In the interest of full disclosure, let me say this: I am not a fan of horror movies. Be they psychological thrillers, like "The Sixth Sense", gore fests, like "The Exorcist", or slasher flicks, like the Freddy and Jason films, I generally find the suspense artificial and the frights hollow. "Rosemary's Baby", ostensibly a classic horror film in most senses of the phrase, didn't scare me a lick.
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But it is pretty darn funny.
Not funny in the way that most dated movies are funny, where the wacky clothes and corny dialogue elicit unintended howls from an audience several decades removed from the fashions. "Rosemary's Baby" is dated in that way, but not so much that I hold anything against it. It is funny because, I'd hazard to guess, it was meant to be funny! Follow me closely, here. You've got Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), with her rat-a-tat nosiness and penchant for flaky floral prints and clown make-up. There's Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his goofy shenanigans, always cracking wise and making goofy faces to lighten the mood. And there's the sometimes self-consciously ridiculous dialogue (when ridding herself of some nasty herbs called Tannis root, which were sent over by her neighbours, Rosemary remarks to the camera, "Tannis anyone?"). I think Roman Polanski, in adapting Ira Levin's book, found the concept of a young woman chosen to bear Satan's baby inherently ridiculous, and thus quite amusing. And even if this isn't his intention, the movie can, now at least, be read this way. And laughed at.
[…the following paragraph goes into more details re: "Rosemary's Baby" as comedy. It features some wild ruminations by myself, which, while supposedly meant to further my point, may read like a laundry list of things I noticed while watching the film. You can skip over this section if you like…]
Further contributing to the humourous elements are a flurry of in-jokes and asides that create the overall mood of fun and frolic the filmmaker's were having. In the basement laundry room of their new apartment, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) encounters a woman named Theresa. "I thought you were Victoria Vetri, the actress," she says. "That's OK. Everybody thinks I'm Victoria. I don't see the resemblance, though," replies Theresa. This rather banal exchange is made humourous when one realizes that the real name of Angela Dorian, the actress playing Theresa, is… Victoria Vetri! Okay, not world beating stuff, but try this one on for size. Rosemary is seen reading Sammy Davis Jr.'s autobiography, "Yes I Can", at various points in the film (in the scene where she is caught with a book on witchcraft, Guy takes it away from her and stores it on the bookshelf right on top of "Yes I Can"). Sammy Davis Jr. was a member of the Rat Pack, which was led by Frank Sinatra, who, while the filming of "Rosemary's Baby" was taking place, filed for divorce from… Mia Farrow! These I can give credit to the filmmaker's for, but my favourite in-joke, and it’s a morbid one at that, involves the Dakota (renamed the Bamford here), the up-scale Manhattan townhouse into which Guy and Rosemary move as the film begins. The Dakota was where John Lennon lived in New York. The opening shot of the film soars around the Manhattan skyline, ending at the Dakota's front gate, where Lennon was eventually killed. Roman Polanski, who directed the movie, was dating the actress Sharon Tate at the time (she even has a small cameo in a party scene). Tate was killed by Charles Manson's acolytes, who wrote "Helter Skelter" on the walls after they did the deed. "Helter Skelter" being a reference to a song by... duh... The Beatles. Creepy. Like I said, only the first two were done intentionally, but overall this kind of subtextual jokiness only serves to enhance the obvious humourous elements of the film. (One more in-joke, if you'll indulge me: The neighbours across the hall are named Minnie and Roman Castevet. The latter name sounds like a jumbled up combination of Roman Polanski and John Cassavetes. Odd, huh?)
I suspect, though, that many of you will want the good old-fashioned horror from "Rosemary's Baby". I may have been a tad facetious when I said it didn't scare me a lick. For it did. There are genuinely scary moments, most confined to the film's last half hour. Before that, though, it is a finely constructed domestic drama, wherein a fragile and frail woman, married to a moody and self-centred actor, gets pregnant. Alone in the big city, tormented by neighbours whom she finds annoying and cloying, Rosemary must learn to deal with her new surroundings and her new physical state. That last half hour, and believe me the outcome is in doubt until she goes through the door in her closet, are riveting, sometimes over-the-top, but always entertaining in a I-wonder-what'll-happen-next kind of way. It's an absurd, surreal, and warped denouement, during which the humour falls away and the suspense over what is happening intensifies.
Director Polanski constantly keeps things interesting, even during the most banal of scenes. He gets a lot of mileage out of putting his camera in odd places, never filming the Woodhouse's apartment from the same angle twice (good that he had a lot of ideas, for 90% of the film takes place in that apartment; better keep it interesting). Also, he does an excellent job filling both the foreground and the background in his shot compositions. I'm thinking of two similar scenes, each involving someone on the phone in the background, while the spouse looks on worriedly in the foreground. Not only does it use the mise en scene and depth of focus quite well, but it also metaphorically shows the divisions in the marriage, even before the more dramatic moments begin.
The cast, if I may say, always appears to be in on the joke. Except for Mia Farrow, who, as Rosemary, must be the rational centre of the film. Farrow gets more mileage here out of her look than her acting, although that's not a criticism of her performance. She is suitably wired and frightened when she needs to be, while maintaining a certain domestic bliss the rest of the time. But I'm thinking more of her changing appearance. She goes from having a healthy but thin frame, to looking "chalky" and bony, to a recovery of her strength just in time to face the last act. And then there's the matter of her haircut, which comes out of the blue, and makes her a rather iconic image. I've never really enjoyed Farrow's work, having mostly encountered her in Woody Allen's movies, but as Rosemary, I bought every second that she was on screen.
Polanski seems to have a natural affinity for working with directors as actors (the two most memorable performances in "Chinatown", arguably, are John Huston as Noah Cross and Polanski himself as the Man With Knife). That rule is further proven here, for John Cassavetes shows a lot of effective colours as Ro's husband, Guy. He's sprightly and lively in most scenes, but also ably shows the man's selfishness and desperation. Cassavetes, who pioneered realism and improvisation in his work as a director, shows here that he has the chops to pull both off when in front of the camera rather than behind it.
Fine support is given by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the Castevets (she won the Oscar for a prodigious exhibition in scenery chewing), Ralph Bellamy as a suspicious obstetrician, Charles Grodin playing it low-key as a rival obstetrician, and Maurice Evans as a skeptical old friend of the Woodhouse's who does his best to avert danger.
I didn't go in with high expectations for "Rosemary's Baby". And I suspect if I found it a typical horror film, those expectations would have been met. But it turned out to be something wholly original and self-aware, and I found myself leaving the theatre marveling at what I'd just seen.
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