J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Revival: Rosemary’s Baby

Ever feel uncomfortable on the Upper Westside? Maybe it’s all the Satanists on CPW. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (trailer here) might be the all-time classic Upper Westside film, but it is far from a valentine to the Manhattan neighborhood. Forty years after its initial release, it still ranks as one of the great fright films. Starting today (Halloween), Film Forum celebrates Rosemary’s anniversary with a weeklong screening of a new 35M print of Polanski’s classic.

Rosemary is probably Polanki’s most subtle and insidious directorial work. The horrors we don’t see are scary as all get out. Unlike contemporary splatter fests, Polanski masterfully plants unsettling seeds which get under the audience’s skin to sprout in our imagination.

Polanski sets the disconcerting tone from the beginning, as Rosemary and Guy Woodehouse tour what will become their new apartment. The former tenant died rather suddenly, making this spacious rent-controlled beauty available at relatively affordable terms. If you are familiar with the distorted New York real estate market, you will understand why the Woodehouses snap it up, ignoring the early clues Polanski drops for us. For some reason, the recently deceased blockaded one of her closets with a heavy armoire. We also glimpse a fragment of an unfinished document which reads: “I can no longer associate myself . . .”

Rosemary and Guy, played by the seemingly mismatched but surprisingly credible Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, seem to subscribe to very different values. Guy professes atheism and expresses scorn for the Catholic Church. Rosemary bitterly clings to her religion. She yearns for children—Guy, not so much. These are the sort of differences that are often rationalized away, but persist, causing deep-seated fissures between people. It is such fundamental differences between the Woodehouses that their weird neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet exploit for their evil purposes.

It seems Rosemary is not the only one interested in seeing her pregnant. When Guy finally agrees, what starts as a romantic evening descends into the realm of nightmare, with Rosemary hallucinating a ravaging by Old Scratch himself, as Guy leers on. In a famous line, she cries out “this is not a dream, this is really happening.” Though alienated and increasingly isolated during a difficult pregnancy, the audience maintains reasonable confidence in Rosemary’s point of view. Polanski has already set down too many markers for us to lose our way—problematizing reality is not a game he is looking to play here.

In fact, Rosemary is pretty unique in the genre, holding up quite well in retrospect. Though a little over two hours, Polanski’s story-telling is quite economically, with all the pieces fitting together snugly. The stately but foreboding Dakota (a.k.a. the Bramford) apartment building makes quite an eerie backdrop. The performances have aged well too, particularly Oscar winner Ruth Gordon as the funny-scary Minnie Castevet and Sidney Blackmer as the ingratiatingly evil Roman.

Rosemary is also another fine collaboration between Polanski and Polish jazz musician and film composer Krzysztof Komeda. Sadly, it would be their last. Soon after the film’s release, Komeda and Rosemary’s infamous producer William Castle were admitted to the same hospital for emergency treatment. Castle would eventually check-out. Komeda did not. Encompassing both creepy mood-setters and groovy swingers, Komeda’s music for Rosemary always perfectly compliments the on-screen action. Years later, Komeda’s lullabye for the film, “Sleep Safe and Warm,” would become a staple for his protégé Tomasz Stanko.

Rosemary stands head and shoulders above the gory low-budget dreck churned out on conveyer belts today. Rosemary is scary because it depicts the seductiveness of evil. A film like Hostel is frightening because its sicko filmmakers are walking around loose in the world. Seeing Rosemary on the big screen is a legitimate Halloween treat. It runs at Film Forum through Thursday.

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