Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The premise behind Rosemary's Baby isn't as original now as it most likely was during its original release, but because it revolves around several staples of the horror genre - witchcraft, demons, and supernatural forces to name a few - it has an inherent potential to be scary. What separates it from other films that deal with these subjects is the combined skill of Roman Polanski behind the camera and the gripping performers in front of it.
Polanski himself adapted Ira Levin's novel, and his shrewd, taut script earned him his only screenplay Oscar nod to date. After the opening credits sequence, which is a brilliant mood setter in its own right, we meet Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) Woodhouse, a young married couple who has just moved into a New York City apartment building. They plan to have children very soon, but Guy's struggling acting career, which hasn't moved far beyond television and radio, is making their relationship somewhat agitated.
Soon after learning about the building's troubled history, the guest of the couple's quirky neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) Castevet, unexpectedly dies. The Castevets then innocently invite the Woodhouse's over for dinner, but soon after, they begin consuming the lives of Rosemary and Guy to the point where they come off as more creepy than overly nice. Gordon and Blackmer represent the pinnacle of the scary next-door neighbor phenomenon.
Aside from Polanski's screenplay, the only other Oscar nomination the film received was for Gordon's supporting performance; she went on to win the award. Everyone other member of the cast is just as deserving of this praise, Farrow in particular, who gives a performance that is both emotionally and physically haunting. For a great portion of the film's second act, her appearance is shockingly repulsive. The transformation is even more astonishing when considering how attractive she is at the beginning.
Perhaps the film's true star, however, is its director. Polanski is working at the top of his game as both an efficient storyteller and an effective creator of tension and uneasiness. Sometimes his techniques are noticeable, especially during a critical "dream sequence," but for a lot of the film, Polanski is able to deliver suspense without doing anything that is technically flashy. One of the more impressive moments is a steady camera tightly shooting Farrow in a phone booth; in roughly thirty seconds, this shot carries more intensity than the entire Colin Farrell film. This is because of the characters and the situation (including a key supporting role played by Ralph Bellamy), and Polanski is wise enough to not let his methods diminish, or overshadow, that.
By today's standards, 136 minutes is considered quite lengthy for a film of the horror-thriller genre. But because the film is able to remain gripping for the whole runtime, it is something that modern audiences should take to quite easily. This is not one of those "classics" that is a chore to sit through; it is a completely entertaining movie. Its entertainment value is even more admirable considering the very few "jump moments" the film actually has. Because the characters are so engaging and interesting, we are immersed in their actions, even when they are doing the simplest of things.
My one issue with the film revolves around the grand revelation of the final scene. I will not spoil the ending other than to simply state that it is definitive. The area I struggle with is that Polanski introduces the possibility of ambiguity in the aforementioned "dream sequence," but the final revelation does all it can to wrap things up in a clear way, whereas I believe that a purposefully ambiguous ending would have made for a more challenging and reflective experience. The film brushes the topic of reality vs. fantasy, but doesn't choose to confront it head on.
That is not to say that the final scene is disappointing. On the contrary, it is one of the film's two or three most chilling scenes, and will always be in the conversation when the genre's crowning moments are discussed. The performances are also remarkable. One of the key things the actors do for this film is make us believe in the subject matter at hand. Most of this weight falls on Farrow's shoulders as she is the most vulnerable character, the one we sympathize with the most. If we didn't believe her predicament, the film wouldn't work.
Because the story is relatively simple, Rosemary's Baby is very easy to appreciate when it is compared to modern horror films. It is such a supremely involving film, and could very well be the achievement of Polanski's career; at the very least, it reminds us that horror films do not need a man hiding behind a wall in every scene to be hold our attention.