The night was mild and balmy and they walked; and as they approached the Bramford's blackened mass they saw on the sidewalk before it a group of twenty or so people gathered in a semicircle at the side of a parked car. Two police cars waited double-parked, their roof lights spinning red (35).
Published at probably the perfect time, Ira Levin's influential novel remains quite readable, and makes a devilish companion piece to the Halloween season.
They story concerns a young woman, Rosemary, and her husband, an up-and-coming actor, move into the Bramford, an apartment building with a disturbing history. Rosemary gradually begins to suspect that her doofy, eccentric neighbours are not what they seem, and that dark forces are working in her life. Are her incredible suspicions correct, or is she going slowly insane? Levin juxtaposes the everyday with the unbelievable, forcing us to question our own sense of reality. The novel has been meticulously plotted, from its cryptic clues to the birth of the baby, in June 1966 (6/66).
Those gradual and unsettling clues induce a sense of pervasive paranoia. Something has clearly gone amiss in what should be a rather ordinary world. We wrestle with the notion that people as banal and ludicrous as the Castevets could be agents of pure evil, or that Guy could so casually barter his wife's body and mental health for personal gain.
But of course they could.
Rosemary is as fully-realized a character as any in contemporary literature. Her manipulation by her husband, her neighbours, and male doctors will resonate with many readers, women in particular. The author would return to similar themes in The Stepford Wives and to conspiracy generally in The Boys From Brazil. His long-running play Deathtrap demonstrates his ability to keep us in suspense. But he handles all of these things best, arguably, in Rosemary's Baby.
His style is easy to read—deceptively so, for much roils beneath the surface of his matter-of-fact prose. Take a second look at the passage quoted at the start of the review. Two people stroll into the scene of an event to which emergency responders have been called. And yet the shadow of ancient superstition, the sense that we're seeing something else, should be evident enough.
I generally like how Levin handles his ending, but I recognize it will be a let-down for some readers. It is very literal. Only the book's dark comedic aspect and Levin's deft style permit Rosemary's Baby to get away with that.
The movie will keep the conclusion, but it will not show us the titular, tainted child.
The book sold like the devil, and a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable. The 1968 movie, like the novel, emerged from a particular place and time, but it retains its power, and its influence on pop culture cannot be denied. Roman Polanski adapts the source faithfully. It's not a horror movie in the conventional sense, but it's difficult to classify as anything else. If you're expecting jump scares, however, or monsters, or lurid effects, you will be either surprised or disappointed.
Polanksi pays fine attention to detail. As in the book, we're in the real world, viewed from a very disturbing angle. The cast give excellent, often low-key performances. Mia Farrow delivers a stunning portrayal of a woman whose mind is slowly unspooling.
The film features many strong aspects, but the creeping horror I felt as Rosemary finally expresses her suspicions and evidence to Dr. Hill remains with me even more than the film's notorious conception sequence. You realize she's uncovered the truth, but you know exactly how a rational man will react to her story, especially given her "delicate condition."
Few movies adapt the source material so faithfully as this one, so in that sense, it is not original. However, it set new trends in horror movies. Without this film, it seems unlikely that either The Exorcist or The Omen and their cinematic progeny would exist. In the real world, a thousand delusional encounters with Satan would be shaped by the mythology of Rosemary's Baby.
Movie and book defy easy classification. We're watching a strained domestic drama, a dark comedy, and a psychological thriller that only gradually introduces its supernatural elements. We're in very peculiar territory with this Baby.
Cast1 and Crew
Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse
John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet
Maurice Evans as Hutch
Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein
Patsy Kelly as Laura-Louise
Victoria Vetri (Angela Dorian) as Terry
Elisha Cook Jr. as Mr. Nicklas
Emmaline Henry as Elise Dunstan
Charles Grodin as Dr. Hill
Hanna Landy as Grace Cardiff
Phil Leeds as Dr. Shand
D'Urville Martin as Diego
Hope Summers as Mrs. Gilmore
Tony Curtis as Voice of Donald Baumgart
William Castle as Man at Pay Phone
Rosemary's Baby was birthed by a particular place and time. Time, in fact, had just run its notorious "Is God Dead?" cover. Many people were questioning religion's place in society, while evangelical and fundamentalist Christians began to double down on their more antimodern beliefs. The west's fringe flirtation with occultism in the face of scientific rationality was on an upswing, one influenced at least a little by the success of this book and movie.2 It is very difficult for contemporary readers (or viewers) to experience Rosemary's Baby in the way that many people would have in the second half of the 1960s.
1. Several uncredited extras appear in the conception sequence. Anton LaVey, who claims to have been an advisor to the film, often gets the credit for playing the devil, but one Clay Tanner had that role. People involved with the film consistently state that LaVey entirely fabricated his connection to the film—which would be, it must be noted, entirely in character.
2. Any footnote on occultist beliefs in the west in the twentieth century will misrepresent the complexity of the topic. Modern spiritualism is a product of the second half of the nineteenth century. The Ouija board gets introduced in 1890, though as much as a pass-time as anything else. World War One-era spiritualists seem to be the first to have used it seriously, at least widely. There's no question that the war and its immediate aftermath saw a high point in such beliefs, with prominent people expressing interest and hosting seances. Many mediums were discredited in the decades that follow, and such beliefs were relegated to the fringe by the post-World War Two era, preserved mainly as comic clichés and horror movie tropes. They burbled back up to the surface in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the evangelical-driven Satanic Panic of the 1980s often imaged the enemy in the form of circa 1970s occult faddists, albeit ascribing to them more horrific activities.