Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
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You may find it disturbing to see audiences laughing while watching "The Exorcist"(1973), but you will probably not see any problem in having some laugh with "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968). It goes without saying that they are two of the most chilling modern horror films, but, while the former unsettles us with its utmost solemnness parodied many times since it came out, the latter has a spooky sense of humor immune to parodies. How can you make an effective parody to undermine a horror film if it already has a devilish tongue slyly placed on its dark cheek?
The film is on DVD from Netflix, and can be streamed for $2.99 from Amazon and Vudu.
But we also see that "Rosemary's Baby" works as a first-class thriller which lures us into its ordinary background at first and then drives us into one hell of a macabre circumstance. You may find its premise quite preposterous after watching it, but it makes you absolutely believe the diabolical possibility in the story when you're watching, and you fear for its unfortunate heroine approaching to an awful truth hidden behind her neighbors.
After the main title sequence in which the camera slowly looks around the skyline of New York and then looks down on a Gothic apartment building located in the Upper West Side area of Manhattan, we see a young married couple entering the building with their real estate agent (Elisha Cook Jr - you probably remember him as one of the supporting characters in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) have come to look around an apartment luckily available to them due to the recent death of its previous tenant. Guy is reluctant because it's a little too expensive rent, but Rosemary loves the apartment, so they decide to move in. Although Rosemary's close friend Hutch (Maurice Evans - he was Dr. Zauis in "Planet of the Apes" (1968) tells them about the unpleasant history surrounding the building, but they don't mind that much. After all, they are not moving into a haunted house in a remote place, and they are not alone in a building located in the middle of New York, are they?
Life at their new home goes on with the pace of mundane daily routine except for several strange incidents. On one day, Rosemary comes across a young woman named Terri (Angela Dorian - a small joke on her real name in the movie probably escapes from the audiences' notice nowadays), who has been living with an elderly couple in the apartment next to Rosemary's. They grow close to each other during their first encounter at the laundry room on the basement level, but their relationship does not last long because of a tragic incident which happens shortly after their meeting.
That is how Rosemary and Guy come to know more about their neighbours next door - Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). On the next day, Minnie comes to Rosemary's home and invites her and her husband to dinner. Rosemary and Guy reluctantly accept their dinner invitation, and, after that dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Castevet quickly become a part of their daily life they cannot easily get rid of. Roman and Minnie keep interfering in their life, and are sometimes annoying, but how can you be harsh to these kind old people? Guy begins to spend more time with them, and Rosemary gets to know the other neighbours in the building through them. When Guy and Rosemary decide to have a baby and then she gets pregnant, Minnie and Roman are the first people congratulating them.
They are really supportive; they recommend their close friend Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) as a good obstetrician to be relied on, and they take care of Rosemary's daily diet including a cup of milkshake containing various herbal elements, I suppose, good for her baby. They also give her an amulet with a pungent smell as a good luck charm, and everything goes pretty well for Guy and Rosemary. Guy's acting career gets a big breakthrough after one unfortunate happening. Rosemary goes through a really hard time due to inexplicable chronic pain during the early stages of her pregnancy, but the pain is eventually gone, to her relief. Now, with her baby about to come out into the world, Rosemary cannot possibly be happier than this.
However, we know something terrible is going to happen to her. The ominous undertone of the movie is set by Krzysztof Komeda's score right from the beginning. While a soft, gentle lullaby tune is played on the soundtrack, there also exists an unsettling feeling below it, and we sense that her road to motherhood will not be as pink as the main title suggests.
The movie is based on a well-known novel written by Ira Levin. Stephen King once called Levin "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels", and he was not kidding. His first novel "A Kiss Before Dying" was a gripping crime novel about a young, ambitious, and murderous man who will literally do anything for financial gain, and Levin's storytelling was so meticulous and thrilling that I rapidly read the novel from the first page to the last one during one Saturday afternoon while paying no attention to anything else. In "Rosemary’s Baby." Levin carefully constructs and furnishes his plot with realistic details from an average middle-class New Yorker life in 1966, and then the tables are suddenly turned, and everything looks a lot different from what it first seemed on the surface. Inconsequential things may be very consequential, and coincidences can be no coincidence at all, and Rosemary find herself deeply mired in paranoia centered on some insidious conspiracy against her and, possibly, her baby. Do the people around her really care about her and her baby as she thought? Or....
The movie could have been directed by William Castle, the master of B-horror films with infamous cheap gimmicks, but he was thankfully dissuaded from directing it by Paramount Pictures, and he worked as its producer instead while making a cameo appearance in the film. Robert Evans, the head of Paramount during that time, exactly knew who was a right director for Levin's novel - Roman Polanski.
The combination of Polanski and Levin was as ideal as the one of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers in "No Country for Old Men". Not only both of them are very good at making taut thrillers, but also they share a similar sense of dry black humor which makes their respective works satirical and cheerful at times. In addition, Polanski made "Repulsion" (1965) around that time, a nightmarish psychological thriller about a mentally unhinged woman pressured by her inner fear while being stuck in her apartment. After "Rosemary’s Baby," he made "The Tenant" (1976), another story about being driven to paranoia by an ominous apartment building and its unpleasant people, and these three moody thrillers are now regarded together as the 'Apartment Trilogy' due to the common themes shared by them.
Polanski's adapted screenplay for the movie is remarkably faithful to Levin's novel. That was a wise choice, because Levin's plot is as elaborate and fragile as a house of cards and even a tiny change can ruin the whole plot. In fact, the movie is so faithful to the novel that you do not have to read the novel if you watched the movie. If you read the novel before watching the movie, then you will appreciate how much efforts Polanski took for bringing the story to the screen as intact as possible. The set design and costumes are nearly same as described in the novel, and many small details in the novel such as that infamous Time Magazine cover ("Is God Dead?") and the shirt advertisement in the New Yorker Magazine were taken into consideration during its pre-production. (When Polanski asked Levin where he could find that advertisement, Levin replied he made it up). Using Polanski's sketches, the supporting performers were cast according to the descriptions in the novel, and familiar old veteran actors like Ralph Bellamy are crucial in providing the intimacy which is later fearfully turned into the sinister benevolence threatening Rosemary ("We're your friends, Rosemary. There's nothing to be scared about. Honest and truly there isn't!").
While being quite faithful to Levin's story, Polanski also does a wonderful job of vividly bringing what's between lines on the page to the screen. The movie gets slowly shrouded with uneasy tension crawling over the story while the due date approaches. After Rosemary notices something weird in a sudden close-up, the ominous presence of evil in the apartment building becomes more palpable than ever. Polanski trusts our intelligence and lets us deduce what is happening around her. We come to see that a normal dinner invitation is actually a job interview with horrible intentions. We can see that there is something really strange about the chest somehow moved to block the closet behind it with no apparent purpose.
While we get a pretty good idea about what's going on behind Rosemary's back through these observations and others, we can only guess about what really happened to the previous owner of Rosemary's apartment or that poor young woman taken care of by the Castevets. And what is written in the last chapter of a disturbing book delivered to Rosemary from her friend, who died under a mysterious circumstance? The movie does not tell, but we instead have a quiet moment of chilly revelation when Rosemary finally discovers the duplicity of her neighbours through scrabble pieces and one small hint given to her.
Because the movie sticks with Rosemary's viewpoint throughout its running time, there is some doubt about her viewpoint while she becomes increasingly frantic. Is it possible that it is just a temporary paranoia induced by her prepartum stress? And is it possible that what she experiences during the climax is actually a postpartum delusion? While openly and clearly showing us everything happening around her, the movie toys with that possibility to some degrees, and that makes her plight more nightmarish.
The movie is also humorous at times. When Rosemary has a strange dream during the night when she gets pregnant, her dream is absurdly mixed with random images before she is taken to the strange ritual attended by her neighbours. There is also a nice scene where her visual memories from the days of Catholic school and a conversation heard from behind the wall are overlapped, and we later realize how weirdly funny it is as a juxtaposition of two antagonizing religions.
One of the amusing things about the story is that it can be interpreted as an ironic tale about faith regained. Rosemary has been away from religion after leaving behind her days of Catholic school, but now thanks to her evil neighbours, she sees that God does exist , and there is a far bigger irony in her shocking discovery during the finale. Polanski wisely does not show us what she discovers, because a shot of her horrified face is more than enough to scare us even though we don't see it. Furthermore, it would have considerably lessened its dramatic effect due to its inherent ridiculousness if it had been shown on the screen; do you know how silly the heros of certain superhero films directed by Guillermo del Toro look at times?
Although she is famous for her collaborations with Woody Allen, Mia Farrow has been always linked with "Rosemary’s Baby," and many of us were particularly amused by her appearance in the remake version of another famous occult film involved with Satan few years ago. Farrow is completely believable here as an ordinary woman who gradually finds herself trapped in the bizarre situation she may not escape from. We can identify with her, and we can understand why she cannot see through her circumstance even when it is apparent that there is something wrong about her pregnancy. Still being a naive country girl from Omaha, Rosemary trusts people a little too much; even when she learns that no one can be trusted in her situation, she misguidedly thinks that one character can help her. He lets her down by doing what any sensible person would do after hearing her rather fantastic story.
As Rosemary's charming but self-centered actor husband, John Cassavetes does a good job, although I think Robert Redford, who was an initial choice, could have been perfect for this role. Compared to Redford, Cassavetes may be not plausible enough to be accepted as a future Broadway star, but he looks plausible enough to look like a man willing to make an unspeakable deal with the devil worshippers on the next door to be a future Broadway star.
As eccentric neighbors with dark secrets hidden behind their kind veneer, Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon have lots of fun with their plum roles. Blackmer exudes smooth sinisterness through his courteous manner and piercing eyes, and Gordon deservedly won an Oscar for her wry, colorful performance as your typical busybody neighbour. They really look like an old couple you could come across when you move into a luxurious apartment building in Manhattan, and I have to confess that they actually reminded me of one rich elderly couple living next to my family's apartment -- but I must assure you that they were Catholics who really loved their neighbours, including my parents.
"Rosemary’s Baby" has been steadily gaining its reputation as one of the great horror films since it came out and opened the door for other occult horror films. There have been lots of words about its shocking finale, but its undeniable power mainly comes from its exemplar handling of its story, mood, and performances, and it tells us a lot about the value of suspense over shock. Too many horror movies only know about shocking the audiences nowadays, but, at least we are sometimes treated with good ones knowing how to tantalize us and then scare the hell out of us like this eerie masterpiece does.
Poor Rosemary, she thinks she will fear no evil when she bravely walks through the corridor of the shadow of conspiracy with a carving knife, but she does not know that she should be careful of what she wishes for when she looks into that black cradle. Oh, yes, she will get it in the end - with her soothing lullaby.
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