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Archive for January, 2011

The Horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Monday, January 31st, 2011

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…

Book Review: In The Blood by Miranda Luna

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

In The Blood is the first novel by Oregon-based author Miranda Luna: it’s been a while since I sat down to read horror fiction, much less horror fiction which takes the form of such a bloody love letter to the Goth subculture – and, with In The Blood, I was definitely pleased I’d taken a break from the film-watching.

The novel follows the fate of a novelist called Zoë Starr: existing both at the heart of the goth scene (as a popular writer) and on its periphery (as someone gradually pulling back from the world), Zoë is sinking into an oblivion of cheap-cut heroin and painful memories, despite the best efforts of those left around her who still care. She remains fixed in the here-and-now for one real reason – the welfare of her adopted daughter, Spider – but this, too, is problematic, and Spider obviously nurses a cool disregard for the ‘care’ she gets from her aunt.

But, for all the chaos and unhappiness, Zoë still thrives on her imaginative life – and finds herself more and more drawn to her old life in New Orleans, with her former love, Paris. They parted ways twelve years before, but Paris seems to be in the ascendant again – not just in her thoughts and dreams, though. He’s back in town, and this time he wants to see to it that their paths stay inextricably linked…

This is a novel which screams insider knowledge of the late 90s goth scene, particularly on its darker fringes – fetish, bloodplay, and so on. Scarred skin and bloodletting are constants here, and graphic depictions of self-harm and drug use are at the core of an understanding of the lead character – which may not be for every reader, though this seems born out of a genuine attachment to the subject at hand, rather than any wish to alienate. The novel is also very firmly-rooted in specifics of place, namely San Francisco and New Orleans. In fact, I think a few less markers – less specific mentions of subculture-specific bands, magazines, teeshirts, and so on – would have sufficed, because one of the strengths of the novel is that it feels like it belongs to its setting very early on. That said, in terms of the lead characters – Zoë especially – it was very easy to visualise them, and some of this is down to strongly-described appearances and mannerisms, as well as their internal worlds.

I also found it very easy to empathise with Zoë, because of that nicely-drawn internal dialogue. Even when her behaviour is damaging or desperate, it is possible to understand her motivations and accept her on her own terms. Luna also has a talent for depicting dream states and unreality in a convincing manner, and this is fundamental in making the plot hang together. There is also, as you might expect in a book themed around blood, flesh and lost loves, a fair amount of sex depicted – and mostly, these descriptions work (though not invariably; good sex is difficult to write and some of the descriptive terms start to trip over each other a little awkwardly in some parts of the story).

As for the ending – I wouldn’t spoiler anything, but I did wonder if it was left open to a degree…it would certainly be interesting to revisit these characters in future, or if not, an ambiguous close to the story fits in with the rather shadowy types of lives led by our protagonists.

So, some minor issues don’t prevent In The Blood from being an absorbing and heady story, with solid, interesting characterisation and evidence of a real love & knowledge of the realms wherein these characters dwell.

To buy a copy of the book, click here (