What makes Krzysztof Komeda’s opening lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby so uniquely unsettling? Is it that Mia Farrow isn’t given any words to sing? That by giving disaffected voice to a musical statement that has no context, she’s essentially acting as a vessel? Roman Polanski’s hit adaptation of Ira Levin’s occult novel may focus on Farrow’s harrowing performance as Rosemary with nearly as much centrality as the director did on Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, but the devil is in the details surrounding her, acting upon her, sneaking behind her, and forcing their will into her womb. Levin’s book ends on an exclamation point, but Polanski wisely closes with a question mark. The result is a horror movie in which the malevolence of Satan is eclipsed by the maliciousness of a woman’s right to choose being violated. Rosemary and husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes, miraculously smarmy both on and off camera, amid alleged clashes with Polanski) are on the right side of the generation gap in 1966 New York City. He’s an aspiring actor who’s domestic pixie wife is always quickly robotic to point out has “been in two plays—Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross—and he’s also done some commercials as well.” She’s a lapsed Catholic who still bears the psychological marks of her matriculation under ruler-happy nuns, and always seems to take an extra breath to sort out her words during religious discussion with her agnostic husband and their urbane bunch of friends.
They land a spacious apartment at the Bramford, a building with an extensive history of macabre occurrences and shady tenants. No sooner have they made friends with eccentric next-door neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon) than Rosemary gets pregnant. Seemingly every old crone in the building starts imposing his or her will on Rosemary’s decision-making progress, from steering her toward their chosen obstetrician to mixing up a vitamin drink of their own concoction in lieu of pill supplements. Why is everyone invading her personal space? And why is her husband letting them?
The middle child in Polanski’s nightmarish apartment trilogy (between Repulsion and The Tenant), Rosemary’s Baby is one of horror cinema’s all-time slow burns, drawing viewers gradually into entertaining the possibility that the movie’s series of strange coincidences and accumulating sense of dread are only subjective representations of Rosemary’s unraveling mental state. In other words, Polanski plants seeds of doubt as expertly as Rosemary believes the coven next door has arranged to snatch her baby from her to use in their rituals. And Polanski’s ability to prime the audience into questioning, if not outright rejecting, Rosemary’s suspicions gives it an unsettling quality far outpacing many of the films it inspired (specifically the brutal but morally shallow The Exorcist, which renders the presence of demonic entities in stark black-and-white terms).
Every moment we choose to not believe Rosemary, regardless of the fact that we’re being led by the nose by Polanski, we become complicit in the set of values that, externally, continue to pollute the discourse surrounding pregnancy. Which is one of the reasons the movie’s single most upsetting betrayal comes not from Guy, not from Rosemary’s neighbors, not even from the Catholic Church itself, but rather from Charles Grodin’s Dr. Hill, the WASP-friendly obstetrician who Rosemary was convinced to dump in favor of Dr. Saperstein. Having finally resolved to sneak her way out from under the prying eyes of the Bramford’s residents and give birth the way she originally planned, Rosemary seeks sanctuary in Hill’s office. He puts her up in the back room and lets her sleep while he calls Guy and Dr. Saperstein, who swoop in to collect Rosemary and take her home. In one crushing gesture, Polanski implies that no man ever fully trusts women to know what’s best for themselves, and that they will always be dismissive of women’s judgment. So long as there are men in power who are still fuzzy on the definition of rape, Rosemary’s Baby will endure as a cautionary tale.