Why "Rosemary’s Baby" is never far from my mind...
Rosemary’s Baby, the first film in our “Horror of the Decade” series, has rightfully earned every bit of attention and praise it has received since its 1968 release. Considered not only a titan of the horror genre, but a spectacularly well-made film, it's a film that I frequently reference or recall. Since the first time I saw it years ago, there have been countless times, either watching another film or television show or even just running into scenarios in real life, where I’ve remarked to myself or those around me: “this reminds me of Rosemary’s Baby!” In all of those instances, what am I being reminded of? Well, like any great piece of art, it isn’t simply one thing, but several elements in particular that stick out strongly, as personal or cultural reference points, along with obvious inspiration in other media.
John Cassavetes & Mia Farrow as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse.
One of the strongest elements that the film hits from the start and carries throughout is a strong, specific tone, that of a haunting fairytale turned nightmare. From the initial harpsichord notes of the score clashing with the soft, lilting “la-la-las” of the opening theme, sung by none other than star Mia Farrow herself, the film immediately places us in an uneasy state, lulled by a dark lullaby. Our initial impressions of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are that of an ambitious young couple starting the next steps in their adult life together, but how together they truly are, and the extent to which their ambitions do or do not align, is very quickly questioned.
Guy (superbly played by John Cassavetes) is the type of person we’ve all known, charming and confident, quite possibly to the detriment of those around him. Wife Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow in a star-making turn, portrays the perfect picture of impressionable innocence, naive and hopeful, in incredibly relatable ways. Employing the voice of a classic fairytale princess, Rosemary is someone who is excited about her new life in the big city with her (hopefully) rising star actor husband. She seems caught between the desires of being a homemaker and an independent woman, a clash that was very much at the forefront of our culture in the 1960s, and certainly continues to this day. Furthermore, from early on in the film there is an increasing amount of evidence that something is very not right, and as Rosemary reasonably questions her situation, her sense of self, what is real, and what is right are all thrown into question.
It is this clash, mixed with her ambitions of motherhood, stability, fulfillment, and independence, that ultimately leads to one of the other strongest relatable elements of the film that I am frequently reminded of: knowing something to be true in your heart of hearts, but having too much fear, or too little power, to be able to effectively incite change. While this was personally relatable from the moment I first saw the film, the last decade in particular has seen the term “gaslighting” come into our popular cultural lexicon. Generally speaking, gaslighting, which interestingly enough is derived from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman-starring film Gaslight, is a term referring to psychological manipulation that causes a person to question their own sanity. Decades before the term was being discussed in all types of contexts, Rosemary’s Baby serves as a fantastic example of someone being so thoroughly and blatantly gaslit, that to some extent we as the viewer are made to feel the same.
From the beginning of the film, there are so many hints and references, big and small, that something is very off, very strange. By the time of the famous “dream” sequence, during which Rosemary exclaims “this is no dream, this is really happening!” We are both relatively sure of what is happening to a large extent, but also quite possibly holding out hope that it can’t be so, that there are some other far less nefarious forces at play, that the strains of life are just weighing a bit too heavily on poor Rosemary. As the viewer, we see everything Rosemary sees and just a bit more, and upon every viewing of the film, I still hold out hope that it all turns out well for her in the end. The growing dissonance between what Rosemary desires - what is right, fair, and reasonable - and what appears to be happening to and around her is both so clear and also so supernatural and terrifying that surely it can’t really be happening, right?
Rosemary’s Baby confounded and astounded audiences upon its initial release and continues to do today because of the ways in which it naturalizes the surreal, both in the language of film and the larger cultural conversation around the pervasive and perverted ways women in particular are manipulated in modern society. More broadly, I find the film incredibly relatable to the ways in which anyone, regardless of gender or relationship status, can knowingly or unknowingly be on the giving and receiving ends of manipulation. It is for all of these reasons, and plenty more, that Rosemary’s Baby is an imminently profound, memorable, and impactful film.
I could discuss and dissect this film unendingly, and I hope to do so with you soon before or after our upcoming screenings at The Moviehouse!