Rosemary’s Baby

“Rosemary’s Baby” is deeply unsettling.

What do I expect from a film about Satan’s child? “Rosemary’s Baby” has been around for 50 years, “The Omen” has been around for almost 40 years, I’ve been around for 23. Do the math. I grew up hearing about “Rosemary’s Baby” and expecting … well, expecting something else. Nothing short of the end of the world.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is considerably more humble in its ambitions. Rosemary and her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), move into a new flat. He’s an actor, she’s a housewife and they’re ready to start a family. They become friends with an elderly couple in the apartment next door, the Castevets, (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), who are …  energetic about having a young couple with whom to socialize. When Rosemary becomes pregnant — after an evening she can’t quite remember — the Castevets do everything they can to help her, right down to suggesting the best doctor. Guy echoes their insistence. Rosemary has everything she could want, really. A helpful extended family, a successful husband and, soon, a new baby.

As you probably already know, Rosemary is betrayed by her surrogate parents and her husband. Her body is used to fiendish perfection as a Satanist coven’s personal incubator. The only friends who can help her see the truth are systematically eliminated. Through most of the film, she chooses to believe, despite doubts, that her family wouldn’t betray her. Even when she learns the truth and protests it to a third party, they don’t believe her. Satanists? Yeah, right.

It’s an exercise in frustration, filmed to fiendish perfection by Polanski. The infamous Satan rape scene isn’t as gaudy as it sounds. It’s dreamlike, symbolic, awful. Rosemary catches glimpses of the Castevets and Guy standing naked alongside the rest of their coven above her motionless body, but she’s too drugged to comprehend the reality of it. Images of boats, of water, of Satan’s eyes tell the story better than a more overt depiction of the act itself. And those claw marks on her back when she awakens the next morning? Yeesh.

Mothers are central to culture, and using motherhood as a fear generator isn’t uncommon in horror. But horror films usually seem to focus more on the physical act of birth or what comes out. “Rosemary’s Baby” perverts less gory aspects of pregnancy. It turns her family against her, traps her in the web of her own social circle. The film is a slow burn, terribly fatalistic. And that last scene? In the end, Rosemary’s own desire to be a mother to her child betrays her.

A mother’s love ends the world. What a delicious downer.