26. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
This one's not just a great horror film—it's a great film, period. I'm going to work from the assumption that most of you know the plot by now, but here's a quick drive-by: Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into a historic New York City apartment building called the Bramford (and played, in exterior shots, by the similarly storied Dakota), where they are aggressively befriended by their strange elderly neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet. Rosemary soon becomes pregnant and Guy's acting career takes off—two facts that turn out to be causally related—because the Castavets happen to lead a coven of Satan-worshiping witches, and they have promised Guy success if (and here's the fine print) Rosemary can be drugged and impregnated with Satan's baby. So... you think your husband's bad? Try Guy Woodhouse on for size. In order to score some high-profile roles in the movies, he actually lets his wife be raped by the scaly, clawed, red-eyed Lord of the Underworld, and then he psychologically manipulates her into believing her painful, highly irregular pregnancy is normal. Can't you just see the episode of Maury where Rosemary makes Guy take a paternity test, and Guy starts dancing around the stage to cheesy hip-hop music when Mr. Povich utters those fateful words: 'You are NOT the father!' Meanwhile, Satan is waiting in the wings—red eyes aglow—gloomy about the child support payments he sees in his future. (Incidentally, Guy is played by one of my all-time favorite film directors, John Cassavetes. He's rather effective at playing complete assholes, it seems. Did you see him at the end of Brian De Palma's The Fury? The last five minutes are worth the price of admission alone.)
The reason I ran through the plot quickly, even though most people are familiar with it already, is to illustrate how talented director Roman Polanski is (or was). I mean, when you strip it to the bare bones, that story is preposterous and over-the-top and seems destined to become a standard schlocky b-movie. But Polanski knew how to do it right. He keeps many of the more incredible events off-screen and forces us to experience them through Rosemary Woodhouse's limited perspective. When Rosemary is drugged and impregnated, for instance, we 'see' the events through her eyes, as a blend of hallucination, dream, and reality—a kaleidoscopic vantage which saves the film from getting bogged down in the literality of the supernatural event.
Polanski treats Rosemary's Baby as a psychological horror film rather than as a traditional supernatural horror film. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary with a fragility and guilelessness that makes her predicament somehow believable. Perhaps real-life events helped her in her hollow-eyed, depleted performance: Professional jackass Frank Sinatra reportedly served her with divorce papers on the set of Rosemary's Baby (because she would not give up her acting career for him). At any rate, Farrow really set the standard for wide-eyed vulnerability in horror flicks that would follow. We believed in her experiences because we believed in her.
But you can't really talk about Rosemary's Baby without talking about Ruth Gordon's performance, can you? She deservedly won an Oscar for her work here in the role of Minnie Castavet. She's gaudy, ridiculous, funny, eerie, and menacing all the same time. How is that even possible—right? I kind of think the role of Minnie is the flip-side of the joyous, life-affirming Maude from Harold & Maude. Minnie's like a slithery, rasping wraith in blue eye shadow and garish house dresses, but it's probably her singleness-of-purpose and her nonchalance in consorting with devil that's the most disturbing. Other old women garden or knit; she facilitates the birth of Satan's son. The object is different, but the passion's the same.