You’re not likely to jump out of your seat or hide behind the sofa when watching Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, there are very few individual moments at all that many would consider scary in the traditional sense of the word. However, there’s something about the film that is supremely chilling and unsettling from the outset that ensures it is an effective, if unconventional, horror film.
Young couple Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) move into a New York apartment building that has a reputation for terrible things happening. Babies being eaten, that kind of thing. They soon meet their neighbours, the eccentric Minnie and Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer) who Guy strikes up a rapport with despite their overbearing nature. Rosemary is thrilled when she becomes pregnant but soon falls ill, has some freakish nightmares and encounters a string of bizarre circumstances that lead her to believe that a group of witches is conspiring against her and her unborn child.
Those who watch Rosemary’s Baby expecting the usual horror movie scares are going to be sorely disappointing. Director Roman Polanski (this was his first American film) dispenses with the usual horror rulebook, which may lead those indoctrinated by the stale techniques that plague other horror films to wonder where the scares are and even question its place within the genre. However, this isn’t our horror. This is Rosemary’s horror. She’s the only one in the film affected by her experiences; everyone else is either oblivious or presumes she’s crazy. As such, it’s much more personal and we feel her terror rather than being directly frightened by scary children, axe murderers or other horror 101 staples.
Polanski uses an ordinary setting of an apartment building as the predominant setting for the film. This brings the horror into a real setting, making it all the more believable and tangible. Polanski also utilises long takes to add tension and help build the growing sense of paranoia and suspicion. These are the overwhelming feelings that develop as the film progresses and we are constantly being challenged to decide what is real and what is happening only in Rosemary’s mind.
And that’s one of the most fascinating things about Rosemary’s Baby – almost everything is up for interpretation. Search forums and message boards discussing Rosemary’s Baby and one of the major topics for discussion is whether the developments of the film are as they are portrayed on screen or whether they are little more than a figment of Rosemary’s imagination. There are those who believe Rosemary is delusional and paranoid, whilst there are others who insist that what happens on screen is exactly how it seems. Whichever way you choose to view the film, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience and one that will have you guessing and second guessing long after the credits have rolled. It is most definitely a film that could benefit from multiple viewings, allowing you to pick up on the subtleties in the plot and performances that really add to the overall experience but maybe passed you by on initial viewing.
The film’s slow burning plot really gives the actors a chance to shine and both Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon do so expertly. Farrow handles Rosemary’s descent into paranoia (or is it?) with subtlety helping to make it feel like a worthwhile payoff following the groundwork laid down before it. Ruth Gordon as the overbearing Minnie is every bit the neighbour from hell, delivering her performance with equals amount of domineering oppressiveness and devilish delicacy. Whilst on the surface her performance may seem a little overstated, there are myriad nuances that give it a deceptive amount of depth make her fully deserving of her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Rosemary’s Baby might not live up to some people’s expectations of a traditional horror film and, indeed, the term ‘horror’ may be the wrong word to use entirely. However, even those questioning where the scares are going to come from after half an hour, it won’t be long before they become absorbed and beguiled by the story’s intrigue and mystery.