Published On: Thu, Jun 21st, 2018

Rosemary’s Baby is the mother of modern horror

Fifty years ago this month, it made for the most chilling of movie posters: a black baby carriage on a hill, superimposed over the face of a resting woman played by Mia Farrow.

It was for Rosemary’s Baby, the horrific Hollywood feature debut of up-and-coming Polish director Roman Polanski, who was not yet notorious for the family tragedy that would befall him — his actress wife Sharon Tate would be murdered a year later by the Manson family — and the statutory rape crime he’d commit and flee justice from in the 1970s. Just last month, Polanski, along with Bill Cosby, was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the still-unpunished crime.

From left, John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow and Ralph Bellamy in Rosemary’s Baby, released 50 years ago this month.
From left, John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow and Ralph Bellamy in Rosemary’s Baby, released 50 years ago this month.

Ivory-skinned actress Farrow, then 23, was another newcomer, scandalized by her adulterous marriage to the decades-older singer Frank Sinatra (who would soon divorce her) but decades away from the child-abuse allegations she’d hurl against her later partner Woody Allen.

But the masterpiece Polanski and Farrow made would acquire its own transforming reputation and lasting impact: its DNA of threatened innocence can be found in many horror movies of the past half-century, including The Exorcist, The Omen, The Witch, current hit Hereditary and last year’s TIFF shocker Mother! (which reimagined the Rosemary’s Baby poster in its ad campaign).

In fact, I’d argue that it’s now the most influential of all horror movies.

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Polanski’s film, adapted from a bestselling novel by Ira Levin, became a classic of its genre despite being dismissed as “sick and obscene” by the likes of Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin. Back in 1968, horror films were made for drive-ins, not arthouses, and they weren’t taken seriously by most movie scribes — although the Toronto Star’s Martin Knelman declared Rosemary’s Baby “the thriller of the year.”

The film also drew a rating of “C” — for “condemned” — from the U.S. National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, which deemed this unsettling saga of domestic witchcraft to be a “perverted use (of) fundamental Christian beliefs,” for its satanic inversion of church dogma about the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

The poster certainly put the fear of God — or something else — into me, a 12-year-old Roman Catholic altar boy who was then too young to attend a restricted movie, as this one was back then. All this only made me want to see the film even more, but I had to content myself at the time with reading the brilliant MAD magazine parody, titled “Rosemia’s Boo Boo” and featuring the best-ever use of Alfred E. Neuman, the mag’s moronic mascot.

Oscar voters didn’t think of the film as a mistake: they gave writer/director Polanski a screenplay nomination and Farrow’s co-star Ruth Gordon a Best Supporting Actress prize.

Regular moviegoers were also caught up in the fuss, flocking to theatres to be scared out of their minds, goosed by that terrifying poster and the brilliant adline, “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”

But if you know the film’s devilishly simple plot, you’d be more likely to pray for Rosemary, not her unseen baby. A young bride (Farrow) becomes pregnant soon after moving into an upscale New York apartment building. Her joy turns to fear when she begins to suspect that she and her baby are the targets of a plot involving her husband (John Cassavetes) and occult-worshipping neighbours. Is Rosemary paranoid or prey?

Little does she know, and little does the viewer see — a satanic rape scene terrifies more for what it doesn’t show. Polanski’s masterful use of suggestion certainly impressed Hereditary writer/director Ari Aster, who cites him as a major influence.

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What’s the appeal of a movie like Rosemary’s Baby and its many imitators? To Canadian-American novelist David Morrell (First Blood), who wrote the foreword to a 50th-anniversary edition of author Levin’s source novel, it was about the commonplace becoming the terrifying: “Readers learned that their secret suspicions were valid, that eccentric neighbours weren’t just loud and annoying — they were dangerous.”

I’d add that we all have the primal fear of anything that threatens a child, for whatever reason — witness the justifiable uproar this past week over Donald Trump’s policy of separating illegal migrants from their children, a policy over which he was forced to make a rare climb-down.

As for eternally puzzling and troubling Polanski, it was all a huge joke, then as now.

I interviewed him in early 2000 following the release of his film The Ninth Gate, an occult horror starring Johnny Depp that reminded us in every frame that it was made by the guy who made Rosemary’s Baby.

He told me he thinks Satan is a laugh riot.

“I can’t understand how anyone can make a serious picture about the devil,” Polanski said.

“I think it’s a matter for humour and comedy, devils and vampires alike.”

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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Rosemary’s Baby is the mother of modern horror