The best kind of horror shows horror in the ordinary. It turns the everyday into a nightmare. “Rosemary’s Baby” does exactly that. It is a psychological masterpiece that exposes the fear in one of life’s most common, most arduous, and most natural processes: pregnancy.
Conceptually, pregnancy is terrifying. It’s why horror is full of it (“Alien”, “The Omen”, “Inside”, “The Fly II”, even “Twilight”). During pregnancy your body begins to change. Your emotions begin to swing. You become the host of an entirely other being inside of you – a creature inside of you; one that’s growing, feeding, kicking, waiting.
Of course when this is your own child you usually let all of that slide. But what if it wasn’t? What if it’s something else? What if it’s not even a human being that you’ve been carrying and nurturing inside of you all this time?
It is this fear that “Rosemary’s Baby” taps into; the fear every mother has for the well-being of her child. All children can act like monsters. All children can be little devils. But what if your child really is a monster? What if your child really is The Devil?
Rosemary Woodhouse embodies all of these fears. She’s magnificently played by Mia Farrow as a blue-eyed, innocent first-time mother, sporting Vidal Sassoon hair and an increasingly cadaverous face. Her husband Guy (played by John Cassavetes) is a struggling actor waiting for his big break to come along. He wants it bad. And he puts his own wife’s life in danger in order to get it.
The movie’s star performance, however, comes from a scene-stealing Ruth Gordon. She plays a nosy neighbour from hell whose pushy prying on the Woodhouses seems genial at first but instead stems from insidious intent.
Rosemary and Guy are newlyweds. We first encounter them as they’re moving into their new Manhattan apartment. They get to work settling in and settling down. After feathering their nest, Rosemary decides that she wants a baby. But creepy cults and satanic rituals are brewing (literally) right around the corner. And they have plans for Rosemary.
Once Rosemary becomes pregnant, the film darkens. It introduces an awful sense of paranoia, positing the notion that everyone – her neighbours, her doctor, even her own husband – are in on some malevolent satanic plot. They’re all conspiring against her and her baby. There isn’t anyone she can trust.
The feminist underpinnings of “Rosemary’s Baby” allow for some of its most cutting and incisive commentary. The film is essentially about the difficulties of pregnancy – the pain and unreasonable expectations that pregnant women often experience. In one scene, a gaunt and pallid Rosemary throws a party and invites a few friends. But her friends (all of whom are women) can immediately see there’s something wrong with Rosemary. So what do they do? They give her advice. They try to help her. They listen to what she has to say.
Contrast this behaviour with the men in the film. Rosemary, who clearly looks unwell, is told repeatedly by men that she’s fine. The paleness: “it’s natural”. The pain: “to be expected”. The depression: “part of the process”. In other words, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a film about a woman who’s constantly being told by men that she doesn’t know what’s best for her own body. Particularly by her own husband.
The symbolic role of the “husband” in “Rosemary’s Baby” is both darkly comic and horribly pointed. In her 1968 review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote that “Pregnant women sometimes look at their men as if to say, ‘What did you do to me?’ Rosemary… has reason to wonder.” In other words, plainly speaking, it’s the husband’s actions that ultimately lead to his wife’s pregnancy. He’s the one to “blame”. He’s the one that brought upon this hardship. Yet it’s his wife that must endure it – not him. “Rosemary’s Baby” knows this. The film is well aware of the inequity of childbirth and plays with that notion in devilish ways, such as showing how it is Guy (not Rosemary) that ultimately profits from a woman’s own labour, a woman’s own efforts and a woman’s own body.
But what makes “Rosemary’s Baby” truly unsettling is that the villains of the piece are all friendly smiles and neighbourly gestures. They are the people you let into your home without a moment’s thought. The people you trust most in the whole world. Again: Horror in the ordinary. Horror in the everyday.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is masterfully directed by Roman Polanski, working from a script adapted from Ira Levin’s bestseller. Every shot in the film is from Rosemary’s perspective. Every moment is spent with her. Every beat of her panic, vulnerability and terror is felt. There’s no escaping it. We are always right there with Rosemary – every cloven-hoofed step of the way.