had had on me several years previously. It did something else, something infinitely more magical. Because to me the film was more like a dark fairy tale. It intrigued me, with later grew into an obsession, in a way few films had done before. I wanted to live in that world where witches stole people’s ties, and their sight, grew funky herbs, and people lived in beautiful apartments, full of beautiful things. I wanted to live in that world where witches were powerful and they weren’t cast out to the shadows, haglike, grotesque, like they were in all my old books.
This aside, I think the appeal for me with Rosemary’s Baby — and it’s an appeal that’s never waned over thirty odd years, in fact I think my appreciation and love has only grown — is the film’s direct association with Romanticism and Gothic. For a film that essentially dated Gothic so much that it bulldozered over all the crusty castles, and moved them out of the way for fresh, contemporary settings, its connection to the heart of Gothic comes as an ironic one. It was Milton’s Paradise Lost that presented Satan as a figure who was “majestic in ruin”, through which, even though this wasn’t Milton’s intention, he became something of a folk hero. This idea was then picked up by writers like Shelley and Byron, who, through Romanticism, fed this spirit into Gothic. And it is this consciousness into which Rosemary’s Baby draws from: Satan as something of an anti-hero, majestic in ruin. Cult leader, Roman Castevet, is the perfect charismatic magus, a learned man, world traveller, cultured, from money. Both he and his followers, the people who want to assist in the coming of Satan’s child into this world, are also majestic in ruin. But they are waiting for their day to arrive. As it will, through Rosemary.
The film is a incredibly faithful adaptation of Ira Levin’s original novel, the rights of which were then picked up by William Castle, who made more money with this film than he ever did with his own (although he does make a small cameo in the film, outside a telephone box). Levin’s book reads like a screenplay for the picture, the two are so similar in story. However, what Polanski did was inject the feeling of that period, Vidal Sassoon haircuts, chic furnishing, and that atmosphere of creeping dread, in light bright modern apartments, which had previously been reserved for shadows and graveyards. It’s a match made in heaven, alongside the incredible performances from the cast across the board; although special kudos has to go to Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon.
Moving beyond the film, I think what I love about Levin’s writing is the way in which he examined domestic roles for women, in a time when women’s rights were hurtling forward at a furious rate. Together with his The Stepford Wives (1972), Levin cast a critical eye over the way in which women were enslaved by marriage. In Rosemary’s Baby, a woman is used as an incubator so her husband can move forward with his career. In The Stepford Wives, men, butthurt over the fact women aren’t paying as much attention to their domestic roles, or their sex lives, or looks, as they would like, have them upgraded in favour of their own objectified view of perfection. The books are not only a scathing criticism of fragile masculinity, shining a light on male insecurity, they also present their heroines as strong, bold rebels, within a system that oppresses them because of their sex. And, in the case of Rosemary, although the same can be said for the seventies film adaptation of The Stepford Wives, it is this spirit that carries over on to the screen.
In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary, although she is tricked and victimised, remains a survivor. She doesn’t just accept the truth presented to her by her nosy neighbours and neglectful husband. Together with her friend Hitch, she starts to realise what’s really going on, and makes steps to flee, in order to save herself and her unborn child. In this way, both the film and book, cleverly play on the power of maternal instinct, to produce an ending which is beautifully ambiguous. More than this, Rosemary is given a choice, and in deciding to align with her child, she gives the ultimate fuck you to the husband who put her into that predicament in the first place. His plan is to move on, and celebrate the riches of his transaction, have his own children with Rosemary and forget about the past. She, on the other hand, has other ideas. And so it is, that we must assume he is left alone. And rightfully so.
Because of all of this, and Krzysztof Komeda’s hypnotic score, along with the fact the film emanates sixties chic by the bucketload, that it has a satanic baby cradle with black lace all over it, Rosemary’s weird raw meat obsession, Ruth Gordon being the creepiest and most annoying neighbour of all time, the dreamiest satanic ritual complete with boats, as well as profane ceiling murals, and apartment interiors to die for, I will never stop loving Rosemary’s Baby. 50 years and still as powerful as ever.