Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby Study Guide

Rosemary's Baby is a 1968 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski, with a screenplay adapted from Ira Levin's best's selling 1967 novel of the same name. It was Polanski's first feature to be distributed by a major Hollywood studio (Paramount Pictures), after having made three films financed in the United Kingdom: Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). It stars Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse and John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse, along with Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Maurice Evans in key supporting roles. The film received two Academy Award nominations, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress, the latter of which Ruth Gordon won for her performance as Minnie Castevet.

With Rosemary's Baby, Polanski continued to hone the cinematic mix of existential terror and distinctly modern dread that had characterized his work since his first feature film, the Polish-language Knife in the Water (1962). Tipped off by legendary B-movie director William Castle, Paramount executive Robert Evans apparently gave Polanski galley proofs for Levin's novel, which was already generating commercial buzz, along with another script about skiing that would become Downhill Racer (1969). Given a choice between the two, Polanski chose to make Rosemary's Baby.

Critics instantly acclaimed the film, and the Library of Congress's National Film Registry selected it for preservation in 2014. It has spawned numerous sequels and remakes, including the TV-movie Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976) starring Patty Duke, and the four-hour NBC miniseries Rosemary's Baby (2014) starring Zoe Saldana. The film helped inspire other devil-centric horror features like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), as well as a wave of sensational, grind-house features about Satanism, such as Mark of the Devil (1970) and The Brotherhood of Satan (1971). Most recently, critics have wondered whether Darren Aronofsky's mother! (2017) was a stealth remake of Polanski's 1968 classic.

The story, at least at first, seems timeless: young newlyweds, under pressure from their friends and neighbors to start a family, decide to conceive a baby together. Soon, everything has gone wrong, and Rosemary's body and mind are made to bear a baroque series of tortures—social anxiety, physical pain, mental anguish, romantic failure, sexual violation, and emotional gas-lighting. The Gothic tradition in both literature and cinema informs the very soul of the film, which pits a curious heroine against a beast-like husband within the confines of an imposing house, reminiscent of a castle.

What makes Rosemary's Baby unique is the way it combines the baroque and the Gothic with the modern and the banal. Its Satanic cult members do not don hooded robes or hide in the shadows, but are in fact ordinary, elderly neighbors, with fussy habits and sociable dispositions. They are all prosperous, upper-class professionals, highly respected in their field. The "Gothic castle" in this tale is a riff on The Dakota, an ultra-exclusive apartment complex on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The "witch's brew" with which Minnie supplies Rosemary is passed off as a fresh, natural vitamin drink, in keeping with the public health zeitgeist of the 1960s.

The film is also notorious for what transpired outside its frame. A year after Polanski made a film about a pregnant woman tortured by a Satanic coven, crazed followers of Charles Manson murdered his pregnant wife Sharon Tate along with four other people in Polanski's Los Angeles home. In 1980, John Lennon was murdered on the steps of The Dakota, where the film says Adrian Marcato was murdered. Critics often look to Rosemary's Baby as a film produced at a particular historical moment that embodies the disillusionment and secularization of a world traumatized by war, wracked by political dysfunction, and perhaps forsaken by God.