Retro Review: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

RosemaryBabyCoverRosemary’s Baby is an interesting film. It purports to be horror, and in the most general sense I suppose it is; but it’s mostly a rambling, sometimes awkwardly funny study in late 1960s rich whitefolk nonsense.

Odds are you know the story. A young couple moves to a gorgeous apartment in New York. The husband Guy is an aspiring actor, yet to catch his big break. Wife Rosemary is a modish homemaker who wants a baby. They meet their new neighbors, the eccentric Minnie and Roman Castevet, who insinuate themselves into the couple’s life in a perhaps more-than-neighborly way. When Rosemary does eventually become pregnant, the Castevets become even more cloyingly helpful, recommending an obstetrician and feeding Rosemary homemade “vitamin” concoctons.

As her pregnancy progresses Rosemary begins to suspect the motives of her neighbors and their equally eccentric friends. Her suspicions are really ignited when her former landlord, Hutch, comes to visit one day and questions her about the neighbors’ odd behavior. Hutch leaves in a hurry, only to contact Rosemary to arrange a clandestine meeting shortly afterward. Unfortunately for Hutch he falls into a coma the morning he’s supposed to meet with Rosemary. Three months later Hutch emerges from the coma long enough to demand a certain book be sent to Rosemary; then he dies. The book prompts the requisite research phase of the film, wherein Rosemary learns about the supposed practices of old-timey covens of Satan-worshiping witches and how a lot of the weird stuff the Castevets have been doing seem to resemble them. And of course, they do, because, you know, they are. Witches, that is. And they drugged Rosemary and had the devil come and put a baby in her.RosemarysBaby1I’m no film historian, but Rosemary feels to me very much like the last gasp of an earlier era of filmmaking. Released a scant five years before the devil film to end all devil films, The Exorcist, Rosemary has a lot of aesthetic similarities with that seminal movie, but none of its atmosphere of dread. I can imagine how scandalized Middle America must have been at the demonic orgy with the naked geriatrics and the devil-sex and whatnot, though of course it’s all quite tame by contemporary horror standards. But the movie is almost entirely dialogue, interspersed with a few moments of surreal demonic imagery or anxious running through apartment corridors, and feels quite dated as a result. It reminds me, superficially, of my old nemesis The Shining, in that it has some of the fever-dream weirdness of Kubrick’s not-remotely-scary adaptation. (COME AT ME, BRO.)

None of this is to say that it’s bad; it’s just relentlessly slow. There’s nothing scary at all here, not even a jump scare (had those been invented yet?). Except, I guess, the conceptual horror of being raped by Satan and giving birth to the Antichrist–but, you know. Besides that. And Mia Farrow as Rosemary is frustratingly wispy and waifish and ineffectual. She’s frail and fragile and somehow robotic, which may well have been deliberate but results in a totally unsympathetic portrayal of a character who should be hugely sympathetic.

Actually though, Rosemary itself seems somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing. The bit at the end, where the witches are hanging out in their parlor drinking and smoking and Rosemary busts in with the knife and sees the black bassinet with the inverted cross hanging over it–that whole scene is just hammy comedy. There’s a Japanese guy taking pictures of everybody and he’s just so excited HAIL SATAN! The last ten minutes or so aren’t even trying to be horror: instead they’re making fun of the offended sensibilities of the film’s audience. On a certain level I appreciate this, but for me it would have been more gratifying to get some actual fear in there somewhere.

Still, it’s a tightly-produced, well-acted and interesting film. It’s not scary and it’s quite slow, but it’s convincing in its completeness. It creates a whole world with a shadowy satanic conspiracy hovering beneath the surface of polite society, and makes that bleak possibility seem vaguely plausible (if more than a little silly).

icecream3Incidentally, I learned something new as an unexpected result of viewing Rosemary’s Baby. I’ve often wondered about the weird quasi-British accent affected by a lot of mid-20th-century actors, and Mia Farrow’s spacey mod utterances finally drove me to look it up. I’m sure all you real cinema buffs knew this already, but it turns out that this weird linguistic artifact actually has a name: Mid-Atlantic English. This was a form of English spoken by rich New Englandy folk early in the century, and particularly prominent in popular media. The Atlantic has an interesting piece about it.

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7 thoughts on “Retro Review: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

  1. It is slow, but I appreciate the mounting paranoia more than anything else here. I got a similar feeling from the beginning of Society (a completely different movie in every other regard).

    I should also note that I’ve never seen a closer adaptation of a novel. Every beat is the same (kind of like The Shining 🙂 )

  2. I haven’t seen the Society. Is it supernatural? If so I’ll have to add it to the list.

    I appreciate the idea of paranoia in horror too. I think it was spoiled a bit for me by the fact that I already knew what was going on in Rosemary before I actually saw the film. I haven’t read the novel, but I’d like to.

  3. I just love reading your reviews. Smart, often funny.

    I agree with you about The Shining, btw. I should clarify that: I actually love the movie but don’t think it’s nearly as scary as the book.

    Both films, though, have some absolutely iconic imagery, and that makes them worth watching. (And dealing with the pacing of other decades is good for us.)

    • Very true, Renae. I actually usually love older films, slow pacing and all. The Haunting and I Walked With a Zombie are two of my favorites, and both are very slow by today’s standards.

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