The Big Picture
- The 1970s were a golden period for horror films that influenced the genre today, including classics like Jaws, The Exorcist, and Halloween.
- Rosemary’s Baby, released in the prior decade, was highly influential in the success of these films, remaining the most haunting Satanic film of all time.
- The film embodies themes of anxiety, paranoia, and female empowerment, with Mia Farrow delivering one of the greatest screen performances of all time.
While it’s hard to pin down a singular “golden period” in the history of Hollywood cinema, the 1970s were certainly responsible for many of the classic horror films often cited as being influential today. The rise of the “New Hollywood” era allowed a younger generation of filmmakers, international auteurs, and maverick independent directors reach a widespread audience of moviegoers thanks to the increased quality of productions and the development of the “midnight movie” scene; all-time favorites released during this era include Jaws, The Crazies, The Exorcist, Alien, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween, The Wicker Man, Eraserhead, The Omen, and Suspiria, just to name a few. However, these films’ success was largely inspired by a highly influential classic released in the prior decade: Rosemary’s Baby. The chilling Ira Levin adaptation remains the most haunting Satanic film of all time.
Based on the 1967 novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby follows the young woman Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) as she and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), an acclaimed actor, move into a new apartment in Manhattan. Rosemary learns that she is expecting a child, but her elderly neighbors Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) begin to unnerve her with their constant intrusions. As Guy and Rosemary drift apart and the Castevets become a more important part of their social lives, Rosemary begins to suspect that paranormal forces are beginning to threaten the birth of her child. She begins to discover horrifying secrets that suggest that her seemingly friendly neighbors are actually involved in a Satanic cult that intends to use her child’s birth for evil purposes.
Unlike many mainstream horror films of the era that were not treated with the respect that they deserved, Rosemary’s Baby was a hit with audiences and critics alike and proved that major Hollywood stars and first-rate talent were willing to invest in genre films. While the term “elevated horror” is often used to define films within the genre that somehow appeal to snobbish arthouse moviegoers, Rosemary’s Baby certainly managed to reach a more widespread viewership thanks to its frank look at parental anxieties; it was one of the few horror films to receive major Academy Awards attention, gaining two nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Gordon). Although it’s credited with helping to launch the “New Hollywood” era of horror, Rosemary’s Baby is far more than just a historical landmark; it identifies a fear of Satanism that no film has managed to surpass.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Is About More Than Horror, It’s About Anxiety and Paranoia
The primary reason that Rosemary’s Baby remains so chilling to this day is the sense of paranoia that slowly builds throughout. The lack of obvious jump scares and expositional chunks of dialogue grounds the early scenes in a sense of realism, as Rosemary and Guys’ conversations and squabbles don’t feel out of the ordinary for a married couple at the time. While Rosemary is obviously nervous about taking this step together as a couple, her fears aren’t anything out of the ordinary. Similarly, Guy appears to be friendly in his interactions with the Castevets, chatting his wife. In these early moments, it’s easy to understand both partners’ points-of-view.
However, that state of balance takes a drastic turn after Rosemary’s encounters with Terry Gionoffrio (Victoria Vetri), a recovering drug addict who has been taken in by the Castevets. Farrow’s performance is filled with empathy, and her earnest attempts to understand Terry’s issues makes both characters even more sympathetic. Terry’s unexpected suicide is treated with such casual bluntness that its apparent normalcy is completely shocking; it gains credibility to Rosemary’s rising fears that the Casevets aren’t what they seem. These moments are critical in showing Guy’s ignorance as his wife begins to discover more secrets about their elderly neighbors that suggest they have malicious intentions.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Embodies Female Anxiety
The other major turning point in shifting the audience to Rosemary’s side is the conception of her child. After Guy begins to ignore his wife and spend more time with Minnie and Roman, the lead actor in the play goes blind and Guy’s career flourishes by replacing him. This prompts Guy to suddenly want a baby, and they have a child. The vile nature of the conception makes Rosemary feel like she’s lost control, especially after Minnie drugs her by giving her chocolate mousse. This leads to one of the most haunting sequences in film history.
Rosemary suffers a vision in which she dreams that she’s been assaulted by a Satanic cult and taken part in a ritual; her nightmare links the Castevets with a group of Satanic worshippers who want to harvest her child. While the stylized nature of the Satanic imagery gives the premonition a shockingly surrealist quality, the sexual violation is impossible to ignore, as it turns Rosemary into not only a victim of the Satanic cult but also of her husband.
Rosemary’s Baby is undoubtedly filled with feminist commentary, which is likely unintentional due to the fact that it was directed by Roman Polanski. The real legacy of the film belongs to Farrow, who identifies female paranoia in one of the greatest screen performances of all time. She makes the audience feel Rosemary’s anxiety as she steadily puts together clues that suggest the Castevets have ties to Satanist research and traditions. It’s infuriating to watch her constantly be dismissed and ignored as “crazy” by the other characters when her evidence points to such an obvious conclusion.
The Influence of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ on Horror Is Undeniable
Rosemary’s Baby does an excellent job at shrouding even the most heartwarming moments of a relationship in a sense of evil; Christmastime is associated with traditionalism, and Rosemary becomes increasingly aware that the traditions that the Castevets follow are linked to worshiping Satan. It’s challenging to watch as she increasingly grows gaunt and deemed mentally ill, as it’s clear that no one will come to her defense. Her gradual lack of agency makes the horrifying “birth” sequence that ends the film even more heartbreaking.
The ending of Rosemary’s Baby is just as bleak and depressing today as it ever was, and it’s clearly one of those shocking moments that has influenced filmmakers up until this day. It’s impossible to watch modern horror films like Saint Maud, Hereditary, or Get Out and not see the direct correlations. It takes a great film to make us believe that anything is possible, and a truly haunting one to make us believe in evil.
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