Monday, September 04, 2006

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I don’t watch a lot of the kind of movie typically deemed “horror,” mostly because slasher stuff doesn’t gross me out enough to scare me. What’s hidden, however, could very well exist without my knowing it, and is that much scarier. I think that’s why Rosemary’s Baby holds up so well nearly 30 years later; it’s about anxiety and marriage and urban life and childbirth, not about freaks with chainsaws.

The strength of this film is that it asks you to believe one thing—that a cabal of Satanists could impregnate a woman with the son of the Devil—and leaves everything else really really normal. The problem for me with Exorcist-style films (right now I’m recalling with horror of a different kind the recent The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is that they pose what looks like a similar situation but requires constant suspension of disbelief. Here, we have one single act, and some suspicious behavior, and Rosemary’s fear and anxiety are our own.

Of course, it’s to Roman Polanski’s credit that he is a good director to begin with and can carry such a concept in a film with naturalistic dialogue, pedestrian settings and some unusual transitions from scene to scene. It recalls that old debate over genre-films—can “horror” or “scifi” be also “good,” or does a good film by definition transcend genre (leaving those nether-regions to be populated by the B-pictures)?

The actors, also, do a fantastic job. Mia Farrow has to propel everything pretty much on her own, and she succeeds in portraying an intelligent (though tiny) woman who, for whatever reason, is underutilized in the life she’s living. Rosemary needs something to do. The film is just as much about her struggle with unfulfillment and boredom as her painful pregnancy. And isn’t her pregnancy as much about the plight of the married woman who discovers just what her “job” entails as about the devilchild?

If it sounds like I’m making this film out to be just a meditation on the horrors of childbirth from a masculine point of view, I don’t think it’s that simple. But the significance of a conspiracy of older, powerful people holding sway over the lives of the younger and markedly more feminine can’t be denied. Which is why I think the film could have done away with the coda in which she meets the baby—not because I don’t like seeing her reaction, but because the commentary by the cabal is unnecessarily direct. “He has his father’s eyes,” is funny, sure, but there’s no need for a rousing cry of “Hail Satan!” It’s the ambiguity that cements this film in something like real life—hasn’t everyone felt insecure about what they’re bringing into this world?—and an ending more in keeping with that would have satisfied me better.

Up until the end of the film, Rosemary’s Baby plays on the very real horrors of the repressed urban housewife and anyone else who’s been in a remotely similar situation. It creates real dread with no manipulative fuss and some very creative dream sequences. A lot of horror doesn’t age well, because it’s tied to either immediate concerns that fade or are scientifically discounted (atomic power) or to the special effects that are constantly getting better (gore-fest films). It’s doubtful that Rosemary’s Baby will cause unintentional snickers from an audience thirty years from now.

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