Monday, May 14, 2012

Intrusion, Invasion, and Loss of Control (also, Satan)

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Director:Roman Polanski
Seen @: Carolina Theater, Chapel Hill
Presented by Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 9.5/10

No two ways around it - the last few months have been utterly kicking my ass. Here's hoping that this summer won't be as cruel and that I'll be hanging around here more often. Back before the chaos though, I had a chance to attend Durham's wonderful Nevermore horror film fest for the second time. The fest started off strongly for me this year with a double feature of religious-themed horror revivals: Rosemary's Baby and The Sentinel.

Rosemary's Baby was one of those embarassing holes in my horror viewing that I'd always been meaning to fill. I'm not sure why I never got around to watching it, especially considering how much of a fan I am of Polanski's other work, particularly The Tenant. Like that film, Rosemary's Baby is part of the triptych of films comprising his "Apartment Trilogy," all of which are great works of psychological horror. Repulsion focused on the all-consuming fear that can arise from isolation and memory, while The Tenant turned those fears outward toward the world. In The Tenant, Polanski himself plays an increasingly isolated man consumed by paranoia and fear of those living around him. His character is destroyed because he slowly shuts out those around him and eventually abandons the real world entirely. I first watched The Tenant after moving from a house packed with roommates into an apartment of my own, in a new city where I didn't know too many people. The film resonated really well with my situation at the time, and left a big impression, particularly after the film was over and I was left sitting alone again in my own apartment.

If keeping others out was the problem in The Tenant, then Rosemary's Baby offers the contrasting view of the bad things that can happen when you welcome them in. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes) are a couple of newlyweds who are excited to move into their first New York apartment, despite the fact that the place seems to have a few quirks. For one, there's the friendly old couple who lives next door. That might not seem bad in and of itself, but these neighbors never go away. They're always knocking at the most inconvenient time - and how could they be turned away when they're so amicable? They're even disrupting things at night, when the thin wall separating the bedrooms of the two apartments transmits every sound back and forth. You can guess how well that goes over.

Annoying, but harmless, right? Maybe, until Rosemary becomes pregnant during a hallucinatory dream-sequence (one of the film's highlights). Things only get worse from there. Her initial discomfort at the bizarre nature of her conception is only magnified over time. Was it really a dream? What's with all those scratches on her back? What is her husband not telling her? The neighbors don't help, offering way too many tinctures and home remedies that purportedly ease her morning sickness, but really seem to make her feel (and look) worse. Slowly, Rosemary begins to uncover information about the dark history of the building where she lived and the sinister ulterior motives of those who are living in close proximity to her.

One of the reasons Rosemary's Baby is such a great film is that it conveys the sense of intrusion extremely well. Rosemary's control over her situation slowly diminishes, as one by one her friends disappear or turn against her. The sense of powerlessness is crushing, and the invasive nature of those trying to "help" her slowly increases as she loses control of her life, her home, and her body. Sickness is one of those universal fears that always hits a nerve for me when it's used well in horror, and here it's done extremely well.

[Spoilers follow]

One of the other reasons I really enjoyed this movie is because it isn't afraid to let the craziness fly in the end. Throughout the second half of the film, you're sometimes tempted to explain away all the weird things happening to Rosemary as "just in her head," but the evidence is just too overwhelming to deny. For every piece of evidence that suggests she might just be overreacting, there are two that confirm she isn't. The ending of the film brings the hammer down and destroys any doubts you might have had during the film. Rarely do horror movies have the guts to do this. There's no denying that when Rosemary looks, horrified, into that baby carriage that the evil here is real, it is powerful, and it wins.

[End spoilers]

Rosemary's Baby straddles the line between psychological thriller and horror, and there's more than enough here to keep fans of both entertained. In addition to a plot that keeps you guessing, and slowly ramps up the paranoia to a shattering crescendo, there's tons of classic horror iconography: hidden doors, Satanic cults, disturbing dream sequences... I'm glad that I finally got around to seeing this, and I couldn't have asked for a better theatrical experience. If this is still on your 'to-see' list, I highly recommend you take care of it soon.

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