“This is no dream! This is really happening!”
First released in theaters 50 years ago, on June 12, 1968, Rosemary’s Baby changed horror as we know it today, effectively inspiring a new wave of horror that forever altered the genre and paving the way for major hits like The Exorcist. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Ira Levin, released just the year before, Rosemary’s Baby won over audiences and critics, earning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Ruth Gordon, and was eventually selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for being historically and culturally significant. Rosemary’s Baby remains an all-time great horror film, but like most trailblazers, the path to forge new territory came with blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes.
Rosemary’s Baby nearly became an entirely different film before production even began. Hoping to segue into a more prestigious career with Oscar-winning potential, B-movie gimmick horror director William Castle immediately knew Ira Levin’s novel had major potential to give him what he was looking for and mortgaged his home to purchase movie rights. Having a contract with Paramount, he went to them with the pitch to direct. They, however, wanted young up and comer Roman Polanski and offered Castle a producer’s role instead. Backed into a corner, and not wanting to tie up the project financially for years to come, Castle begrudgingly accepted. Castle’s inputs on the film were minor, at least from an artistic standpoint, and his dreams of mainstream respectability were never realized as he suffered from kidney failure soon after the film’s release. Even still, without Castle’s recognition of Levin’s novel about a housewife pregnant with the Antichrist, Rosemary’s Baby wouldn’t exist as we know it.
For his part, Polanski immediately keyed in on the story element that would make Rosemary’s Baby so effective and chilling; deception. Polanski wanted to focus on the story from Rosemary’s perspective only, relying on ambiguity of the supernatural and using it to create an anxiety in the audience. Rosemary, played effectively by Mia Farrow, is the epitome of a ‘50s housewife. Eager to please her husband and eager to have a baby, Rosemary puts the needs of everyone else before hers, especially when her health is at stake. Even when she wakes after that fateful night thinking her husband has raped her, she’s quick to forgive. All the while, ominous signs are around her that things may or may not be all in her head. That Rosemary’s fate is almost never in her own control lends to the overall feeling of anxious helplessness that pervades the narrative; the only two decisions in the film that are entirely her own is her choice to move into the Bramford apartment and to give in to her maternal instincts in the closing moments. Any time Rosemary dares to stand up for herself she’s consistently manipulated by those around her. Those she’s meant to trust. Anyone who does genuinely seek to help Rosemary is quickly eliminated.
Polanski further played with deception in terms of what Satanists look like. These weren’t the Gothic characters, ominous and robed, seen before. These were welcoming neighbors in New York City. Roman and Minnie Castavet were nosy, elderly neighbors who dress their age and bring home-baked goods (albeit drugged). Dr. Sapirstein, her appointed doctor by the Castavets, is renounced in his field; no one would ever suspect that he too is a member of the coven planning to usher in the Antichrist. The opening credits are conveyed via pink cursive over a panning cityscape, a style choice that gives the opposite impression of a horror film. Polanski’s final decision would solidify the film’s greatness; he never showed us the Devil. By refusing to show the audience the Devil, it forever remains etched in the nightmares of imagination.
Despite the ambiguity that would deeply root Rosemary’s journey in psychological terror, it’s no surprise that the film stirred up controversy after release. The Catholic League protested, The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures gave it a condemned rating, and some theaters even banned it from playing. It didn’t stop the film from becoming a money maker at the box office. Rosemary’s Baby-inspired a slew of Satanic horror soon after, but its effects on the genre are much more profound than that. It took the ultimate battle between good versus evil and put it in the seemingly mundane home of a vulnerable housewife. Sweet, eager-to-please Rosemary whose internal struggle with her faith is only barely hinted at became the mother to the Antichrist without her consent. Even 50 years later, that’s still terrifying.