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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob

Rosemary’s Baby

December 3, 2014
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Rosemarys-BabyI like to joke that horror movies don’t scare me any more; what scares me is the news. It’s true, though, that there are very few films that have succeeded in frightening me since I became an adult. One example that did and that I strongly recommend is from 1968: Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski. Sometimes I’ve asked myself why this film, adapted by Polanski from an Ira Levin bestseller, is so good? It doesn’t seem like an obvious choice. There is no blood, no special effects, really.
The story concerns a young couple (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) who move into a Manhattan apartment. The husband, a struggling actor, begins to get some breaks in his career after meeting an eccentric older couple next door. The wife gets pregnant and gradually becomes terrified that she and her baby are being targeted by these people, who are possibly a part of some kind of Satanic cult.
The acting by the two leads couldn’t be better. Farrow’s fragile, hyper-nervous point of view really gets under your skin. You believe something awful is happening, but this is impossible to prove, and it’s terrifying that no one outside her little world will believe her. There’s also an inherent vulnerability in the situation of a pregnant woman that heightens the fear level. Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer play the next door neighbors, chatty and pushy in ways that seem both ordinary and sinister. Gordon, especially, with her air of a quirky, friendly confidante, is wonderful and actually hilarious in an alarming sort of way. Campiness, especially at the end, threatens to overwhelm the proceedings, but never quite does. Cassavetes’ ability to combine charm with menace is used to good effect here. The husband’s increasingly preoccupied, overbearing and insensitive attitude to his wife amps up her paranoia; while at the same time the behavior could be interpreted as just a symptom of his male arrogance and entitlement. Polanski skillfully confines us to Rosemary’s point of view, and unlike in many horror movies, this main character is very intelligent, and the tension and identification are very strong and scary.
Polanski uses a lot of lengthy shots without cuts. This creates a fluid structure that draws the viewer carefully in, scene by scene. There is one sequence (supposedly a dream, but then again, one isn’t sure) that is as close as the film gets to explicit horror, but really the film’s total effect is based on suggestion. And that’s how a real horror movie should be made. I wonder if it were made today, would our sensation-addicted audiences bring it the kind of massive success it had back in 1968?
Rosemary’s Baby is available on DVD.

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