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Satan is Their Motor

By Drew Morton | Film | July 17, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Film | July 17, 2009 |

For the bulk of my college career, I tended to avoid the films of Roman Polanski. I always tried to validate my blind spot as morally motivated by Polanski pleading guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor and subsequently fleeing to France. Yet, I came to the realization that this would ultimately write off a work of art, crafted by many people, to the poor decisions of one. Also, I was employed as a teaching assistant for a film noir class at UCLA and we had to show Chinatown (1974) and I could no longer avoid the absence of Polanski in my knowledge about film.

Watching Chinatown, I began to realize that Polanski, personal indiscretions put aside, was capable of genius. Aided, no doubt, by a superb screenplay by Robert Towne, Polanski crafted one of the most tightly constructed films I had ever seen, climaxing with one of the most heartbreaking deaths in the history of cinema. Looking into the production of the film, I learned that this resolution was the invention of Polanski, who had recently lost his wife Sharon Tate to the Manson Family. This pessimistic world view guiding a Hitchcockian attention to film form, in addition to an obsession with sexual repression, stands at the center of Polanski’s films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) included.

The film begins with Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her struggling actor husband Guy Woodhouse (the great American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes) looking for an apartment in New York City. The couple finds a flat in the Bramford, a building with a history of mysterious events which Rosemary soon witnesses when a neighbor commits suicide. Briefly after their move, the Woodhouses begin to get close to their elderly neighbors, the Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). Rosemary is somewhat put off by the eccentric couple, while Guy becomes fascinated by them. One evening, Mrs. Castevet brings Rosemary a dessert that causes her to become sick, pass out, and experience visions of being raped by a demon. Shortly thereafter, Rosemary discovers she’s pregnant. You’ve probably already guessed who the father is.

While Rosemary’s Baby is often dubbed a horror film, the contemporary viewer may find that generic attribution confusing. Due to its slow pace and reliance on less-traditional formal tools to create suspense, Rosemary’s Baby, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), is best described as a psychological thriller or suspense story. Polanski’s film, adapted from a novel by Ira Levin, isn’t furnished with bloody murders and shocking off-screen entrances. Rather, what makes Rosemary’s Baby terrifying is the sense of inevitability. Yes, this inevitability not only manifests itself in the plot, as Rosemary is incapable of stopping the plans set in motion by her neighbors, but from the audience as well. Polanski cues us in to the cult’s true intent quite early with the aid of surrealistic dream sequence, so we’re aware of Rosemary’s potential fate far sooner than she is. Hitchcock once described the difference between surprise and suspense as involving the knowledge of the audience, concluding that in order to fully capitalize upon suspense, “the public must be informed.”

While Polanski achieves this through narrative information (Rosemary’s book on Satan worshippers) and film style (surreal dream sequences, odd chants heard in the middle of the night), he also fully capitalizes on the abilities of his crew. Mia Farrow, like Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), has to keep her character consistently in the grey area between sanity and madness for the bulk of the film. Are her abdominal pains typical of childbearing or from cloven hooves scraping away at her uterus? We squirm in our seats as she tries to make the important distinction. Cassavetes, Gordon (who would win an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role), and Blackmer make the most of their ambiguous characters, with Cassavetes oscillating between kindness and cruelty and Gordon driving both Rosemary and the audience insane with her grating accent and questions.

The final quality that I found enabling of suspense is the world Polanski establishes. At one point, Rosemary picks up an issue of Time Magazine with the heading “Is God Dead?” Rosemary is a Catholic, experiencing guilt regarding her religion and practicing on a consistent basis. Through these devices, Rosemary’s abandonment of religion and the Nietzschian worldview of the post-1950s, Polanski seems to hint these may be preconditions of Satan’s rebirth. Does this make Rosemary’s Baby a didactic enterprising, preaching that we’re all damned if we stop going to church on Sunday? Not at all, it simply serves the function of making the final scene somewhat reasonable. Only in such a world would a cult, celebrating the birth of the spawn of Satan with cameras, cocktails, and baby toys seem plausible.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.

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