There’s a moment in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby where, during what we’re initially led to believe is a dream sequence, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is raped by an unseen person while the residents of her apartment complex look on, naked. As the camera pans across the small crowd, from left to right, we spot Rosemary’s husband, Guy.
‘She’s awake, she sees,’ he says to their neighbour Minnie.
‘She don’t see,’ Minnie replies.
‘THIS IS NO DREAM! THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!’ shouts Rosemary.
This small exchange is one of the most horrifying moments in American cinema. The prospect of being targeted by a Satanic cult is one thing; the realisation that your husband and protector might be part of the conspiracy is even more shocking.
It provokes the same gut-wrenching sense of doom as the final moments of Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982), in which Tom Atkins’ character screams down the phone to the television company, pleading with them to not play the commercial that is going to cause so much carnage.
This is when horror really connects; when it really matters. Hollywood loves jump-scare horror, because it sells tickets, but psychological horror is far more effective. The truly disturbing thing about Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) isn’t the shower scene, it’s the thought that one day you might stay at the seemingly benign Bates Motel; and no matter what precautions you take, that nice motel manager you just met always has a key to your room.
Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) – often derided when labelled as a horror film – is just as shocking as Polanski and Hitchcock’s work. What could be more horrific than the thought, just the lingering idea, that a killer shark might be circling in the gloomy darkness beneath you as you swim? It plants a seed, just like the prospect of Norman Bates making plans behind closed doors.
Released in June 1968, Rosemary’s Baby is an oddity for the horror genre. It’s an urban horror, taking part in a metropolitan area (New York) as opposed to the conventional rural- or suburban-set horror. The lighting of the film also goes against type. This isn’t a film of shadow and darkness; much of the picture takes place during the daytime, and in the scenes that do take place after the sun has set, most shots are well lit. This isn’t the kind of film where evil lurks in the shadows; instead it exists in plain sight where you’d least expect it.
Komeda’s score is the strongest indicator that the film rightfully belongs in the horror genre. The location, the cast and the script might all scream drama – or at most, thriller – but the music is right out of a haunted house. Most unnerving is Mia Farrow’s lullaby over the waltzing opening titles; an ominous foreboding of innocence corrupted.
The film left a sour taste in popular culture. Not only are there the obvious parallels with the murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, a year later at the hands of the satanic Manson cult, but the final shot foreshadows yet another tragedy.
The film’s end credits roll over a high crane shot looking down at Rosemary’s apartment complex, the Bramford. In reality, the location is the Dakota complex in Manhattan, which was used for external shots only. Well-known as the residence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1973 onwards, the Dakota’s architecture looks well-suited as the location of a film about devil worship in New York City. As the camera pans down, the final frame of the film shows two people walking into the building’s south entrance, the same archway through which Lennon was walking as he was gunned down by his assassin, Mark Chapman, in December 1980.
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