Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
It’s October, so you know what that means: it’s time for some horror movies! If you’re like me, you actually probably watch a good number of horror movies throughout the year, especially in a year where two gems like The Innkeepers and Cabin in the Woods both came out in the spring. But I’ve always enjoyed horror movies, even if I don’t really find myself with the opportunity to write about them very often.
That changes in October. Criterion Cuts, already one of my more fluid projects, puts on a witch hat and douses itself in fake blood to take up all five October Mondays with an array of spooky, scary, or thrilling selections from the Criterion Collection. As you might expect, that’s going to be an eclectic set of movies, but that’s the joy of horror: the array of what is scary or unsettling is so vast that to delve into it will take you through all genres and the entire history of film, as even our earliest films endeavored to elicit that most primal emotion—fear.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
This is one of those rare instances where the pick of a Criterion lines up perfectly with its release in the collection. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, is hitting Criterion Blu-Ray on Tuesday, October 30th, and I know the movie could look better. That’s not really here or there, but I bring it up as a reminder that format matters, and good new restorations of classic films on high definition formats are always a reason to celebrate.
As for the movie itself, this is an interesting one in the project in that it’s the only one that I’ve seen before. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the fourth time I’ve seen it, an adventure in rewatching that provides greater rewards each time I do it. It’s also one of those infamous movies I hated the first time I watched it, annoyed that it was too long and too slow and totally devoid of scares. It was weird, but weird isn’t enough. This is a typical response to movies from this era for me, especially a few years ago, so when someone urged me to rewatch it I did, and have since put it firmly in my list of classic horror movies I very much love.
So in talking about it, I want to talk about what really works for the movie, and that’s two points. First off, there’s the strange domestic caricature that drives normal life events into the realm of the unsettling. Second, there’s the maternity body horror, a surprisingly complex look at patriarchy and women’s health that drives a message that still feels very politically charged and progressive even decades later.
To start with, we have a relatively normal situation: Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is a young housewife moving into a new apartment with her aspiring actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). They’re a young urban couple, a little impulsive but ready to put down roots and think about starting a family. They’re the typical 60s married couple, not quite hippies but certainly artistic and liberal leaning, bumping into a bunch of older folks as they deal with finding a real place to live. The apartment they see is surprisingly nice for an affordable New York City apartment, an opportunity because the old woman who lived there died suddenly. The building seems inhabited by only two types of people: young mothers-to-be and old, eccentric couples like their neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer).
The Castevets are interesting in that they’re their own sort of strange exaggerated version of the typical New York Jewish couple, a pair that is made gross through being pushed to extremes until they become some nightmare Ralph Steadman version of those archetypes Minnie especially is a clash of wild floral prints, garish lipstick, and too-perfectly coifed 50s hairstyles, the kind of perversion of traditional housewife made into a cartoon that nags and interjects and generally is a total bother. She inserts herself, and her husband, into the lives of everyone in the building. It doesn’t matter who, they find a way to know things and become indispensable.
Like they know that Rosemary is trying to have a baby, and offer suggestions for herbal ways to help her conceive. In fact, the very night they try for the baby is interrupted by Minnie, who arrives with a dessert that Rosemary eats only to seemingly fall ill immediately afterward. Is she drugged, or is it just a passing illness? She dreams that her husband takes her to some ritual where she’s raped by a demon, but in the morning he’s there beside her, and everything seems normal, and the two of them carry on with their lives. Which is when the pregnancy starts.
The bulk of the movie deals with Rosemary’s pregnancy, an event that is rife with actual cultural superstition and social taboo. Things have come a long way even since the 60s, but for a long time pregnancy has had a tradition of repression associated with it, a rite of passage that women went through often alone, often relying upon the advice of those who had done so, and often afraid of the changes that they were undergoing. Rosemary’s Baby pushes this to the extreme by putting Rosemary in a situation where she’s railroaded into seeing a doctor that the Castevet’s recommend, left to a strangely alternative series of herbal supplements as she begins to experience pain and weight loss and general illness associated with her pregnancy.
That isolation is made worse by the fact that she’s kept away from the friends she moved away from, kept into this strange isolation where her troubles are dismissed and thus she treats them as normal. When she finally manages to encounter her friends, they’re shocked at her condition and horrified to find that she seems relatively nonplussed by it. These are modern women who have agency over their own health, and Rosemary slipped so easily into this oppressive environment of control that represents the sort of old pre-20th century (hell, even early 20th century, or even now in some ways) under-researched and overly prudish way of looking at birth, trapped in Victorian shaming over sex and sexuality (especially when it deals with such horrifying concepts as vaginas!). Medicine was/is traditionally a male-dominated field, and thus the history of that tradition is inherently in part misogynistic, as men (especially of yore) have little to no idea about women’s health issues.
And it’s not as if Minnie is any help: her meddling is that of a midwife-as-witch-woman, coming in with her questionable beliefs and bizarre home remedies, operating under an agenda that Rosemary barely understands until its too late. She is the other part of the equation: the married women who believe in tradition passed down, unquestioning of how things have to be even if they’re wrong, creating potentially dangerous situations out of ignorance and tradition. By creating this clear cultural divide between mothers and young childless women, she reinforces in Rosemary’s mind this sense of crossing from one world into another, a way of driving her into isolation and into trusting those who have already made that trip, even if they aren’t operating in her best interests.
Its those things, then, that form the most compelling backbone of Rosemary’s Baby. Sure, there’s that whole Satanist thing, and the chillingly bleak ending, but that stuff is old hat at this point. It’s that representation of the cultural taboos and social isolation associated with women’s health that seems most interesting to me, especially in today’s world where we’re still fighting fundamental ignorance about how women’s bodies work on a broad cultural level (as political as this article is going to get, I swear). Rosemary’s fight is a fight that every woman struggles with, even without the plot trappings of the horror elements. Pregnancy, childbirth, and the female body are inherently charged subjects in our culture, as much now as they were then as they are throughout antiquity. And it’s in confronting that uniquely strange experience of being stranded between worlds, of having a body that’s betraying you as it creates this strange new thing, that makes Rosemary’s Baby more memorable than just a solid horror movie.