Roman Polanski, USA, 1968, 136 min.
I’ve seen this film once before, earlier in life. I often referenced it as one of the greatest horror movies I’d ever seen. That was about 19 years ago, when I last saw it. I’m so glad I revisited it!
Roman Polanski’s films have a certain beautiful quality to them. They often include tense, long, dream-out scenes that appear to be there to build atmosphere and study the characters for a bit longer than we are used to in film. This artfulness, along with incredible attention to detail, not only adds to what him some such a notable director but also pushes his films in to the category of classic or great films.
I’m happy I watched this again because it has quickly been removed from my greatest horror films list. I was so very mistaken.
Please don’t misunderstand, I still feel that this is an incredibly important film. It’s an important film for so many reasons: the time period it captured, both on and off camera, was so telling of classic Hollywood; with its very real feeling plot, it helped propel horror films to be considered serious, thoughtful films instead of cheesy scares with makeup and gore (Dare I say we’ve been undoing this in the last decade); Polanski’s direction, for the time, pushed the idea that directing could help change a genre (but I have a problem with this).
So, why did I promptly change my mind and remove this movie form my greatest horror movie list? The answer, in short, is that this collection of moving pictures is a painful, slow, monotonous, poorly-acted piece of art with a script that is literally three notes. Three. This script is essentially [spoilers] 1) Wealthy, young couple buys an expensive old NY apartment with some vague, possibly creepy history and creepy neighbors 2) The girl in the couple dreams of having relations with some demonesque creature while all the creepy neighbors watch 3) Its all true and her husband was in on it too; now do you keep the baby as your own? [/end spoilers] So, yeah, this movie should’ve been about an hour and twenty-five minutes. While this might be said for other movies, I want to be clear. Other movies could be shorter but don’t necessarily need to be. Other movies know how to add something to their films in that extra use of time. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby does not use that time well.
When I summarize the plot, it actually sounds pretty good again. Those notes hit hard. But, really, Polanski drags this out for two and a quarter hours. As I watched some of these scenes it became apparent to me that so much of this is pointless exposé to make it feel like you’re spending more time with characters. But, really, it was often pointless. The main actress, Mia Farrow, began to wear on me and annoy me for most of the movie. I couldn’t sympathize with her after the girl she speaks with in the laundry room ends up dying shortly after their encounter. Her character, or perhaps her acting, lacked any emotion and it became a grating nuisance for the rest of the film. Perhaps that’s what Polanski wanted. I doubt it though.
There’s one seemingly innocuous but particularly lengthy scene that really rubbed me the wrong way. I feel it encapsulates the overall problem with this flick. After the couple views the apartment, a friend tries to talk them out of considering the place by describing the rumors of witchcraft performed in the building. This scene starts after they’ve clearly decided to rent it and they sit in an empty room enjoying take out food. The silence is lengthy. Rosemary randomly says, “Hey, let’s make love”. They awkwardly get undressed. Again slowly. No cuts. I’ll be clear, often times using a single, uninterrupted cut is effective. Guy, Cassavetes’ character, decides to crack wise about the suspicious activities in the apartment. It’s not that any one thing made me uncomfortable or bored. It’s just incredibly out of place and didn’t feel natural at all. It felt like Polanski was simply using his freedom to experiment.
Overall, this film is truly beautiful and important. It’s even well-acted, minus Farrow. The supporting cast was effectively creepy. But it has not aged well; it was a clunky, overlong, somewhat boring movie with a plot thinner than Mia Farrow. It’s moved much lower on my list of horror films. I can appreciate it but I don’t have to love it.