Big budget horror films rarely seem to be as effective as the grittier lower budget horror films that usually have relatively unknown casts, raw, gorier special effects, simple musical scores and minimal script details. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), “Halloween” (1978) or even “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) are prime examples of truly effective low budget horror gems.
Along those lines, Stephen King has noted: “Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself, and when it works, the screams of a sold-out house are almost intrusive. In that sense, a movie such as Blair Witch is more like poetry than like the ”event films” that pack the plexes in summer. Those flicks tend to be like sandwiches overstuffed with weirdly tasteless meat and cheese, meals that glut the belly but do nothing for the soul. Studio execs, who not only live behind the curve but seem to have built mansions there, don’t seem to understand that most moviegoers recognize all the bluescreens and computer graphics of big-budget films and flick them aside. Those movies blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife-edge.”
Yet every once and a while though, a big-budget horror film makes its mark. William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) and Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) are those clear exceptions. In addition, today’s horror gem, Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) was a chilling, psychological terrifying experience.
Based on Ira Levin’s best-selling novel the film was adapted by Polanski and concerns a young couple who move into an apartment in an older New York building, whose previous tenant, an elderly woman, had recently died. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes star as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse.
Polanski opens the film with shots of the neighborhood that are accompanied by a spooky lullaby theme tune. Once settled in their seventh-floor apartment and meet neighbors, many weird and bizarre things slowly begin happening, especially after Rosemary realizes she’s pregnant and her unborn baby may be affected by these happenings. Rosemary has a strange dream that she’s being raped in a satanic ritual.
Minnie gives her a necklace with “tannis root” placed in the dangling ornament and special vitamin/herb drinks during her pregnancy.
Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer are Minnie and Roman Castevet, literally the neighbors from hell, who may be the cause of these happenings. Ralph Bellamy is Dr. Sapirstein, an expert obstetrician recommended by the Castevets. Maurice Evans plays Hutch, a family friend and neighbor who doubts much of the advice given to Rosemary.
King claims the appeal of horror movies in his essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies” is “we are daring the nightmare.” Furthermore, in his famed 1981 nonfiction book “Danse Macabre” he notes the three basic types of terror: “The gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” There are numerous effective incidents of this third quality and subtle daring the nightmare in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
The performances by Farrow, Gordon and Cassavetes are wonderful. The wide-eyed Farrow, who was in only her third feature film, is most chilling. Gordon took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the eccentric Ms. Minnie. Polanski received much praise from author Levin who called the film “the single most faithful adaptation of a novel ever to come out of Hollywood.” Polanski was the recipient of an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
In 1968 “Rosemary’s Baby” became a huge hit, as Polanski notes in his 1984 autobiography, “Roman by Polanski”: “For the first time ever, I didn’t have to hustle for a living. The overnight success of “Rosemary’s Baby” turned me into a Hollywood golden boy, deluged with scripts and propositions from studios all over town.” In fact, Polanski’s name is even mentioned in the song “Manchester England” featured in the Broadway hit musical “Hair”, which opened in late 1968.
And in continued recognition of Polish Heritage month, Roman Polanski, a proud Polish director, went on to make dozens of films in Hollywood, Poland, Great Britain and France and won the best director Oscar in 2002 for his film “The Pianist”.
And might I say “Rosemary’s Baby” is a perfect film for pre-Halloween viewing.