Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), by Roman Polanski.
The Oscar-winner Rosemary’s Baby (1968), directed by Polish-French filmmaker Roman Polanski, undeniably belongs to the elite club of cult movies and earned a well-deserved place among the leading psychological horror films of all time.
Roman Polanski’s name mixed with the genre of horror films is an absolute guarantee that something memorable, unique and provocative will unfold on screen. With Rosemary’s Baby, based on the sinister novel by Ira Levin, Polanski grounded his trademark themes of anxiety and dread that he later pursued in the mystic psychological horror film, The Tenant (1976).
Escalation of paranoia
Rosemary’s Baby differs from the popular subgenre of slasher films and instead strengthens the group of intellectual horrors, reflecting with sarcastic and critical tones on the challenges of the era. In the United States, the 1960s were marked, not only by the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy or the civil rights movement to name just a few, but also by the fear of the spread of spiritual occultism within US society.
During the era, the Satanic church and ritualistic cult movements sparked hysteria among common people, later peaking in the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Such paranoia paved the way for classic horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist (1973) or The Omen (1976).
To make the story as eerie as possible, the narrative follows the pregnancy of Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), the ash-blond haired, frail and almost haggard woman, who just moved in a fancy Manhattan condo with her ambitious husband, Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), to start a family. Some neighbours in the apartment building are far from ordinary to say the least, trying to influence the pregnancy of Rosemary and sparking her paranoid thoughts of carrying the son of Satan.
“To 1966! The year one!” as Roman Castevet (Sidney Balckmer) and his wife, Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), the terrifying elderly neighbors of Rosemary Woodhouse yell during a late-night Satanic ceremony.
Although less dominant in the original novel, Polanski spiced the film with added anti-church tone and emphasized the disgust from and rejection of religion by using sarcastic symbols, occasionally humorous anti-Christ slogans and presenting paintings about temples and sacred places on fire in the Castevet apartment.
While Rosemary is a Catholic woman with religious values and principles, Roman and Minnie Castevet are vigorous critics of the Church. By using these disturbing references, the director not only reflected on the 1960s society’s shaken confidence in the Church but sketched a movie able to provoke a God-fearing audience.
Polanski also presented the sense of religious guilt by placing the moral issue of abortion at the heart of the movie. Should a religious Catholic woman, whose deepest wish is to give birth to a child, abandon her values of maternity and terminate her pregnancy if she carries the son of Satan?
Rosemary’s continuous defense of her religious principles and inferior position within her marriage shows a poisoned relationship where the husband completely suppresses the wife’s interest and desires. The whole life of Rosemary is dominated by Guy, who appears ready to sacrifice the pregnancy of his wife if it can help his career.
With Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski sensationally rode the societal satanic panic wave in the U.S. and gifted motion picture fans with an extraordinary horror film that sarcastically draws attention to oppressed and suppressed issues.
By Bence Janek
Bence is a Budapest-born political science graduate, who studied in the United States and Spain. He previously worked for a government relations firm in Washington D.C., and later joined Ernst & Young Budapest. Bence is a freelance writer with expertise in the field of Hungarian and international business sectors, media, films and communication.