Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is an odd film. Having just watched the Seventies classic, Straw Dogs, I was struck by the similarities between the two. Both feature a weak husband, a beautiful wife (struggling to be taken seriously), a claustrophobic and closed community with its own rules, fashionably experimental (for the times) camerawork, weird shooting angles, and some questionable sexual politics.
It’s possible to interpret Rosemary’s Baby as a straightforward warning story, a horror about devil worshippers and peer pressure. Some of the psychological, surrealist sequences are very Hitchcockian. It also works as a black comedy about the establishment, and the desperation to succeed at any price. Guy, Rosemary’s husband, will do anything to turn around his failing acting career.
The story paints the establishment as a grotesque elite, personified by the creepy old couple Minnie and Roman. (Roman’s name is unchanged from the novel.) Roman Polanski wanted these parts played by old Hollywood stars, making the story a kind of Sunset Boulevard: The Dark Side. As in Society, and They Live the establishment is controlled by a conniving self-perpetuating clique.
Most of the film takes place in two cramped apartments. The environments feel theatrical, almost like a stage set. The claustrophobic nature of the interiors intensifies the close proximity of the characters. Wide-angle lenses, extreme close ups, harsh lighting, and shots pointing up at the characters from the floor maintains the unsettling atmosphere.
Like Straw Dogs, Rosemary’s Baby includes some surprising sexual politics. Rosemary’s husband, Guy, makes a pact with a Minnie and Roman (Satanists), drugging his wife and arranging for her to be raped by Satan. In return Minnie and Roman see to it that Guy’s failed acting career is transformed into a success story. It goes beyond a mere critical take on the Hollywood system into a horror story about betrayal. One that incorporates a plot twist worthy of The Twilight Zone.
The creepiness of Minnie and Roman and the matter-of-fact treatment of Rosemary — as she is deceived, manipulated and abused — is disconcerting. Unlike Straw Dogs where the perpetrators of injustice are all killed (in extremely violent circumstances), in Rosemary’s Baby the forces of evil (literally) get away with it. Their world view is enforced, and Rosemary finally gives in and accepts defeat. Mia Farrow’s Twiggy-like waif-ness accentuates her vulnerability, while Guy’s callousness, his calculating poker-face contrasts with Rosemary’s psychological nightmare. Her inability to expose the conspiracy surrounding her, and her husband’s calm compliance with Minnie and Roman gives the story its shocking ending.
While not the first Hollywood film to deal with the occult, unlike films like The Seventh Victim (1943), Rosemary’s Baby was a commercial success, which sparked the mainstream adoption of the occult horror film sub-genre: Race with the Devil, The Shining, The Devil’s Advocate, The Omen, The Exorcist, Angel Heart, The Blair Witch Project, and _Eyes Wide Shut, a_nd, along with The Devil Rides Out, the rise of the 1970s occult horror B-movie.