Rosemary’s Baby: The triumph of psychological horror
With a legacy that lives on to this day, Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece from 1968 is a tale of paranoia and occultism. One that is powered by strong performances and a magnificent level of craftsmanship behind the lens.
An adaptation of Ira Levin’s famous novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby follows a young couple who moves into a famous apartment building in New York, where they soon befriend the quirky elderly couple who live next door. However, when Rosemary gets mysteriously pregnant, she begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right with her neighbors, and that there’s a satanic conspiracy after her and her baby.
Before discussing the film itself, I have to clarify that I feel rather uncomfortable praising the work of Roman Polanski, given all of the accounts of sexual assault and rape against him. And even though I don’t believe in separating the artist from their work -because they are one and the same-, I’m going to make an effort here because this movie has been an absolute favorite of mine from the moment I first saw it. Rosemary’s Baby is one of the finest examples of Polanski’s filmography, which, even with its highs and lows, is overall very impressive. Here, Polanski shows a mastery in direction that is reflected in every formal decision he makes behind the camera.
Something that I find particularly brilliant is the way the dream sequences are built. Polanski plays with amazingly placed transitions between dream and reality juxtaposing two worlds, thus making it difficult for the viewer to distinguish between what is really happening and what is in Rosemary’s mind. The rape sequence is simply one of the most chilling and disturbing scenes in the history of horror, which is particularly notable considering this is a scene that doesn’t rely on its graphicness or goriness. This goes to show that you do not depend on those elements to unsettle and shock the viewer, contrary to what a lot of contemporary horror filmmakers seem to believe.
In fact, I re-watched Rosemary’s Baby today, and seeing it this time around I was actually made to feel even more uncomfortable by the scene of the morning-after rather than the rape sequence in itself. It is in that moment that you realize Rosemary has but two options: To listen to her gut and admit she has been impregnated by something inhuman; or to go on living knowing that her husband raped her once she passed out for drinking too much. Guy even makes a joke about how fun the intercourse was, you know, “in a necrophilic sort of way”. Quite frankly, I don’t know which one is worse. All I know is this detail makes it all a lot more horrifying than it already is.
This realization also makes me reflect on how Rosemary’s Baby is a film that feels different with every viewing. Every time I watch it I find something I had not seen before, and that is a testament to Polanski’s great attention to detail. A mastery that can be seen in small, subtle elements of foreshadowing throughout the film, which all tie together in its resolution (for instance, Roman’s pierced ear, the moments in which Guy and the Castevets are together and Rosemary isn’t present, and so on). All of this builds a perfect atmosphere of suspense and increasing tension that is only heightened by Krzysztof Komeda’s amazing score. The music moves perfectly within the story, more poignant in moments of intensity and more atmospheric in scenes of suspense. The lullaby theme is reason enough to acknowledge the achievement of this score: it manages to give me the creeps every single time.
The score, the work of direction, and the riveting performances by Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) and the rest of the cast, all come together to build an atmosphere of psychological horror that manages to successfully depict paranoia AS WELL AS induce it in the viewer. And this could not be possible without the use of a subjective point of view in the film. This is something that was very important for the historical context in which the film was released, especially considering that almost a decade before Alfred Hitchcock had given birth to a masterful story that was told from beginning to end from a personal point of view -even when the subject changes, but I won’t get into an analysis of Psycho right now-.
This storytelling tool allows the viewer to identify themselves with Rosemary in the most intimate of ways. Only when Rosemary starts to finally understand what is going on around her is it that we begin to notice details that we’d previously ignored despite having been in front of us all along. Watching the movie unfold, we’re all Rosemary. And that is exactly what the film wants. The entire story is told from her viewpoint and we clearly see everything through her eyes, and her eyes only. Whatever Rosemary is feeling, that is what we feel. Whatever she is seeing, that is what we see. Whatever she is afraid of, that is what haunts our dreams. There lies the sheer terror of Rosemary’s Baby, and that is what makes it a true masterpiece in both the horror genre and the entire history of cinema.