By Alan Hurst
We were asked to pick our favorite movie for Halloween and there were many that could have made my top spot. I love the Universal monster classics of the thirties and forties, particularly The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Wolf Man (1941). The Uninvited (1944) is probably the perfect ghost story and The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a great movie about a disturbed killer and set in the perfect turn-of-the-century mansion. I’m also partial to the original Village of the Damned (1960), The Exorcist (1973) and even Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999).
But one movie that keeps getting pulled out every year around this time is Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the classic from director Roman Polanski that remains for me the best horror film of the sixties and possibly the best horror film of all time. Hooked from a first viewing on TV in the late 70s and then multiple viewings since no other films of the horror/suspense genre have ever had an impact on me like Rosemary’s Baby has. It was a big hit when it came out in 1968 and it still holds up today.
This was Roman Polanski’s first major foray into North American films after the critical successes of Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966) – all excellent films. But Rosemary’s Baby is a huge step forward for him as filmmaker and storyteller. It’s a relatively straightforward story, but well-structured with a strong screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel and filled with subtle layers and clues that become clear with additional viewings.
There’s something dark, cold and sinister in everything Polanski does and the same is true with Rosemary’s Baby. There is really nothing warm about anybody here except for Rosemary. Polanski knows how to take his time and he builds the suspense very slowly and deliberately from the start. He makes the ordinary – an old elevator, an apartment closet, tiles missing from the floor – unnerving. He is also responsible for the film’s realistic (and frightening) dream sequence – one of the most effective ever filmed
The film tells the story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse – a young married couple who decide to move into a wonderfully atmospheric old New York apartment building (the Dakota was used for the filming). It’s filled with a dark history and a bevy of eccentrics. Guy (John Cassavetes) is an aspiring actor and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) a stay-at-home wife. They soon become friendly with the older couple next door (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). The couple is not what they seem – and the ever-increasing threat of Satanism and modern-day witches begin to consume Rosemary as she becomes pregnant with her first child.
This was Farrow’s first big feature film and her waif-like appearance fits the character perfectly, but underneath Farrow shows a strong will and a brain that’s always working. As Farrow’s Rosemary discovers what’s happening, so does the audience. You don’t think she’s losing her mind – Farrow makes what’s happening to her seems very real. She deserved (but didn’t get) serious Oscar consideration.
Ruth Gordon did win a well-deserved Oscar for this film, but she’s just one of many veterans in the cast who do stellar work and all are key in contributing to the genuine feeling of unease. Other standouts include Sidney Blackmer as Gordon’s husband, Maurice Evans as an unfortunate friend of the young couple, Ralph Bellamy as Rosemary’s doctor and Patsy Kelly as a dimwitted but evil friend of Gordon’s.
Produced by B Horror movie maven William Castle, Rosemary’s Baby could easily have been another B film. But thankfully Paramount Studios put some money behind it and brought in Polanski and a cast of lesser-known but wonderful actors.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.