‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and the real horror | Catholic National Register
Around 1968, the big screen darkened.
Onscreen and offscreen, the cinema began to fade into darker hues, reflecting the darkness of the world around it. Nowhere was this more evident than in one of that year’s box office hits: Rosemary baby.
Hollywood had hitherto retained a veneer of respectability in its cinema. The Motion Picture Production Code, formulated in the early 1930s, ensured that certain decencies were observed on screen. Additionally, the code was clear that evil on the screen was not to be seen triumphing. With the coming of Rosemary baby, however, that would change.
Strange stories grow around the movies. Like many movies before and since, Rosemary baby had its fair share of exactly what it revealed on screen – and the ramifications for some of those who were involved in making it.
A Polish filmmaker named Roman Polanski had forged, with a film, Knife in water (1962), a reputation as a promising director in his native country. Now, with a view to the international scene, he is heading to London. His London-based film Repulsion (1965) marked the young Pole even more. It starred ’60s icon Catherine Deneuve, who played a lonely young woman slowly going mad in a South Kensington apartment, before being the victim of a frenzied ax murder.
It was a piece of cinema that was as disturbing as it was successful with critics and the public. At that time, European cinema was shedding moral constraints in sympathy with the perceived dawn of a new era. Films, like Polanski’s, with recurring themes of murder, madness and the supernatural, were to be at the forefront of this emerging order.
Inevitably, after the success of his European films to date, Polanski was invited to the United States to make his first Hollywood film: Rosemary baby, based on the 1967 bestselling novel of the same name by Ira Levin.
Recently appointed production manager at Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans, a former actor turned producer, was looking for a film that would make him famous. When he read Levin’s novel, he knew he had found it.
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 baby represented a break with old Hollywood and the embrace of the nascent New Hollywood which was built on both artistic and philosophical ideas emanating from French cinema then in the fashion of the New Wave.
A commercial and critical success for Paramount Pictures, Rosemary baby would make both Evans and Polanski careers in Hollywood. When Evans became production manager for Paramount in 1966, the studio was in the doldrums, ranked ninth largest studio in Hollywood. Evans would go on to make Paramount the most successful studio in Hollywood, transforming his fortune.
Evans and Polanski have shaped, some in partnership, many more influential films after Rosemary baby. They were now at the forefront of the emerging new Hollywood and the new on-screen morality it ushered in. And it all started with an occult thriller where accepted morality and the understanding of evil were turned upside down.
Still to this day, Rosemary baby is a scary movie to watch. The plot revolves around an actor who sacrifices his wife’s fertility to Satan in order for his acting career to flourish; and flourish it is.
I remember the first time I saw the movie on TV on Halloween in the late 1970s. Even then, I realized it was a type of “horror” movie. unlike any I had known before, and far from Universal and Hammer studios. The shakes on the screen weren’t the ones that could revive a corpse but still disturbed the audience in more subtle ways.
There was something distinctive about the screen, with a special feel that pissed me off. Barely a teenager, I didn’t know then why that was. Many years later, when I saw the movie again, it bothered me even more than it had the first time, and now I was starting to understand why.
For starters, until the late 1960s there had never been a Hollywood movie where evil triumphed so blatantly. And what evil: nothing less than the birth of the Antichrist. There are, of course, many more subtle (and therefore all the more disturbing) clues of evil that permeate the film.
For example, there is a photo of the authentic 1966 Time magazine cover asking, “Is God Dead?” And there is actual footage from Pope Saint Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York City, mocked by the now Satanist husband to his still nominally Catholic wife, Rosemary. Other, more sordid attacks against the Church are present. The viewer has no doubts: there is a palpable darkness that permeates this film from the start.
At the center of it all is a mom-to-be: Rosemary. She’s an innocent, adrift cut, slowly falling apart psychologically, an unconscious expectant mother. Brilliantly performed by Mia Farrow, Rosemary is isolated both spiritually and physically. Her growing alarm is even more twisted, heightened by the realization that she can’t trust anyone.
As the net tightens, viewers watch with the same uneasiness, knowing that Rosemary’s danger is far greater than she could have imagined. In this horror film, like no other before, there is no escape – because it is a truly nightmarish plot from start to finish, ending as it does with a scene from hellish ringtone: “Hi Satan!”
As depicted on screen, Satanists are a cunning cabal who appear to have unlimited access to worldwide success. The temptation of Rosemary’s troubled actor-husband, oddly played by John Cassavetes, and his subsequent conformity with the hellish designs of his new Satanist neighbors seem too realistic, too human, and utterly believable in the world of the late years. 1960 in Manhattan. At the end of the film, evil does indeed seem to triumph.
Rosemary baby burst onto movie screens in the summer of 1968. It was only released a few weeks before the promulgation of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae to less thunderous applause. The latter taught the truths of human life and love; in contrast, the Hollywood film was only an infamous parody of these truths; one grabbed the Zeitgeist and was praised, the other spoke of an everlasting belief and was pilloried. Nonetheless, both were prophetic and, in their very different ways, marked the beginning of a battle for more than the soul of Hollywood.
After Rosemary baby, Polanski’s career âtook offâ. The future must indeed look golden. Yet as the director and his wife, Sharon Tate, built their new home in the hills above Hollywood, their every move was 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 August 9, 1969. A few days after the murder, Sharon Tate’s requiem took place at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. She was then buried at Holy Cross Cemetery with her unborn child in her arms. As for Evans and Polanski, the two men at the center of the filmmaking of Rosemary baby, the years following the film’s first stellar success will become for them increasingly mired in scandals and criminal accusations. To this day, Polanski remains a fugitive from US authorities.
When Rosemary baby crossed the Atlantic, British film censors were appalled by its content. Their objections weren’t so much to the occult connotations of the plot, however, as to the sexual violence inflicted by Satanists on Rosemary in order to carry out their evil plan.
By now, however, the British press was intolerant and didn’t care about censorship cuts to films of any sort. Therefore, there has been a predictable outcry from film critics in the newspapers in response to this. Perhaps, however, the most revealing comment of all was made by a reviewer, possibly unsuspecting its true meaning.
Written in the January 26 edition of the Sunday tabloid newspaper The people, Ernest Betts referred to the scene in the film where Rosemary holds a knife to her pregnant belly, threatening what is in her belly. Betts wrote: âNo scene I have encountered in a photo is as horrific as this one. All that violence and sex stuff the censor talks about is nothing compared to that.
The image of a knife held by a mother on her stomach makes an obvious reference. The British abortion law of 1967 did not come into force until April 1968. It is questionable whether this was what the journalist had unconsciously seen on screen, namely the now real threat to all unborn children across the country.
Oddly enough, the movie posters did not depict any scenes from the film. Instead, on hard, rocky ground, against a sickly green background, there is the silhouette of a stroller. There’s also Rosemary’s upturned face with the mocking movie tagline: “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby”.
As Rosemary baby was being screened across the United States, laws liberalizing abortion were enacted in New York City, California and elsewhere. It was almost, however, as if the poster image suggested that the stroller and what it contained was somehow disturbing, sort of a threat.
The Motion Picture Production Code made it clear that evil should not triumph on screen. In the case of Polanski’s film, the triumph of the powers of hell is all too obvious to the characters in the film. What is perhaps less obvious is how this film attacked not only Christianity, with its announcement of Antichrist, but also marriage and the giving of children.
Theology teaches that the devil cannot create; he can only counterfeit. What we are witnessing on screen in this film is therefore a horrific counterfeit of Christian marriage and its primary purpose, which is procreation.
Without doubt, this Halloween, Rosemary baby will air on 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 harkens back to an even older “classic”, namely the original lie whispered in a garden.