Thursday 22 December 2011

ROSEMARY'S BABY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The greatest sacrifice is giving birth...

Anticipating the release of "Carnage", Roman Polanski's nasty, insanely hilarious four-hander, The Toronto International Film Festival's TIFF Bell Lightbox presents an astonishing mini-retrospective of everyone's favourite genius child rapist that focuses upon his continued obsession with paranoia within the context of closed spaces. Films that are still left in the series include: "Rosemary's Baby" (Friday December 23 09:00 PM) and "The Ghost Writer" (Sunday December 25 04:00 PM).

Rosemary's Baby (1968) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Charles Grodin, Elisha Cook Jr.


By Greg Klymkiw

We've all had neighbours, friends, family and/or mere acquaintances who - no matter how well intentioned - just suck the life right out of you. Their ubiquitous presence and meddling (disguised as a helping hand) gets to a point where you just don't want to answer the door or telephone, or in this day and age, go online. In fact, you sometimes even contemplate killing these loathsome, hematophagous hirudinean parasites. And make no mistake, they come in all shapes, sizes and persuasions. Some of them might even worship - yup, you guessed it - Satan!

I must frankly admit I've always had a soft spot for devil worship.

In the movies, that is.

The cult aspect of devil worship is what's probably the most frightening. Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim is probably the first great horror movie to deal with the evil of cults and the insidious way they target their prospective members/victims, then suck them dry. Also great fun is The Devil Rides Out, that great Hammer Horror picture directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee as the Satanist-battling hero and Charles Gray (the expert criminologist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ernst Stavros Bloefeld, 007's nemesis in Diamonds Are Forever) as the perverse, evil devil worshipper who's into sacrificing any number of buxom beauties to his Lord and Master. And, of course, nobody in their right mind could ever forget Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in Jack Starret's brilliant and sadly unsung Race With The Devil wherein our heroes try to outrun Satanists in their (I kid you not!) Winnebago".

In the cinematic devil worship sweepstakes, nothing quite beats Roman Polanski's classic big-screen adaptation of Ira Levin's compulsive best-selling novel Rosemary's Baby. Produced by veteran horror director and producer William Castle, this movie was one of the biggest hits of the late 60s and has remained, for over forty years, one of the truly great horror thrillers of all time. A recent helping of the picture confirmed that it's still as terrific as it always was.

Opening under the strains of Krzysztof Komeda's score under ace cinematographer William Fraker's overhead shots of Manhattan, Rosemary's Baby immediately grips you with its off-kilter lullaby to a dead baby (as composed by Erik Satie in a REALLY foul mood) and featuring vocals more at home in an Oil of Olay commercial. The music plays over shots that make New York feel less like a bustling modern metropolis, but rather, some baroque, almost decrepit old world labyrinth of brick - adorned with turrets and rusting water towers.

The camera eventually settles above a gorgeous 19th century building and we soon focus our attention on a newlywed couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) who are about to be shown an apartment by the friendly, but slightly weasel-like caretaker (Elisha Cook Jr.). Of course Rosemary adores it, though Guy displays some trepidation over the rent - he's a struggling actor getting by on the occasional TV commercial and off-off-off-Broadway theatrical piece.

Soon they settle into their new home. A series of odd discoveries and strange noises are noted, but not fretted over too much. What there IS to fret about are their neighbours, a childless old couple, Minnie and Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). They seem friendly enough, but insinuate themselves immediately upon the couple - borrowing cups of sugar, endless dinner invitations, dropping by unannounced, recommending (rather insistently) all sorts of things that are really none of their business. Though it drives Rosemary bonkers, her hubby Guy is eating it up and spending all his free time with these batty old people.

A series of tragedies occur. A young woman jumps from the top of the building. Guy loses an important audition, but within days, he finds out that the actor who got the role instead of him has gone mysteriously blind. An old family friend (Sidney Blackmer) suffers a massive stroke.

Then Rosemary's dreams begin - nightmares, really. An especially horrific dream occurs when Guy has sex with her when she passes out.

And then she gets pregnant. All should be well. Guy has been offered the role he initially lost. His star begins to rise. The Castanets, with Guy's eager approval insist Rosemary switch doctors and send her to their old friend Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), one of the most respected family doctors in the country.

Rosemary, however, is not happy. They've drifted away from every friend who was their contemporary. They are spending endless social evenings with the Castanets, Sapirstein and a whole bunch of old people. Worst of all, Rosemary is getting weaker and sicker with each passing day. Instead of gaining weight, she becomes anorexically skinny. The baby inside of her feels dead. Dr. Sapirstein keeps insisting nothing's wrong and she's forced to ingest a putrid herbal drink that Minnie Castanet prepares under the doctor's orders.

Oh, and then, there's the chanting. Every night. From the apartment of the Castanets.

Clues and research yield to the inevitability that everyone in Rosemary's life is a Satanist and that her baby is being groomed - not for life, but for sacrifice.

Or so Rosemary believes.

Sacrifice would be a blessing.

What's in store for her baby is a lot worse.

As Polanski has almost become the final word in thrillers infused with paranoia, Rosemary's Baby oozes creepy portent and when things get serious, the movie is unbearably scary. Polanski delivers a measured, slowly mounting sense of dread. When the terror shifts into fuel-injected overdrive, few thrillers can only hope to be even a fraction of this picture in terms of pure, unadulterated horror.

Every performance in this movie is a gem. Mia Farrow is suitably gamine and vulnerable, but where she really shines are those moments when WE know she's not crazy, but everyone (other than the Satanists) think she's completely bonkers. Cassavetes as her hubby, oozes slime - almost from the beginning, really. Where he really knocks the ball out of the park are those moments when he displays revulsion at the mere thought of having to touch his wife after she's pregnant. He's almost more frightening than the true evil all around her. Coming close to stealing the movie, however, is former golden age comedy star Ralph Bellamy as the kindly (on the surface) Abe Sapirstein. As the movie progresses, he seldom lets down his guise as the helpful family doctor - he plays it so straight that we begin to suspect he's deeply in cahoots with the Satanists. Some of his advice to Rosemary is so ludicrous in light of what WE see happening to her and what she herself feels, that he becomes the most malevolent of all the movie's antagonists. Bellsamy's performance is so astonishing that it might be hard to trust any kindly old G.P. who's coming at you with a hypodermic.

(Oh, and as a sidenote: ABE SAPIRSTEIN!!! Is this not a GREAT character name? All the character names novelist Ira Levin conjured are brilliant, but "Abe Sapirstein" takes the cake big time!)

Rosemary's Baby is as close to perfection as any movie can come - every detail, every dramatic beat, every shudder-inducing moment and every knock-you-on-your-ass horror set piece is proof-positive of Polanski's genius. His work in Rosemary's Baby reminds me of that great speech Violet Venable gives in Tennessee Williams's "Suddenly Last Summer" when she describes her trip to the Encantadas and focuses on the "hatching of the great sea turtles and their race to the sea" and how the "flesh-eating birds ...hovered and swooped to attack" until finally, they turn over the newborn sea turtles in order to "attack their soft undersides, tearing their undersides open and rending and eating their flesh."

This is Polanski in a nutshell. He's the consummate filmmaker and as such, is a predator - rending and eating the flesh of his characters AND the audience.

In Rosemary's Baby, he takes the commonplace and slowly, creepily and nastily drags both his heroine and the audience through a bed of glowing hot coals. It's often the quiet that's so unsettling. When the quiet yields - ever so rarely, but effectively, to shrill, shrieking and almost unspeakable horror - you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you're under the spell of a master.

Hail Cinema!

Hail Polanski!

Hail Satan!