Here is where I'd normally say, "Hey, spoilers, people!" But...this film is over forty years old. By now, even if you haven't seen it, you've either absorbed knowledge of the film's ending from the ether, or you need to consume more pop culture.
How important, really, is surprise in a horror film? Whether you’re talking about the now-ubiquitous jump scare or a Shyamalan-ian twist, we get a lot of pleasure out of surprise. There’s the initial shock, followed by the recovery — a one-two punch that mirrors what the characters in the movie experience, after which we, the audience, can say, “Whew. That was scary, but I’m still alive. Can’t say the same for these suckers on the screen…”
But what if you can see the surprise from a mile away? Not because you’re particularly astute (I am generally not a good guesser of what’s going to happen next in a movie, whereas my friend and frequent movie buddy, Sara, often correctly predicts plot developments), but because that’s exactly what the director wanted?
That’s what happens in Rosemary’s Baby. Director Roman Polanski doesn’t exactly hide the fact that the neighbors of the young couple at the center of the movie (Guy and Rosemary, played by John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) are probably Satanists or that they might be up to no good when it comes to Rosemary’s pregnancy. Part of Polanski’s intent here is to heighten the atmosphere of paranoia: Is Rosemary imagining that her neighbors, the Castevets, are sinister, or is she being oversuspicious? Has her husband actually made a pact with the devil, or is the distance between them that Rosemary perceives just a natural progression of marriage? Are we actually seeing what we’re seeing, or are we just as paranoid as Rosemary?
The evidence is all around Rosemary, but she doubts herself until she discovers that Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) is the son of a notorious Satanist. Until that point, though, Polanski throws Rosemary's every suspicion into doubt. Throughout the movie, he emphasizes Rosemary’s paranoia by using camera shots that either place the audience in Rosemary’s point of view or that obscure some important element. (One example of the latter: When Minnie — played by the excellent Ruth Gordon — calls Dr. Saperstein to get pregnant Rosemary an appointment, the camera is situated so that Minnie is blocked from view. We hear her voice, but we can’t see her face.)
But we know we’re watching a horror movie. No matter how much Rosemary doubts herself, the audience understands: Minnie and Roman are straight-up devil worshippers.
We know the likeliest outcome. Even as we root for Rosemary, even as we hope against hope that she finds the help she needs, then feel anguish as she’s thwarted again and again, we have a feeling that this story is going to run its course straight back to that tacky apartment where the Castevets and all their friends like to chant Satanic verses and play the recorder.
The moment of this movie that always makes me the angriest is the scene in Dr. Hill’s office. Nearly out of options, unable to trust anyone — including her own husband, and including Dr. Saperstein — Rosemary finagles an appointment with her original OB/GYN, Dr. Hill (the doctor who is presumably not in league with a dozen elderly cult members). She confides her fears to Hill, and Hill — played by Acclaimed Character Actor Charles Grodin — soothes Rosemary, agreeing to help her.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t believe me!” she says, relieved.
“I don’t believe in witchcraft, but there are plenty of maniacs and crazy people in this city,” Hill reasons.
He shows Rosemary to a quiet office where she can lay down for a bit. Finally having found someone she can trust — finally able to feel safe for the first time in months — Rosemary falls asleep. But when she wakes, it’s only to discover that Hill, in fact, was never to be trusted. He has called Guy and Dr. Saperstein, who snatch Rosemary and shove her into a taxi that takes her not to a hospital but back home — into the loving arms of the Castevets and all their Satan-worshipping friends.
I always wonder this about Dr. Hill: Was he in on it from the beginning? Is he a devil-worshipper, too? Or was he just doing the thing he thought was right — getting a (possibly crazy) pregnant woman the care she needs from the doctor with whom she has a long-term relationship? Either way, the result is the same. Despite all of Rosemary’s efforts, she’s back in the clutches of the cult. And the end we saw coming is the end we get.
In his July 29, 1968, review of Rosemary’s Baby, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “When the conclusion comes, it works not because it is a surprise but because it is horrifyingly inevitable. Rosemary makes her dreadful discovery, and we are wrenched because we knew what was going to happen -- and couldn't help her.”
Inevitability is an immensely satisfying element of fiction. The best endings of novels and movies are satisfying because they feel right, and that rightness often comes down to the idea that this is the only possible way things could have ended. Inevitability isn’t the same as predictability, although I think Polanski makes use of both in this film. It’s predictable that somehow those rascally Satanists are going to get their hands on Rosemary’s baby. But it’s inevitable, perhaps, that when they do, Rosemary is going to confront them…and then find that even when her son is the devil’s progeny, she is still its mother.
- Roman Polanski adapted the script for Rosemary's Baby from Ira Levin's novel -- possibly the most faithful book-to-film adaptation in the history of time. I have heard the apocryphal tale (told by producer William Castle) that since this was the first time Polanski was adapting someone else's work, he just didn't realize he could make significant changes. Probably not true, but I kind of like that story.
- Speaking of: For an insightful book-to-movie comparison, here's a lengthy entry from some rando who's super into Roman Polanski.
- The entire story of how Polanski came to direct Rosemary (when it was Castle who found the property and wanted to direct, himself) is actually pretty fascinating, as told in Jason Zinoman's excellent book, Shock Value, which covers how horror was transformed in the 1970s and '80s.
- I know Polanski is a polarizing figure. Nevertheless, Rosemary's Baby remains my all-time favorite movie -- not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite movie, period. I feel about Polanski pretty much the way Alex Ross Perry talks about him in this AV Club interview.
- And there's more! If you are enthralled by tales of Hollywood and murder, you should immediately check out You Must Remember This, particularly episodes 23 and 24, and all of season 4, which tells the tale of Charles Manson's Hollywood, including the murder of Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski's wife.
- From IMDB: "Burt Reynolds tested for the role of Guy Woodhouse." !!!!!!!!
- Ruth Fucking Gordon, yo.