The history of horror cinema is besotted with effective scares, unimaginable scenarios, gallows humor, effortlessly eerie performances . . . but how many films of the genre can claim perfect storytelling? A great many of even the greatest are cursed with sputtering storylines, even the most epochally frightening among them designed as machines lurching ahead to the next great gotcha set piece. Are we watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the interstitial moments between massacres? Halloween for the little connections its flat characters make amidst Carpenter’s careful, classical compositions? Are we invested so much in the lives of Regan and Chris MacNeil that we would happily forgo The Exorcist‘s roller-coaster second half? Are the kids in A Nightmare on Elm Street multifaceted enough that we care about them before they’re eviscerated? Rosemary’s Baby is one of the few horror movies I can name that is so compelling in its minutiae, so perfectly structured, or sculpted, rather, and most importantly, such a completely realized portrait of recognizable humans caught up in a bizarre situation (from its hero to its many villains), that by the time its characters’ idiosyncrasies have been revealed as indicative of something far more sinister, we’re already emotionally invested enough that we dread rather than crave shocks.
As most agree, Roman Polanski’s effortless masterpiece perfectly mixes a paranoia thriller with the supernatural Satanic, while creating cinema’s most disturbing, persuasive pro-choice narrative (the true horror of the film comes from young Rosemary’s lack of control over her own body, which has been corrupted by nearly every person around her). What makes it special is in the telling: Polanski’s casual brilliance with narrative and space is matched by his adeptness at screenwriting here. With a few elegant strokes, entire back stories are sketched: Rosemary’s Catholic upbringing is portrayed only through abstracted dream sequences and her obvious discomfort at an anti-pope dinner party conversation; her husband Guy’s narratively crucial out-of-work-actor desperation not belabored upon but taken as a sly given; and Polanski wisely allows the creepy next-door Castavets to be almost wholly defined by the amusingly eccentric behaviors and mannerisms of Ruth Gordon (fussy, fidgety, nosy, aloof) and Sidney Blackmer (self-righteous, self-amused, with a piercing stare). These people (including Rosemary’s dapper elderly friend Hutch) are individually fascinating enough to each warrant their own film; all are utterly different in decorum, and their neuroses and needs bounce off of each other with ease.
The most terrifying character of all is Guy’s. It’s tempting to wonder what Robert Redford, originally courted for the role, might have brought to this ultimate egotistical actor, with his golden boy deadness, but there’s no doubt that the role is now unthinkable without John Cassavetes. With his devilish handsomeness (one second youthful and penetrating, the next gaunt and soulless, always with expressively arched eyebrows), he certainly looks the part of a villain, in this case a monstrously selfish husband who sells his wife (and her body) down the river for his own future; but unsurprisingly Cassavetes brings so much more to the role, underscoring Guy’s every action with a shocking degree of contempt and self-loathing. Whether or not some of this characterization sprang from the actor’s own famous discomfort with being directed by Polanski (Cassavetes often looks as though he wants to pounce out of his own skin), the result is a terrifying act of constant disdain. Guy (such an indistinct, nameless name!) clearly hates no one as much himself: if there even is such a thing as happiness, clearly everyone around him is a roadblock—especially Rosemary, as it turns out. He clearly despises her simply for being, and once Guy has arranged with the Castavets to have her impregnated by Satan, he only finds her even more repulsive, unable to touch her sexually or even otherwise, naturally recoiling from the child in her womb when she encourages him to feel its kicking.
“ALL OF THEM WITCHES,” reads the title of the book (and a fruitless Scrabble anagram) the ever suspicious Hutch bequeaths to Rosemary before his untimely death, and Guy is certainly among them. Polanski’s brilliant stroke to also put Cassavetes in Rosemary’s nightmares as a heavily made up, beastly Satan cements his image as one of cinema’s great devils. And if Rosemary’s defiant final punishment of Guy (to silently spit in his face) seems a mite too small, consider that it’s probably the best she could have done: remember, you can’t beat the devil.