Cult Column: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby tiptoes around the label of ‘horror’; no ghosts, no gore, nothing to make you jump out of your skin (the horror of it having been directed by such a murky figure as Roman Polanski is a discussion for another day).

Yet, the film is definitively creepy, and in a way that is all too familiar. Aside from outfits that have stayed firmly in their place in the 60s, and gigantic apartments in New York that we will never afford, the film never feels too far from reality. With Krzysztof Komeda’s off-key lullaby drifting in and out, it is sinister, but all the while banal. Drawn out scenes move slowly and rarely leave the domain of quotidian middle class life oh, another dinner party? Thrilling. Polanski’s direction emphasises this sense of reality on screen; long takes let us feel as if we are walking through the apartment as another intrusive neighbour, watching scenes unfold in real-time. When the camera isn’t focused on Rosemary’s face, it is over her shoulder, giving us the shaky point of view of the increasingly unstable and paranoid protagonist. And we want to empathise with her; her blue and white clothing paint her appropriately as a pure Madonna counterpart. Denied the panoptic view that cinema is usually able to offer, our interpretation is limited to what Rosemary sees and understands, and our feelings of distrust and confusion develop with hers. Polanski toys with the viewer in this way, frustrating us with slow pace and a cabin fever-inducing fixation on the labyrinthine apartment.

This is where the horror stems from, not the satanic themes and disturbing revelations but a tangential connection with reality. It is like the paranoia of being alone but feeling that someone is in the house, of losing your sense of control and security in your own home and beginning to question each noise, to the point where you are unsure if you heard it at all, or if you are beginning to imagine things. Watching nine months of pregnancy unfurl through Rosemary’s eyes, we are never sure what to believe; every element of the plot could be attributed to her own psychosis. These uncertainties only increase as the film approaches its end. Once Rosemary begins having illusory dreams, the possibility of discerning reality from imagination is shattered. There is an argument to be made for whether the closing scene even happened, or if at this point we have fully donned Rosemary’s perspective, and the narrative has been taken over by a deteriorated mental state and hysterical hallucinations.

This articulation of horror in reality allows the film to function as a comment on its time. The deep exploration into one woman’s pregnancy may be read in relation to women’s rights in the 60s, the decade that saw the invention of the contraceptive pill and heavy debate around the topic of abortion. Furthermore, Polanski uses the oldest trick in the horror book: don’t show the monster. In its absence, the antagonists are those closest to Rosemary, her husband and her elderly neighbours. The whole film is an act of violence and manipulation against Rosemary (and the viewer) within this framework of reality. It speaks to a growing generational gap and distrust in superiors and authority figures that may not be hard to find beyond the screen.

Image: Andrew Lih via Wikimedia Commons

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