Here is a real life example of how good ROSEMARY’S BABY is. I was at the barbershop and the topic of discussion came to ‘scary movies’ :
The barber cuts hair and talks. In mid-sentence…
BARBER: “…nah man…dat Halloween movie ain’t dat scary. Ayo foo’ — anyone hurr see dat movie Rosemary’s Baby?”
Patrons shake their head. I turn mine, suddenly intrigued…
BARBER: “ — dat shit was dope dood!! She gives birth to the devilbaby. It’s not scary like AHHH!!! …but creepy’n’shit…ya know?”
That is the film in urban, early 21st century speak.
Whether you’re a scholar or a barber, this film affects any viewer. Dude has a point. This film isn’t sneaking up from behind and scaring you, but about making you feel uncomfortable. It’s like being in a pitch-black room where you can’t hear or see anything, but you can definitely feel something there.
That is why psychological horror damages an audience more than slasher flicks. It’s the implication that a monster is nearby rather than coming face-to-face with it. It’s the implication of the unknown rather than a confirmation of the certainty. It’s the implication.
I keep stressing in past reviews how Roman Polanski is a master of this foreplay. In every frame, there’s a sense of eeriness he develops into shivers, and then hysteria. But slowly. For a director to have so much control over the image and the relaying of information, as well as how it manipulates the viewer, is a beautiful tight-wire act to watch.
ROSEMARY’S BABY was Polanski’s 5th feature film at the time and according to him, the first film he felt he got “technically right.” It’s true. This is a must-see for filmmakers learning the craft.
Rosemary Woodhouse (MIA FARROW) has got it all. She’s young, beautiful, and has a [semi-]successful actor husband, Guy Woodhouse, who’s starred in ‘Luther’ and ‘Nobody Loves an Albatross’ (played wonderfully by independent auteur, JOHN CASSAVETES). Together, they apartment hunt in the city of all of cities: New York.
In the opening scene, they tour a flat at the Bramford, which according to Rosemary’s friend Hutch (MAURICE EVANS), has its own dark history of the occult. Unfazed by this, they move in and then the spools of narrative begin to unfold. But again…slowly. Remember, this is Polanski, a master of pacing.
Without spoiling much, Rosemary and [especially] Guy get cozy with the seemingly benign neighbors. Roman and Minnie Castevet (SIDNEY BLACKMER & RUTH GORDON). At first everyone’s all cordial but shortly after, the Castevets start to impose themselves on the young couple’s lives, especially Rosemary. They become especially interested in her when they find out that she and Guy are trying to have a baby.
GUY: “Well, that’s show-biz.”
ROMAN CASTEVET: “That’s exactly what it is. All the costumes, rituals — all religions.”
Later in one of the creepiest sequences I’ve ever seen, Rosemary has a dream where she’s raped by a demon and the rest of the film, as you can guess, is whether or not Rosemary’s giving birth to Lucifer’s son or if she should permanently be wearing a straight jacket.
Roman Castevet: “I think we’re offending Rosemary…”
Rosemary Woodhouse: “I wasn’t offended, really I wasn’t.”
Roman Castevet: “You’re not religious, my dear, are you?”
Rosemary Woodhouse: “I was brought up a Catholic…now, I don’t know.”
What I love most about this film is how it’s able to combine elements of horror, farce, and the absurd, all into one. That’s a rarity. Particularly, in the last 30 minutes. Polanski directs with such bravura regarding the setup and atmosphere, the audience is in total suspension of disbelief in the final act.
I don’t know how he did it, especially in 1968, because the filmmaking is so fluid; it’s language, modern. There’s handheld shots, extreme wide angles, and very ominous imagery that contemporary thrillers owe a debt to. One of the many reasons we need to watch old films is to never forget the lineage. In the current era of remakes, the language of cinema gets muddled because bad filmmakers do not understand the basic fundamentals of blocking or the difference between close-ups and wide shots.
Apparently, Polanski was frightened he was going to get fired because he was 10 days behind schedule and perhaps his fears allowed him to incorporate this paranoia into the film because the experience feels like one big panic attack.
The look of ROSEMARY’S BABY is undeniably Polanski. His use of lenses and composition style is unlike any other filmmaker. A big reference point in this film is his preference for wide-angle lenses. He’s able to create tension and unease only using an 18mm & 25mm lens as both a wide shot and close-up. That’s unheard of even by today’s standards!
With focal lengths like that, the great Chivo comes to mind, but Polanski has been experimenting with super wide angle lenses since the 1960s.
For example, a wide angle lens on an actor’s face creates distortion which can make features unpleasant. However Polanski intentionally uses wide lenses to affect the viewer psychologically, so they feel uneasy, as if they are in the actual room with the characters watching the action unfold.
In this close-up (from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), Jonathan Demme uses telephoto lenses to flatten the image. Notice how the facial features are more pleasant, however we feel more distance from the actors since we’re zoomed in from afar, while a wide angle lens is physically closer to an actor’s face during a close-up.
Both are technically considered ‘close-ups’ but the end result has a different aesthetic effect to the viewer. Also, this film was made before the invention of the steadicam but the camera movement is very fluid and scenes are robustly constructed. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for filmmakers to shoot on film and not have the easy technical gadgets we have today. You must have had to plan and be on-point at all times because you couldn’t really “fix it in post.”
Lastly, Mia Farrow is great. I love it when characters physically transform in a film because it add depth to their mental transformation. Rosemary goes from healthy to gauntly creepy and you still root for her to the very end.
The key to Rosemary’s arc is that she begins as this waif like, submissive woman, but once she gets pregnant, her natural motherly instincts take over and she becomes our defensive hero. It’s very rare when a character in a film goes through both a mental and physical transformation.
Not-so-fun-fact: she was married to Frank Sinatra at the time and one day, Sinatra’s lawyer came up to her on-set and handed her divorce papers, yet she continued to film that day.
Going back to that barbershop…this is why I love ROSEMARY’S BABY. It’s what I think cinema is: an intersection of both art and entertainment (which seems to be mutually exclusive now). Cinema should not be married to either intellectualism or commerce. Like all art, it has the capacity to make you think, feel, and inspire without having to explain itself with $20 words or cater to the lowest denominator.
It doesn’t matter whether you have two PhDs or two haircut appointments, if a movie can terrify you and sustain your attention the entire way, you’ve done your job as a filmmaker to tell your story and command the attention of the viewer through image and sound. Tannis root, anyone?
This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.