“He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!”
Good horror movies seem to be a dying art. I grew up thinking I hated horror movies. It wasn’t until I went back to the classics that I discovered that I really liked some of them. The biggest change (aside from gratuitous use of jump scares) seems to be the transition from the power of imagination to bad CGI effects—no special effect will ever be as scary as what the brain can conjure based on context clues from other characters. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Tenant) and starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, is a classic horror film that scares through restraint and subtlety, and what it doesn’t show is more terrifying than the special effects today, 50 years later. It’s also an exceptionally smart horror film, with a depth missing from most mass-market horror films today. Is this 50-year-old horror film worth watching today? Yes, absolutely.
The plot follows Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy as they move into a new apartment in New York City. The new neighbors quickly welcome them, and Guy really hits it off with them, although Rosemary finds them a little overbearing and takes to hiding in her apartment to get some peace and quiet. After a morally questionable (or outright wrong, by today’s standards) sexual encounter, Rosemary finds herself pregnant with her first child. She’s overjoyed, and so are the neighbors, who quickly recommend her to a doctor to help her through the pregnancy. But things are strange, and they just get stranger. Rosemary finds herself becoming more and more isolated, and she begins to suspect that something sinister might be going on.
This is no dream! This is really happening!
Most horror films try to hit you with a blast of adrenaline through artificially scary scenes using jump scares, gore, and ineffective special effects. Rosemary’s Baby is more like a steady-drip IV of adrenaline that slowly accumulates in your system, becoming increasingly more tense as the film wears on. Most of the film is actually pretty ambiguous about what’s really happening, and the viewer feels as confused and trapped as Rosemary does. It happens gradually, like the story of the frog in a pot that’s gradually brought to a boil so the frog doesn’t know it’s in danger until it’s far too late. The actual events of the film aren’t really revealed until the final minutes of the film, but it’s a wild ride getting there.
Speaking of the ending, I’m not going to give it away, but it’s chilling and is by far the best part of the film. The majority of the film treads carefully, showing us just enough to hint at what’s actually going on, but the ending stops pulling its punches and it hits hard. It’s an ending that sticks with you long after the film is over, and one that makes the slow burn of the rest of the film totally worth it to adrenaline junkies.
Rosemary’s Baby comes from an era of horror where intelligence and restraint were more important than cutting-edge special effects, and it’s because of its independence from the day’s special effects that the film remains so scary and watchable today. This also made the occult a mainstream topic in horror films, opening the door for later horror films like The Omen and The Exorcist. This is also one of the first horror films to effectively use the looser censorship laws (which lifted just the year before this was released) to get away with that darker subject matter, so you can imagine how shocking and terrifying this was when it came out. It was a landmark horror film that remains a classic today: smart, scary, and careful with the details. If you’ve been turned off by modern horror films, give this classic a try—it just might change your mind.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: Roman Polanski
Genres: horror, thriller