Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is apartment hunting with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) when they happen to investigate one in a building that seems just right. Taken round by the supervisor (Elisha Cook Jr), he tells them about the little old lady who used to live there and reassures them that although the place is free because she has died, she passed away in hospital and not in the bedroom. There is one odd detail they note when looking, and that is a large item of furniture has been moved across one of the cupboard doors, but Rosemary thinks little of it: the apartment will be perfect to start a family in...
For Roman Polanski's first American film, Ira Levin's recent horror bestseller Rosemary's Baby was chosen, originally to have been directed by William Castle who was persuaded otherwise and served as producer instead (he did get a great cameo as the man outside the phone booth, however). In some ways it was similar to Polanski's previous horror film Repulsion as the apartment becomes a breeding ground for a terror which might be all in the heroine's mind, but here it had bigger issues on the agenda than the deterioration of one woman's sanity, and managed to draw in a whole unease about the lack of spiritual grounding that many saw the world heading for.
Seems that every period in time has quite a few people who believe the end of the world is right around the corner, and Rosemary's Baby was one of the first films to truly make a commercial success not of a story involving some science fiction notion of how that might happen, but a trumpet call of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Set over the course of a year from 1965 to 1966 (Polanski was slavishly faithful to the book), the Devil himself insinuates his presence into a modern environment, significantly thanks to the older generation who still have faith in the business of religion, albeit Rosemary's neighbours whose overfriendly nature masks a dark soul.
Those neighbours could not have been better cast, as Sidney Blackmer and especially Ruth Gordon (who was awarded an Oscar) come across as slightly dotty, nosy but generally harmless until Rosemary begins to suspect that their interest in her is not entirely benevolent. The turning point is not when the waif the neighbours have taken in commits bloody suicide, but the night when Guy suggests that they try for a baby, and make the evening special with a meal - oh, and Gordon's Mrs Castavet has prepared a dessert. Soon the young wife is feeling groggy, has to go to bed and has a strange nightmare, leading to Farrow's classic, bone-chilling line "This is no dream, this is really happening!"
But what was really happening? Was Rosemary actually raped by some kind of beast? She isn't convinced herself, but when Guy's acting career takes off thanks to another performer going blind, and she falls pregnant which should be a happy occasion only why does she feel such physical pain? then she starts getting suspicious. The true villain here is not so much the Satanists, and despite what Polanski said about ambiguity we're never in any doubt they are authentic, but the easygoing Guy who is willing to make this hellish sacrifice for the chance to better himself - Cassavetes, although he was not as easygoing during filming, is quite superb in this, matching Farrow's worrying fragility. But the movie's real strength is the feeling of desperate hopelessness as Rosemary is stranded in a world where the only people who believe her paranoia has foundation are those who have instigated it. In this the drawback of the audience being one step ahead is twisted so that the suffocating panic Rosemary feels is brought out in us as well - it's a deeply nasty film, but undeniably a classic. Music by Krzysztof Komeda.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.