Classics Corner: “Rosemary’s Baby”

30 01 2011

I find that when it comes to watching horror classics, I’m generally not as scared as I’m told I should be.  Perhaps it’s just expectations being set sky-high, or maybe I’m just really not freaked out by horror movies at all.  Roman Polanski’s most famous entry into the genre, 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is no exception.  Thanks to some eerie Satanic twists and some very well-directed realism, it did manage to creep me out on levels I didn’t think it would.

I think the hardest thing about looking retrospectively at horror movies is changing the mindset of what to expect.  Several decades ago, filmmakers styled horror in a much more ambient and cerebral manner.  These made for some very traumatizing experiences for moviegoers in those times because that was all they could expect.  Thanks to advances in technology, horror has now been taken to different levels, usually preying more on suspense and cheap thrills to get an audience reaction.

I’m not quite sure when the turning point came (“Final Destination,” perhaps?), but sometime between 1968 and 2011, genre movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” became considered more artistic films than horror flicks.  That’s why “Black Swan,” a movie with a few similarities, is such a hard sell as a horror movie to many people nowadays.   Horror has been redefined, and anything that doesn’t fit into the narrow box of predictability and jump-out surprises is dismissed.

But this sort of “old horror,” as I’ll call it, is so much more affecting.  It’s truly a shame that the Hollywood system has turned away from making them in favor of five entries into the “Final Destination” series while visionary cinema like “Black Swan” has to be produced on scraps outside the established order.  Roman Polanski’s movie kicks the butt of any sort of horror movie you’ll see at the multiplex nowadays.

What I found to be particularly remarkable about the movie was the sense of tension that he builds.  Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is just an ordinary woman with a workaholic husband and two neighbors (including Ruth Gordon in an Academy Award-winning role) who redefine overbearing.  She gets pregnant just like she wants, but there’s an sense of foreboding doom accompanying her pregnancy.  We are never quite sure of what it is, and we don’t have to know for it to be chilling.  It could be the apartment, where most of the movie takes place, and the sense of claustrophobia it provides.  It could just be nerves.  But whatever is going on, it drives Rosemary over the edge.

It’s the psychological collapse of Rosemary that makes the movie a fascinating and interesting watch.  It all leads up to a climax that’s good for a jaw-drop but ultimately kind of underwhelms in terms of aesthetics.  The plot, based on a novel by Ira Levin, is good enough to be regurgitated by filmmakers consistently for over four decades.  Yet the movie isn’t a classic because of the story; it’s a classic because of Polanski’s knack for bringing the terror of the mind out onto the screen.

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2 responses

2 02 2011
Dan

Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favourite horror films. You’re right about Polanski’s role in making this a true classic – the tone of the film is spot on, so foreboding and claustrophobic. But credit to the performances – Ruth Gordon and her husband are so frightening in their practical, straight-faced attitude and sinister likablility, and Mia Farrow’s frail degeneration into paranoia is one of her finest screen performances.

2 02 2011
Marshall

I didn’t give Gordon enough praise here – she was dang good. She blows this year’s Supporting Actress field out of the water.

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