The slow-burn thriller Rosemary’s Baby (1968) well-deserves its status in the history of horror cinema. It’s one of the most successful tales of threat ever to be committed to celluloid; with good performances, characters ranging from sympathetic to garish, cleverly-building tension and that ending, it has been often emulated, but never bettered.
It must be a good fourteen or fifteen years since my first viewing, and it continues to make an impact on me when I watch it. However, it isn’t the main premise – that Satan himself has fathered a son, and that the world will never be the same again – that continues to unsettle me. Nope; with some of the holier-than-thou nutjobs we have had and continue to endure in the modern world, I find it hard to believe that ‘Adrian’ would be any worse than the worst of ‘em. The element which I think is the most sinister derives from Rosemary herself. Namely, her maternal instincts, and how they govern her behaviour, to horrific effect.
I should probably elaborate here: I will freely admit that I am ultra-sensitive to the unquestioning status given to unquestioning maternal instinct – to parents, children, and family. Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are parents, I’m not advocating a (complete) cessation of the human race, and I understand the joy many folk get from their kids. However, as a woman in her thirties who is electively childless, I’m acutely aware of how society views the noble lifestyle choice of childrearing at the expense of almost anything else, and – let’s make no bones about it – how they view me for rejecting it. Childrearing is supported, lauded and promoted by the common consensus, and for a lot of women, how they come by this laudatory condition is secondary to the thing itself. Once the biological clock starts to tick, rationality (and in may cases, selfhood) goes out of the window. For me, Rosemary’s Baby derives much of its impact from just that, operating as a grotesque enactment of something recognisable. Rosemary’s biological clock is ticking, and regardless of who, how and why, she remains a slave to her biological impulses.
…And she’s prepared to take any treatment coming to her in order to satisfy them. Before she’s aware that her husband has arranged her rape at the hands of a Satanic cult, she’s delighted that he agrees that they can have a baby – despite his mean, often aggressive behaviour beforehand (as he mulls over the Castevets’ proposal, we imagine). Success for himself at the expense of his wife being used as a brood mare for the Devil? Why not, eh! And, when Rosemary wakes up after the hallucinogenic rape sequence, she seems to accept Guy’s explanation that he had sex with her when she was unconscious because he ‘didn’t want to miss baby night’. Hmmm. Smooth, Guy. Rosemary’s a lucky gal, and no mistake.
Of course the Devil fires no blanks, so Rosemary is overjoyed to find herself soon afterwards pregnant, quickly forgetting flashbacks to her rape and the fact that hubby (apparently) knocked her up in a way that was ‘sexy, in a necrophile kind of a way’. Things don’t go smoothly, though. Pregnancy isn’t the warm, glowing experience she was hoping for. She grows sick, painfully thin, and frequently finds herself in a lot of pain. Her attempts to deal with this are thwarted by her neighbours’ insistence that she sees their preferred physician Dr. Sapirstein, a man who encourages her not to worry herself with the finer details of what is happening to her (“Don’t read books, Rosemary”) and is disparaging of the intense physical anguish she is experiencing, assuring her it is all ‘normal’. When Rosemary reaches out to her friends for support, she is hemmed in on all sides by Guy, the Castevets and all the other neighbours involved with her unwitting role (with Guy getting physically aggressive towards the impertinent female friends who offer their help). Only old friend Hutch is able to warn her, before his impertinent helpfulness is disposed of by a hex.
As she grows bigger, Rosemary is more and more scrutinised by those around her whose focus is definitely not on her wellbeing. Although she discovers the truth about the Casevets and tries to escape from the cult, she is prevented by her condition: not only is she repeatedly fobbed off by her loved ones but it is a hot, hot summer in New York, and she simply cannot keep herself alert when she finally returns to her preferred doctor, Dr. Hill, where she tries to explain her situation and how paranoid she feels she is being. Hill, of course, betrays her, and the sleeping woman is next kidnapped, taken back to her apartment and tranquilised, so that her friendly neighbours can finally get at their precious cargo…
After which point, Rosemary is kept prisoner – sedated, and (literally) used as a food source by her gaolers. Charming. As she recovers, she begins to quietly rebel against this treatment, storing the medication which is keeping her subdued, and asking questions about the baby’s cries she can hear. Again, of course, she is lied to – so she takes matters into her own hands, arming herself and looking for her husband, his cronies and – her child.
The conclusion of the film is its apex, its greatest moment of flair. The conflation of middle-class chit-chat with the presence of a very unnatural event works so brilliantly…and at first, it looks as though Rosemary has retaken her personal volition. She approaches the crib, ignoring the protests of the gathered clans, with knife in hand, to protect herself and possibly to do something else…
Then she flounders. Despite the child having ‘his father’s eyes’, Rosemary’s initial shock quickly gives way to concern. ‘You’re rocking him…too fast,’ she declares to the feisty old maid Laura-Louise. Roman, seeing a window of opportunity, dispatches the child’s erstwhile nurse. ‘Let Rosemary rock him’, he orders, before appealing to the (recently raped, imprisoned, drugged) new mother. ‘Be his mother, Rosemary…you don’t even have to join, if you don’t want to…’
Does Rosemary maintain her rebellion, after everything? Nope. She folds. She starts to rock the child with an expression of benign consideration on her face.
And so the film comes to a close. Guy’s assertion that ‘you haven’t been [harmed], not really’ carries very little water – but what does it matter? After it all – her betrayal, her brutal, witnessed rape, her exclusion, her kidnap, her sedation and ultimately, her exploitation, she is a complete slave to her instincts. A thinking person would have thrust the knife into this future destroyer of worlds – but Rosemary is a mother. Even after everything which has been done to her, everything – she is still prepared to ‘be a mother’ to her child. Roman Castevet trusts in her intrinsic idiocy, and we’re appalled by it – although, for varying reasons it seems…