Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is that special kind of horror film that can get under your skin while spilling very little blood. It has no masked killer that jumps out of a corner, no monster chasing characters down dark corridors, and no armies of zombies lumbering the streets. Yet it is profoundly unsettling, not only because it deals with a satanic cult, but because the story’s protagonist and her unborn child are unwilling participants in that cult’s scheme.
Watching the film on Halloween two years ago it occurred to me this story is probably twice as scary for women. Having children is already a nerve-wracking prospect, but being tricked into having the devil’s spawn against your will: that is nightmarish on a whole other level. However director Roman Polanski takes his time in revealing the full extent of this nightmare, at times even suggesting all of the protagonist’s fears might just be paranoia. It takes a while for the full extent of the horror to be revealed, but it is worth the wait.
In one of her earliest roles, Mia Farrow plays Rosemary Woodhouse who moves into an old New York City apartment building called the Bramford with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes). The Big Apple has plenty of modern skyscrapers, but there are also many buildings that are hundreds of years old and in some cases the prime locations the shoot a horror movie. In the case of the Bramford, there is apparently a history of cannibalism and murder, but that doesn’t deter the Woodhouses from moving in. Apparently in NYC the prices for real estate are so high that a little murder on your property is not a deal breaker.
The neighbours definitely seem friendly enough. Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) Castevet are all smiles and good manners, and even give Rosemary a good luck charm and the occasional special tea. Their first meeting is rather ominous as it happened on the night a young woman committed suicide by jumping out of a window of the Castavets’ seventh floor apartment. This is one of many accumulating incidents that begin to indicate something disturbing is occurring in Rosemary’s life.
Roman, an actor, gets a big role after a fellow performer suddenly becomes blind. Rosemary and Roman decide to conceive, but on the night of the act she has disturbing visions of demons, her husband, and her neighbours. When she wakes her husband tells her he had sex with her when she was unconscious to make sure they wouldn’t miss their window. During her pregnancy, based on the Castevets’ recommendation, Rosemary is treated by Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) whose unorthodox medicine seems to be having disturbing effects on Rosemary’s complexion. When a family friend grows suspicious, the friend falls into a coma.
One of the scarier aspects about Rosemary’s predicament is that her own suspicions could be easily dismissed. All of these unfortunate events could be just awful coincidences, and if she tells anyone she suspects her neighbours might be part of a satanic coven out to get her baby, she is automatically seen as crazy. What are you supposed to do when everyone around you is plotting against you? Satanic machinations aside, it is rather infuriating to see a group of individuals manipulate a woman’s pregnancy for their own personal gains.
The film’s last iconic scene has Rosemary reluctantly accept her role in her baby’s life despite the fact there is something seriously wrong with his eyes. Yet did it never occur to the members of this coven to ask Rosemary for her permission before messing with her biology? Did she not have the right to know what her own doctor was doing to her? Maybe if Rosemary had been given a good sales pitch she might have even been a willing participant, but nobody gave her a choice, not even her own husband.
There is no such thing as zombies, vampires, and (hopefully) demonic possessions, but unfortunately there is such a thing as groups of people deciding what women can and cannot do with their bodies. An effective horror movie scares you at least a few times. A truly great one, like Rosemary’s Baby, remains socially relevant for decades.