The world breaks everyone, and afterward,
many are strong in the broken places.
A Farewell to Arms
It all seems so ordinary and banal. Young couple in New York serendipitously gets the chance to rent an apartment in an elegant old building with an enviable upper west side Manhattan address. Because the apartment’s elderly resident died suddenly and the building is rent-controlled, the struggling, somewhat sporadically employed actor and his pretty, enthusiastic wife can afford to move in, redecorate it from top to bottom, and furnish the looming place, which has 18-20′ ceilings, stained-glass windows in its doors, bay windows with window seats, and elaborately carved, working fireplaces.
While Hubby goes to auditions seeking work, Wifey decorates, shops, and cooks, both of them dreaming of — and actively planning for — the little family they want to have. With such a great home in such an exclusive neighborhood, what difference does it make if you can sometimes hear the braying, nasal voice of the Old Lady next door complaining to her husband late at night? All apartments have thin walls and a few annoying neighbors, right? Of course, right.
It is this very banality and seemingly ordinary setting — “like it could be a snippet out of your own life” — that makes Rosemary’s Baby (1968) such a great film. It is one of the best in the horror genre, but not for the reason you might expect. The film doesn’t have any scary special effects: except for the brief “nightmare” scene, there aren’t even any ghoulish costumes. No blood, gore, monsters, or masked villains wielding weapons while dopey teenagers run mindlessly about. Instead, Rosemary’s Baby, based on Ira Levin’s bestselling novel of the same name, concentrates its horror on the fact that virtually everything in the film could actually happen. Young, happy, pretty, and soon-pregnant Rosemary begins to suspect that something is wrong with her husband, wrong with her marriage, wrong with her unborn baby. Even worse, she soon comes to believe that there is a conspiracy to kidnap her baby upon its birth. However, it is because Rosemary is completely correct in her seemingly bizarre fears that Rosemary’s Baby — a triumph of psychological terror — is such a horror classic.
This film is one of the few dramatizations that remains almost perfectly faithful to the novel on which it was based. All the foreshadowing about the neighbors conspiring in a group and doing something more than “not quite right”? In the book. Hubby Guy’s sudden emotional distance and Rosemary’s increasing isolation? In the book. Guy’s escalating psychological manipulation, emotional abuse, and ultimately physical abuse of his pregnant wife Rosemary? That’s in the book, too.
But the true horror of both the book and the film is more than Rosemary’s “paranoia and loss of control.” After all, her paranoia is based on subliminal indications about her reality: she is losing control of her own life — and of her baby’s — and other people in the apartment building are conspiring against her. Limiting us to Rosemary’s perspective with its film angles, its close-ups, and its spooky lighting, Rosemary’s Baby “relies on creating an atmosphere and story that speaks to [society’s] deeper, subconscious fears:” isolation, betrayal, and madness.
Mia Farrow, a soap-opera actress on Peyton Place who acquired international notoriety when she married famous singer/actor Frank Sinatra, 30 years her senior, does an outstanding job as Rosemary, and not just because she’s so young and waif-thin (okay, bony-thin).
Farrow’s Rosemary is giddy and giggly when she and husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) first look at the magnificent apartment available in the Bramford (named, by author Ira Levin, in honor of Dracula author Bram Stoker).
She’s slightly amused by her friend Hutch’s (Maurice Evans) tales of macabre deaths, suicides, murders, and cannibalism at the Bramford, but continues eating dinner as if he were discussing the weather.
She’s friendly and pleasant to their nosy neighbor Minnie (Ruth Gordon, in her Oscar-winning role), who looks through the mail before handing it to Rosemary, and who examines the price-tags on the canned goods while the two of them are sitting at the kitchen table.
Rosemary is subdued and slightly bored by the elderly neighbors, Minnie and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), when they invite Rosemary and Guy to dinner that night, and is somewhat surprised by Guy’s sudden burgeoning friendship with Roman.
She’s excited when Guy miraculously gets more important acting jobs, attributing it all to his wonderful skill and talent. She works hard decorating the apartment, cooking, doing the laundry, making cushions for the window seats, trying to make friends with the neighbors, and trying even harder to “start their family.”
When Rosemary finally does get pregnant, the real terror of the film begins. Instead of gaining weight, Rosemary loses it. Instead of bouts of morning sickness, she has frightening symptoms and cravings that the congenial obstetrician Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) blithely dismisses, telling her — for months — that they’ll “be gone in a day or two.”
The scenes with pregnant-Rosemary are some of the most frightening of the film, as are the scenes where husband Guy begins to be more and more dismissive of Rosemary’s feelings, her concerns, even her basic human rights. When she wakes after a nightmare that she was raped, Guy’s response if terrifyingly abusive and distant.
(Guy is undeniably the worst villain in the film, but I won’t get started on any rant about him in this post…)
Despite the fact that Rosemary’s health seems to improve somewhat mid-pregnancy, her life gets worse. Guy becomes more and more controlling, resorting to manipulation, psychological battery, and emotional abuse to keep her submissive, obedient, and “nice.” Whenever Rosemary’s friends try to intervene, things only get worse for the already isolated Rosemary.
When Rosemary finally realizes what is happening to her, she desperately seeks help, only to be betrayed in the most frightening way. Though everything Rosemary suspects is happening to her and around her is, in fact, exactly what is happening, she is threatened into compliance by those closest to her. The very people who are supposed to care for her and her unborn baby terrorize her into submission and obedience.
Still, surprisingly, Rosemary isn’t broken. Isolated and imprisoned, Rosemary begins to rebel.
When she escapes the apartment and goes into Minnie and Roman’s apartment, where the entire group of conspirators has gathered, Rosemary is still not broken. Not completely.
By the last scene, though, which reveals Rosemary’s ultimate reaction to her baby, she is, at last, broken by the evil world that has surrounded her. That is the ultimate horror of Rosemary’s Baby: not necessarily that Rosemary herself is so broken that she might as well have let them kill her. Not that she is no longer naïve, innocent, and trusting. Not that she will never again resist evil. The true psychological horror is not that Rosemary is broken, but how she is broken.
Paranoia, loss of control, isolation, and subjugation. Betrayal and sexual abuse. Emotional and psychological manipulation. Fear of madness. Being irrevocably broken by the world. Rosemary’s Baby shows us everything we most fear in life. Through the “lens of realism,” director Roman Polanski, in his first major Hollywood production, created a “brooding, macabre film, filled with the sense of unthinkable danger,” a danger that becomes reality for its protagonist Rosemary, who is forever “broken” by the world in this horror classic.