One could say to some degree of authenticity that William Friedkin’s original “The Exorcist” (1973) is the “scariest” horror film of all time. It could also be said that Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is the most “well made” horror film of all time. If both of these are true, which I personally believe them to be, than Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) is the most disturbing horror film of all time.
What a lot of people don’t know, or think of when they think of the great Polish director Polanski, is how significant of a contribution 3 of his films were that he made across the sixties and seventies. In fact, his 1-2-3 punch of “Repulsion” (1966), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “The Tenant” (1976), otherwise known as Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. Are maybe the three single greatest examples of psychological horror that were released following on the foot heels of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) — still considered by many to be the first psychological horror film of all time. But of the three, “Rosemary’s Baby” was Polanski’s most successful film (it was made on a modest (even for then) budget of 3.2 million and brought home 10 times that at the box office) as well as his being his most highly regarded. But what really became clear and true to me upon this viewing, the first time I had ever seen it on the big screen, was how timeless the film actually seems. Even now 47 years later it doesn’t even in the remotest bit seem outdated at all. And still packed just as much of a wallop now as one could only imagine it did then.
Since most people I know have either a) never seen this film or b) haven’t seen it in many years or in some cases decades Iike me (I think my first and last viewing of it before this night was as a teenager in the mid nineties) I will provide a short synopsis. The story revolves around Rosemary Woodhouse (the excellent and superb Mia Farrow) and her husband (the great director and actor John Cassevetes) who move in to their dream home apartment in an upper crust section of New York City. The two are trying to get pregnant with their first child, and seemingly want to be left alone. That is until they meet their neighbors (played by the effectively creepy Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon — the latter of whom’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination and win for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars the following year). In fact, they start to meet a circle of friends, and as their life grows increasingly complicated, particularly that of Rosemary’s, when they start to feel surrounded and everything seems to be mysteriously linked, out the door goes their idea of marital security and as the story progresses it is revealed that everything isn’t what it seems and those people around them just might have other ideas for how they want Rosemary’s pregnancy to go once she does find out for certain that she is pregnant with her first child.
Polanski here tackles a number of different themes, some of which would become his signature trademark ones, but those in which up to this point in film history, had never been explored on-screen. Betrayal, corruption, marital trust, the illusion of friends and family, the boundaries of sanity, the mysteries of women’s psyches, as well as urban hysteria, all are expertly interwoven into Polanski’s Oscar nominated adapted screenplay. Many of the film’s iconic scenes and characters from the film are etched into viewers minds forever. Farrow hunched over a kitchen sink gnawing raw animal flesh, the dreamscape rape/consummation which is far more unsettling for what is suggested than actually shown. Ruth Gordon’s evolving over the film from friendly elderly neighbor to something much more sinister, and the film’s grand finale, with Rosemary entering “the gathering” of people in her apartment building with a knife. But even despite these completely and totally unnerving scenes, it is the overall Satanic aspect of the film that really makes your skin crawl and taps into some of our own’s most visceral fears.
Polanski’s magnificent weaving together of these elements as well as his masterful manipulation of these existential fears are what gives the film’s its true raw power. As previously hinted at, time has done nothing to diminish the film’s taut and meticulously focused building sense of dread and unspeakable horror. And for those of you who like me that are previously familiar with the film it can only keep them in awe of Polanski’s fine attention to detail, his rhythm and pacing, the skill in which he films his actors and the performances he gets out of them, and the fine script he adapts for the screen. Which all make it a landmark achievement and contribution to the horror genre, and truly one of the finest examples, certainly one of the first and most daring, original psychological horror films ever put on-screen. One that will go down in history as one of my top 3 favorite horror films of all time.