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The Screen Darkens: ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and the Real Horror

The Screen Darkens: ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and the Real Horror

‘Rosemary’s Baby’ movie poster (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Hollywood’s embrace of a new morality in the 1960s takes a disturbing turn.

Sometime around 1968 the silver screen darkened.

On and off screen, cinema began to fade to darker hues, reflecting the darkness of the world around it. Nowhere was this more manifest than in one of that year’s box-office successes: Rosemary’s Baby.

Hollywood had maintained until then a veneer of respectability in its filmmaking. The Motion Picture Production Code, formulated in the early 1930s, had ensured that certain decencies where adhered to on screen. In addition, the code was clear that on-screen evil was not to be seen to triumph. With the coming of Rosemary’s Baby, however, that was to change.

Strange tales grow up around movies. Like many films before and since, Rosemary’s Baby has had its fair share about what exactly it revealed upon the screen — and the consequences for some of those involved in its making.

A Polish filmmaker named Roman Polanski had forged, with one film, Knife in the Water (1962), a reputation as a director of promise in his native land. Now, with an eye to the international stage, he went to London. His London-based film Repulsion (1965) marked out the young Pole still further. It starred ’60s icon Catherine Deneuve, who played an isolated young woman going slowly mad in a South Kensington apartment, before being subject to a frenzied killing by an axe.

It was as disturbing a piece of cinema as it was to prove successful with critics and audiences alike. At that time, European cinema was throwing off moral constraints in sympathy with the perceived dawning of a new age. Films, such as Polanski’s, with recurring themes of murder, madness and the supernatural, were to be in the vanguard of this emerging order.

Inevitably, after the success of his to-date European films, Polanski was beckoned to the United States with a view to making his first Hollywood film: Rosemary’s Baby, based upon the 1967 best-selling novel of the same name by Ira Levin.

Having recently been appointed head of production at Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans, a former actor who had turned producer, was looking for a film that would make his name. When he read Levin’s novel, he knew he had found it.

In bringing the project to life at Paramount Pictures, Evans was doing for Paramount what Warren Beatty had done for Warner Bros. with Bonnie and Clyde. Like that 1967 film about amoral gangsters, Rosemary’s Baby represented a break with old Hollywood and the embrace of the nascent New Hollywood that was being built from ideas both artistic and philosophical emanating from the then-voguish French New Wave cinema.

A commercial and critical success for Paramount Pictures, Rosemary’s Baby would make both Evans’ and Polanski’s Hollywood careers. When Evans had become head of production for Paramount in 1966, the studio was in the doldrums, ranked the ninth-largest studio in Hollywood.  Evans would go on to make Paramount the most successful studio in Hollywood, transforming its fortunes.

Evans and Polanski fashioned, some in partnership, many more influential films after Rosemary’s Baby. They were now very much at the forefront of the emerging New Hollywood and the new on-screen morality that it inaugurated. And it all began with an occult thriller where the accepted morality and understanding of evil was turned on its head.

Still to this day, Rosemary’s Baby is a chilling movie to watch. The plot revolves around an actor who sacrifices his wife’s fecundity to Satan so that his acting career flourishes; and flourish it does.

I remember the first time I saw the movie on television one Halloween in the late 1970s. Even then, I realized that this was a different sort of “horror” film to any I had thus far experienced, and a long way from the studios of Universal and Hammer. The jolts on screen were not those that might reanimate a corpse but still disturbed the audience in subtler ways.

Here was something distinctive on screen, with a peculiar feel that unnerved me. Barely a teenager, I was not sure then why this was. Many years later, when I watched the movie again, it disturbed me even more than it had that first time, and now I began to understand why.

For a start, until the late 1960s, there had never been a Hollywood film where evil triumphed so blatantly. And what evil: nothing less than the birth of the Antichrist. There are, of course, many subtler, (and therefore all the more disquieting) hints of evil that suffuse the film.

For example, there is a shot of the genuine 1966 Time magazine cover asking: “Is God Dead?” And there are clips of actual footage of Pope St. Paul VI’s visit to New York City in 1965, mocked by the now-Satanist husband to his still nominally Catholic wife, Rosemary. Other, more lurid, attacks on the Church are present. The viewer is left in no doubt: There is a palpable darkness that pervades this movie from the start.

Central to all this is an expectant mother: Rosemary. She is an innocent, cut adrift, crumbling slowly psychologically, an unknowing mother-to-be. Brilliantly played by Mia Farrow, Rosemary is isolated spiritually as much as physically. Her growing alarm is twisted further, intensified by the realization that she can trust no one.

As the net tightens, viewers watch with equal unease, knowing Rosemary’s peril is far greater than she could ever have imagined. In this horror movie, as in no other before, there is to be no escape — for this is a truly nightmarish plot from start to dire finish, ending as it does with a scene of infernal ringing out: “Hail Satan!”

As depicted on screen, the Satanists are a cunning cabal who seem to have unfettered access to worldly success. The temptation of Rosemary’s struggling actor-husband, played eerily by John Cassavetes, and his later compliance with the infernal designs of his new Satanist neighbors seem all too realistic, all too human, and altogether believable of the world of late-1960s Manhattan. By the movie’s end, evil indeed has appeared to triumph.

Rosemary’s Baby burst onto cinema screens during the summer of 1968. It was released only a handful of weeks before the promulgation of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae to less thunderous applause. The latter taught the truths of human life and love; by contrast, the Hollywood film was but a nefarious parody of those truths; one caught the Zeitgeist and was lauded, the other spoke of a perennial belief and was pilloried. Nevertheless, both were prophetic and, in their very different ways, marked the beginning of a battle for more than just the soul of Hollywood.

After Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski’s career “took off.” The future must have indeed looked golden. Yet while the director and his wife, Sharon Tate, were making their new home in the hills over Hollywood, their every move was being scrutinized. Unfortunately for them, the scrutinizing eyes were those of a madman by the name of Charles Manson.

The pregnant Tate was to be brutally murdered on Aug. 9, 1969. A few days after the murder, Sharon Tate’s requiem took place at Church of the Good Shepherd, Beverly Hills. She was later buried in Holy Cross Cemetery with her unborn child in her arms.  As for Evans and Polanski, the two men at the center of the cinematic realization of Rosemary’s Baby, the years that followed the film’s initial stellar success were to become for them ones increasingly mired in scandal and criminal charges. To this day, Polanski remains a fugitive from U.S. authorities.

When Rosemary’s Baby made its way across the Atlantic, Britain’s film censors were appalled by its content. Their objections were not so much over the occult overtones of the plot, however, as the sexual violence that was inflicted by Satanists on Rosemary so as to execute their diabolic plan.

By now, though, the British press was intolerant and mocking of censorship cuts made to films, of whatever sort. Therefore, there was a predictable outcry from newspaper movie critics in response to this. Perhaps, however, the most telling comment of all was by a critic, probably one unsuspecting of its true significance.

Writing in the Jan. 26 edition of the mass-market tabloid Sunday newspaper The People, Ernest Betts made reference to the scene in the movie where Rosemary holds a knife over her pregnant stomach, threatening what is in her womb. Betts wrote, “No scene which I have encountered in a picture is quite so horrifying as this one. All that stuff about violence and sex the censor talks about pales beside it.”

The image of a knife held by a mother over her womb makes an obvious reference. The British 1967 Abortion Act had only come into effect in April 1968. One wonders if that was what the newspaper journalist had, subconsciously, caught a glimpse of upon the screen, namely, the now real threat to all unborn children across the land.

Curiously, movie posters depicted no scene from the film. Instead, on a harsh, rocky terrain, against a sickly green background, there is the silhouette of a stroller. There is also the upturned face of Rosemary with the mocking movie strapline: “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”

As Rosemary’s Baby was being screened across the United States, laws liberalizing abortion were enacted in New York, California and elsewhere. It was almost, however, as if the poster image was suggesting that the stroller and what it held were somehow ominous, somehow a threat.

The Motion Picture Production Code had been clear that evil must not triumph on screen. In the case of Polanski’s film, the triumph of the powers of hell is all too obvious to the film’s characters. What is, perhaps, less obvious is how this film attacked not just Christianity, with its heralding of the Antichrist, but also marriage and the gift of children.

Theology teaches that the devil cannot create; he can only counterfeit. What we witness on screen in this film, therefore, is a horrible counterfeit of Christian marriage and its primary purpose, namely, procreation.

Doubtless, this Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby shall be trotted out across television networks and streaming services as “Classic Horror” — one mired in the Satanic-inspired sexual revolution of the 1960s; but it is also something else. The 1968 film harks back to an even older “classic,” namely, the original lie whispered in a garden.

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