Though undoubtedly intended to honor the film’s iconic status as a classic chiller, Film Forum’s decision to start its week-long revival of Rosemary’s Baby on Halloween in some ways diminishes Roman Polanski’s achievement. Sure, it’s one of the finest horror films ever made, but 40 years after its premiere, Rosemary’s Baby (adapted from Ira Levin’s 1967 novel) plays more like an unnerving commentary on our still-sexist society than it does a traditional scare flick.
Mia Farrow, famous largely because of Peyton Place and her marriage to Frank Sinatra, lucked into some unbelievably perfect art-imitates-life casting when she landed the part of Rosemary, the young wife happily devoted to her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). Furious that she took the role against his wishes, Sinatra divorced Farrow during production, setting off a juicy parallel between Farrow’s off-screen battle with her domineering husband and Rosemary’s struggle to get out from under the thumb of Guy, who has contemptible plans for her and their unborn child.
Usually, tabloid tawdriness is immaterial to a film’s value, but with Rosemary’s Baby, those details feed into the film’s defiantly feminist themes—how else to read a movie about an innocent woman whose career-conscious husband arranges to have her impregnated by Satan and is then forced to suffer at the hands of patronizing neighbors (Sidney Blackmer and Oscar winner Ruth Gordon) who secretly view her as little more than a baby incubator? Three years earlier, with the psychological thriller Repulsion, Polanski had demonstrated an ability to dramatize the anxieties of women trapped in a male-driven society. But with Rosemary’s Baby, he and Farrow channeled that unease into a Hollywood movie that transformed the prototypical woman-in-peril suspenser into a treatise on the many ways soon-to-be mothers can feel spiritually abandoned during pregnancy—from doctors with suspect bedside manners, from husbands who grow distant and disinterested, and from a world that dismisses their fears as the by-product of raging hormones.
Horror movies provide a snapshot of the zeitgeist, from the 1970s bloodbaths inspired by Vietnam’s living-room war to 21st-century torture porn that reflects the age of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Rosemary’s Baby echoes its time as well, responding to the 1960s’ cries for female empowerment in the wake of The Feminine Mystique‘s exposé of women’s second-class-citizen status. But while many of the film’s peers fade from memory, rendered passé because their shock value has eroded or because their thematic underpinnings got swept away by some new societal concern, the elegant mind games of Rosemary’s Baby feel just as relevant today as they did back in 1968. In an election year that has seen charges of sexism leveled by the same party that wants to roll back abortion rights, Rosemary’s Baby forces us to see the world as it appears from one legitimately frightened woman’s perspective: claustrophobic, intimidating, and wearing a smile on its face when, really, it’s out to get you.