There’s a never-ending debate about what constitutes a horror film. For the vast majority of audiences in 2018, it includes blood and gore, lots of jump scares and recognisable tropes you can take comfort in and mock all at once. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house - pure entertainment designed to give a momentary jolt to the system. I’ve never agreed with that sentiment though, and to agree with it dismisses almost every single genuine horror classic. It would certainly discount Roman Polanski’s 1968 film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. There’s no blood or gore, no jump scares, it occurs almost entirely in brightly lit spaces, and never complies with any comfortable tropes. And yet, few films that claim to fall under “horror” are as accomplished or as terrifying as ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and even as popular culture has consumed much that made it so shocking in 1968, that shock hasn’t dissipated in the slightest.
First, a warning: it is impossible to properly discuss ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ without ruining many of its surprises, and even though the film is fifty years old, some of those surprises might still be in place for you. If you haven’t seen ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ - stop reading and go watch it right now! Trust me, it’s worth it. You’ve been warned.
Based on Ira Levin’s bestselling novel, the film introduces us to couple Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), who are moving into a classical apartment building in New York. The apartment seems ideal for starting a new life and a family, albeit with some odd elderly neighbours, the Castavets. When Rosemary falls pregnant, Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon) and the other elderly women in the building begin to dote on her and keep an overbearing eye on her. However, Rosemary begins to believe something sinister may be happening, and that these women may have satanic desires upon Rosemary’s unborn child.
It’s pure pulp, with its threats of witchcraft and Satan, the kind of cheap horror setup that you would have found in numerous B-grade films. And yet, the cold precision and intricate character study in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ elevates it not just above its pulp contemporaries, but to being counted as one of the masterpieces of the horror genre. It’s an expert balancing act, as darkly comic as it is deeply disturbing, a mystery that, even knowing its legendary twist, is still a thrill to watch unfold. Its success is based on a series of precise decisions and astute observations on the material on the part of its creators, not just writer/director Polanski, but the entire cast and crew. Few horror films strike the kind of balance that ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ does between artistry, daring and pure entertainment, and a genuine sense of deep horror that you never notice creep up on you before it’s too late.
'ROSEMARY'S BABY' TRAILER
The basis of that horror is that ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ concerns itself so much with the female body and its potential invasion. Rosemary is a delicate waif with a small blonde bob, gentle-voiced and vulnerable. She’s a creature that cries out to be protected, and all the more so once she becomes pregnant. As both her pregnancy and paranoia begin to set in, you find yourself unsure how much to trust her, whether her concerns are genuine or just the hysterical ravings of a pregnant woman. And that is the film’s genius. We are the observers to Rosemary’s dilemma, and our impulse is to dismiss her suspicions of witchcraft and manipulation as ridiculous, the same way those around her do.
Rosemary is in danger though. To both Guy and the Castavets, she is an object to be owned and manipulated, a vessel through which to get what they want with little regard for her safety and wellbeing. Her body does not belong to her, but to them, especially in relation to the child inside her. As with ‘The Stepford Wives’ or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the horror in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is in the way the female body is framed as having no agency for itself, and no ownership over itself and what it produces.
The world of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is domestic and familiar, emulating natural lighting and comfortable textures. It could be anyone’s apartment in any city, with nothing about its design or layout at all conducive to the setting for a horror film. Even her potential oppressors are banal - in her Oscar-winning performance, Ruth Gordon is so utterly loveable as Minnie, a maternal force seemingly for good. Because of this, the invasion on Rosemary, her space and her body feels all the more personal. It can’t be excused away entirely as fantasy because the weapons aren’t axes or knives, but herbs and cups of tea, acts of apparent kindness and warm smiles.
And yet Rosemary is far from the damsel in distress. Even with the pushback against her fears, first from those who dismiss them and then from the ever-growing coven amassing to silence her, she continues to fight for her body and her baby, to find any way she can to escape her increasingly desperate situation. This is really the heart of Farrow’s remarkable performance, that she keeps a tight grip on Rosemary’s building panic and uses it to drive her to act and rebel. You go from questioning her reliability to fighting for her, even as the noose tightens around her neck the closer she gets to giving birth. For Rosemary, her primary concern is to protect her child, the one wholly good thing in her life.
... the horror in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is in the way the female body is framed as having no agency for itself, and no ownership over itself and what it produces.
Which makes what happens all the more catastrophic.
That Rosemary has been carrying the Antichrist this whole time is as well-known a twist now as Luke Skywalker’s parentage or the meaning of Rosebud, but in context, it’s still a wholly devastating and horrifying revelation. Even in what she has had growing inside her, Rosemary has had no agency, no choice. In an instant, she is delivered the blow of having been raped and then forced to carry her rapist’s child without knowing. Put the supernatural context to the side, and this is a moment of horror all the worse because it is terrifyingly possible. As a man, I find this moment too enormous to comprehend, but it’s something I have no risk of experiencing myself. I cannot imagine the deep, primal horror of this revelation for a female audience, and of the impossible choice placed in front of Rosemary - reject this abomination, this creature with “his father’s eyes” she has carried for nine months, or accept it as her child to love and protect. Her situation is impossible, but her final decision, one that she has been manipulated and groomed to make ever since she moved into this apartment, which she once again ultimately has no choice in, is simply and horrifyingly inevitable.
Great horror says something about who were are, taps into fears very deep within us and lets them fester and grow until they consumes us. There are few better examples of this than ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, a film on how women are used, mistreated and manipulated for the benefit the social constructs around them. Of course, there is an uncomfortable quality to the film now, with a film so clearly about the rape and manipulation of its female protagonist written and directed by a man who would himself not only be accused of rape but escape being made accountable for it. It’s an unavoidable aspect of the film’s legacy, but it doesn’t rob it of any of its power. In fact, it I’d say this work of art has surpassed him. We celebrate its 50th anniversary when the concerns at the heart of it are now on all of our minds, and the rights for women to have ownership over their own bodies is being fought for. It continues to unnerve because, through the lens of the supernatural, it makes crystal clear a terrible potential in our own lives. And regardless of any pedestrian definition, any claims to the contrary because it doesn’t move fast enough or have any gory moments or any cheap jumps built in, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a horror film through and through. In fact, even after half a century, it’s still one of the best.