Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Rosemary's Baby

"Rosemary's Baby" **** (out of ****)

In case any of my readers have wondered why, in honor of Halloween I normally review classic titles instead of recent horror movies there is a reason. I find today's horror films usually lack an artistic aesthetic. Today's horror films are usually slasher films. All we tend to see is a serial killer rip someone's guts out or cut their neck off with a chainsaw. It is pretty disgusting to say the least. But does that make it scary? I suppose to a lot of viewers the answer to that question is yes. For me, I find the films to be a blood bath, which, honestly, doesn't scare me. I like films which play on my imagination, films with a true sense of vision. I appreciate a good horror film and don't think just because a film wants to scare you therefore you have to lower your cinematic standards. A horror film can be a masterpiece of cinema. It can still tell an effective, engaging story and still make us look over our shoulder. Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) is one of those films.

I must admit my all time favorite horror film is "The Exorcist" (1973), which I have included in my "Masterpiece Film Series" already but Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" comes in a very close second. Strangely, or fittingly if you prefer, both films deal with the occult. They both have religious undertones to them. "The Exorcist" is the more graphic of the two for sure, but, both are engaging stories. Both films are smart and don't down play to the audience. "Rosemary's Baby" I doubt was packaged as a "teen horror" film. It should have a mass appeal because it treats its subject seriously.

"Rosemary's Baby" was Roman Polanski's first American film. He had directed films in England however, so was comfortable working in the English language. Those films were "Repulsion" (1965) and "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967), which I have reviewed. It seems appropriate that Polanski should direct this film. Of course "Vampire Killers" and this film share the occult theme, though "Vampire" is a comedy. But all three films are about tortured souls.

This film was based on Ira Levin's novel and was the first time Polanski would direct an adaptation, which he wrote himself. According to Levin it was an extremely faithful one at that. Some have suggested since it was Polanski's first he wasn't aware he could take liberties with the story.

I believe most people probably know the general idea behind the film. We follow a newly married couple, the Woodhouse's; Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes). They are about to move into a brownstone apartment, after the former resident, an elderly woman passed away. Though they are told it didn't happen in the apartment. She had been in a hospital and in a coma for months. Rosemary instantly falls in love with it but Guy, a struggling actor, wonders if they can afford it. In the end they take it.

Everything seems to be going fine for them. Young love, new apartment, prospects of having a baby, Guy lands a TV commercial and is up for a role on Broadway. They even seem to have nice neighbors, the Castevet's; Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer). They have taken in a young woman, who was living on the streets and befriends Rosemary. But one day the girl's body is found dead. She had jumped out the window. This incident will begin Rosemary's nightmare. It will lead to an introduction to the Castevet's.

Rosemary senses the old couple are lonely and still grieving the lost of the young woman. So she agrees to a dinner date with them. Guy is at first against it, especially after he finds out he did not get the Broadway role he was hoping for. Reluctantly he agrees. At dinner the topic turns to religion. Roman and Minnie are non-believers and we find out so is Guy. But Rosemary was brought up Catholic. She says she is religiously confused at the moment but is not ready to denounce God or all organized religions. Guy however seems very take with the older couple.

After their meeting and many subsequent ones afterwards, good things start happening for Rosemary and Guy. The actor who was chosen over Guy has suddenly gone blind, Guy is now offered the role. And Rosemary is pregnant, but not after having a disturbing dream where she was raped by something that wasn't human.

What I think makes "Rosemary's Baby such an effective film is we, the viewer, have put this puzzle together before Rosemary. We know what is going on and are two steps ahead of her. We sit and watch with great anticipation hoping Rosemary will catch up to us. This builds a lot of suspense and tension. Even if you never saw this film before or knew the plot, you would still have a sense something dangerous is going to happen. Poor Rosemary is out of her element. She doesn't quite know what is going on.

You might suspect since Polanski takes the mystery out of the story it would become boring. But it doesn't. We are still gripped by the plot. The performances are effective by playing everything straight. Farrow and Cassavetes play their roles just as they would any other drama. This helps make the characters believable. We get some sort of sense of who they really are.

The two most effective and talked about scenes are probably the "rape" scene and the final scene. The rape scene is presented as a drugged induced hallucination. Which was typical during the 1960s. The final image still gives me chills to this day. If you have not seen the film and don't want to know anything in advance please stop reading now. SPOILER ALERT:

By the time the film ends Rosemary has given birth to the anti-Christ. At first she is told the baby died but learns otherwise. When she does discover the baby is alive, and surrounded by the other Devil worshippers the horror in the scene comes from never showing us the baby. Rosemary shrieks in horror at the sight of the baby and wonders what is wrong with its eyes. But Polanski correctly never shows us the baby. Better to play with our imagination and have us assume the worst. Whatever image we would conceived in our mind would be far worst than anything Polanski could show us. Nothing is more frightening than our own mind at work. SPOILER END

Those not familiar with Roman Polanski might find "Rosemary's Baby" a good place to start viewing his films. This, along with "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Pianist" (2002), I would say are his greatest works. Polanski even returned to the occult theme for his 2000 film "The Ninth Gate" starring Johnny Depp. I didn't find it to be as creepy or effective as this film however.

"Rosemary's Baby" was nominated for two Oscars. It won one for "Best Supporting Actress" (Ruth Gordon) and Polanski's screenplay was nominated but lost to James Goldman for the "Lion in Winter" (1968). Polanski got much more recognition for his screenplay than his directing. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and a WGA (Writer's Guild Award) but received no directing nomination.

Of course I couldn't talk about Roman Polanski and not mention what has been in the news recently about him. I was going to address it sooner by writing an opinion piece about it but I've been preoccupied reviewing horror films and movies which I've seen at the Chicago International Film Fest. This made for an added incentive to discuss "Rosemary's Baby". It would serve two purposes. I get to reviewing another Polanski film and discuss the current circumstance he finds himself in.

I've had mixed feelings about the whole ordeal. The woman in question has "forgiven" him and asked for the charges to be dropped repeatedly. Both have moved on with their lives. The judge in the case passed away. It happened many years ago but I understand that is no excuse. The act was still committed. A young girl was rapped and that is truly a terrible crime. Those who want to defend Polanski have said he has had a hard life. His parents were killed during the Holocaust, his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered and he has been living the life of a fugitive. Others have felt because he is an artist he is getting special treatment. Both sides I think have their points.

My ultimate feeling is Polanski is a great filmmaker. A true artist. He has carried the stigma of this incident all these years. Many people refuse to watch his films. Many were upset he won the Oscar for "The Pianist". Something similar happened to Woody Allen. I don't think this is fair. Their art is one thing and their private life another. Do the two affect one another? Probably. But the public is not in a mood to "forgive" either man. As for Polanski being in jail, it feels like a vendetta against him. The LAPD want to make an example of him. I believe politics are at play. Perhaps they feel their image is at stake. Either way the issue has turned into a mess. Hopefully it will all be resolved soon as Polanski can go back to making films for us to enjoy.