*Spoilers contained below*
Rosemary’s Baby was released in June 1968 to near universal acclaim. It made tenfold what it had cost to develop, and was lavished with numerous nominations and awards. It currently holds a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (average score 8.8/10) and currently sits at 8/10 on IMDB (average of 118,000 users). It is regarded as a classic horror movie, and one of Polanski’s best.
And it isn’t very good.
I feel I must throw out a disclaimer or two. I understand that the film is from a different era, and despicts a time I have not lived in and will never experience first hand. With that in mind, some of my misgivings could be explained away – but there’s simply too much here to forgive.
The plot itself is untaxing – Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into an apartment together. He is an aspiring, but relatively unsuccessful actor who scrapes a living working adverts for Yamaha. Rosemary is his bright (though grossly naïve) housewife, whose only real dream is for them to start a family. Shortly after a freak illness to a rival lands him a big part, Guy goes from being disinterested in children to wanting them virtually overnight. Creepy things then occur involving witchcraft, satan-worshipping and, finally, the birth of Adrian the Antichrist.
The first twenty to thirty minutes or so are painfully dull. Some scenes linger for too long, the dialogue is hammy, and the editing is beyond woeful. It picks up a little in the middle (particularly when it looks like Rosemary may actually escape) but is then hampered by a clumsy ending. Obviously, some of this can be attributed to the source material. Some.
A big problem with the film is the believability of the characters. Rosemary is particularly ridiculous in places, trusting the Castevets, her husband and Dr. Sapirstein for far too long given the events that transpire. Due to this, it is difficult to empathise with her and, by extension, the film. Farrow does what she can with the role, and it is a testament to her that she almost pulls it off.
Of the supporting cast, Ruth Gordon’s portrayal of Minnie has been particularly lauded by critics, and she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Gordon certainly plays the stereotypical nosey/busybody elderly neighbour well, though I think a little more subtlety would have helped in places. For example, minor character Terry (who very briefly befriends Rosemary) is meant to have been in their care for some time, yet when they ‘discover’ her dead body on the street, their concern couldn’t be more fake. Whilst this could have been deliberate, so as to give a nod and a wink to the audience, I’m not convinced. It seemed like a poor take/direction than a masterfully unsubtle hint to not trust them.
With the audience not buying that the Castevets are anything but nefarious, it leaves the middle portion of the film lacking an extra bit of suspense. If this scene (and one or two others) had been handled with greater care, there was the possibility to play up the whole ‘she could just be crazy’ angle which, in turn, would have lead to a (possibly) more surprising finale. As it was, there was little doubt as to where the characters’ loyalties lay, and the ending just sort of… happened.
The ending is not good. After doing quite well to build up some suspense, Rosemary confronts the whole cabal in the adjoining room, only to have something of a breakdown and, eventually, sort of accept that she is the baby’s mother and goes to look after it. Yes, after spending three-quarters of the film trying to escape from a coven of witches, she decides that she’ll raise her half-demon Anti-christ after all.
I’m sure Rosemary’s Baby will make a fine study piece for film and media students (look out for the excellent example of Chekov’s Gun with the scrabble board), but as a horror movie this has not aged well. Antiquated and amateurish, Farrow and Gordon’s performances alone are not strong enough for me to recommend it.