Saturday 6 October 2012

Satan of suburbia

In the month of winterfylleþ, 'the tally-keepers of Purgatory, its clerks and gaolers, listen in to the living, who are praying for the dead'. To honour the run-up to Halloween I'll spend this month focusing on horror films, from esteemed classics to tawdry schlock. Above all that'll mean resuming that Mario Bava series, but I'll find time for other films too.

Today's entry falls firmly on the 'classic' side of the spectrum: so much so, perhaps, that we're inclined to forget it's above all a superb piece of genre filmmaking. Roman Polanski is perhaps the greatest purveyor of genre fare since Hitchcock, whether it's noir (Chinatown), thriller (The Ghost) or Oscar bait (The Pianist). Rosemary's Baby (1968), then, is a perfect paranoia thriller with higher aspirations.

A young couple, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes), move into an apartment building in New York. Rosemary doesn't like their nosy and eccentric elderly neighbours, Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon), but Guy soon becomes fast friends with them.

When Rosemary becomes pregnant, it's at first an occasion of joy for the couple. But the mother-to-be soon becomes suspicious. At the advice of the Castevets she has switched to a new obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who refuses to take seriously her concerns over an increasingly draining and troubled pregnancy. What's more, the Castevets seem to have Guy on their side as they move to isolate Rosemary from her friends, give her suspicious drinks in lieu of prenatal vitamins and have her wear a malodorous pennant containing tannis root, a plant associated with witchcraft according to Rosemary's elderly friend Hutch (Maurice Evans). When the previously healthy Hutch falls into a coma and dies after investigating the Castevets, Rosemary begins to suspect that her neighbours are involved in witchcraft and have made a pact with her husband to take her baby from her.

Feminist readings of Rosemary's Baby have pointed out that the film is about a woman constrained by patriarchy. Guy is a patronising jackass from the start, regularly infantilising and objectifying his wife. When she finds scratches on her body, he nonchalantly explains that he raped her in her sleep. Any bodily autonomy is taken away by the Castevets' witches' brews and Dr. Sapirstein's belittling of her fears. In Rosemary's Baby Polanski empathises with his protagonist's anxiety about a living creature growing in her body, and attacks a system that negates women's personhood by reducing them to the role of carrier.

But the film is also a broadside against the bourgeois culture of the sixties, caught between the stuffy respectability of the Castevets and the hip appeal of a younger generation. Early on Rosemary goes for a Vidal Sassoon haircut, in what would be product placement - if every other character did not immediately (and unfairly) opine that it looks terrible. Beyond a veneer of befuddled harmlessness, of course, the honourable personages of the older generation turn out to be members of a satanic conspiracy. Not that that dampens their enthusiasm for housekeeping: in one of the film's finest scenes, Minnie disarms a knife-wielding Rosemary, then checks to make sure the blade hasn't damaged her parquet floor.

It is only in the film's final minutes that the script clarifies whether the all-encompassing witches' coven preying on Rosemary is real or a figment of a disempowered housewife's imagination. Before that Polanski refuses to tip his hand, emphasising the extent to which male domination mirrors the demonic possession of folklore. 'Patriarchal' is decidedly the right word: the film is about the rule of old men more than men per se, be they naturally aged like Roman or only seemingly old, in the way Guy artificially constructs an age difference to his wife by infantilising her.

All of that, and I haven't yet praised Rosemary's Baby as a near perfect example of the paranoia thriller. Polanski makes the most of images of satanism and witchcraft. It's no coincidence that the film provided much of the imagery peddled both by respectable society and rebellious youth culture during the infamous satanic panic of the following decades. Then there is the terrific, terrifying score of longtime Polanski collaborator Krysztof Komeda.

A supremely accomplished horror film, then, and at 96 minutes leaner than most prestige pictures know to be in our decadent age. It set the stage for the explosion of lurid diabolical cheapies at the turn of the seventies (The Brotherhood of Satan, Mark of the Devil), and the slightly more respectable religious horror that followed (The Exorcist, The Omen). But Rosemary's Baby is smarter and more aware than its imitators, and it's as fresh now as it was in 1968.

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