Retro Reviews

Retro Anniversary: 50 Years of Rosemary’s Baby

A look back at Polanski's greatest film and the rise of Satanism in cinema.

Rosemary’s Baby Movie Poster Photo Credit: IMDB

Standing the test of time is one of the marks of quality filmmaking. Keeping people talking about your film is also a sign that you’ve made an impact. And when you have a film that accomplishes both, well, then you’ve struck literal cinematic gold.

So, I know the very question that horror fans are asking in the darkness, “OK, well and good with all that… But how does Satan figure in that equation?”

Well, amazingly, he does… And after 50 years, the film that started his ascent up the filmmaking charts, Rosemary’s Baby, is more influential than ever. The strange milieu that has surrounded it has only deepened and widened. Movie fans, horror buffs, conspiracy theorists, true crime enthusiasts, cultural critics, even Occulists and Satanists, have all laid their interpretations and spin on its 136 minutes of celluloid.

With recent films like The VVitch and Hereditary making an impression (is A24 destined to become the filmhouse that the Devil built?) and a four and a half decade long history of occult themed entertainment from Hollywood, the shadow of Roman Polanksi‘s early career sensation looms larger than ever and the theme of Satanism in film persists, despite an increasing irreligious and secular 21st century society.

Now, the battles of that bizarre facet of modern society will rage on elsewhere than in this post. We here at TDW always want to bring up the quirky behind-the-scenes factoids that put the “scare” in “scary.” And the only thing weirder than the subject matter of Rosemary’s Baby, is the real-life, crazy time story behind the film and actor it made a star, Mia Farrow.

Big time Hollywood success seemed far away for Mia before 1968, despite her being the daughter of Oscar-winning screenwriter/director John Farrow and 30’s matinee idol, Maureen O’Sullivan. In fact, despite her relative youth, her life at the time from the outside seemed like a mess.

Before the film, the apex of her acting career had been a two-year, recurring role on the TV soap Peyton Place as Allison Mackenzie. Her brief marriage to entertainment icon Frank Sinatra was ending in chaos with his repeated infidelities common knowledge around Hollywood’s gossip circles. As a result, in early 1967, Farrow fled to India with her sister, Prudence, for a month’s long retreat at a prominent ashram in attempt to clear her head and consider her next move. The trip away proved somewhat restful, despite the two sisters being pestered for sex every morning by the pair of “British musicians” lodged next door.

Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal in Peyton Place Photo Credit: purpleclover.com

Farrow returned to the States with a better focus and an offer to work with an up-and-coming director, who had made a string of critical well-received art house films in the previous four years, and with a prestigious cast featuring such notables as Academy-Award winner John Cassavetes and long-time acting veteran, Ralph Bellamy.

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes Photo Credit: brit.co
Ralph Bellamy (center) in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Photo Credit: azmovies.net

Refreshed, Farrow returned to work, despite the pleading and threats of her soon-to-be ex-husband not to finish the film. Sinatra pulled out all the stops, even going as far to serve Mia with divorce papers on the set to convince her of his seriousness. The young star, overwhelmed and ready to quit the shoot, was pulled aside by film producer Bob Evans and told “if you stay, you’ll win the Academy Award for this.”

Mia Farrow, producer Robert Evans, and director Roman Polanski on the set of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Photo Credit: artofthetitle.com

Farrow stayed. And despite Evans being wrong about Mia’s winning the Oscar for performing in the film (that honor went to Ruth Gordon for being one of the worst neighbors in the history of cinema), Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin‘s novel was a career maker for all the participants previously mentioned. By the time the ink on her divorce was dry, Farrow was a household name just like Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Photo Credit: IMDB

Despite it’s now classic status, in and out of horror (AFI named it one of the 100 best movies of the 20th Century), Rosemary’s Baby was one of the great risks taken during that era of film and was not fully a mainstream success on first release. When your plot line deals with a young married woman who moves next door to an evil coven who has plans to use her as a vehicle for birthing Satan’s child… Well, you tend to lose the date night crowd.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Photo Credit: IMDB

Genre audiences ate it up, however, and Rosemary’s Baby fully launched the so-called “Satan Craze” at least for the late comers on this side of the Atlantic. The Italians and to some extent the Brits had been featuring the Prince of Darkness directly as horror film fodder for a goodly part of the 60’s (for many, the Hammer produced, Terence Fisher directed classic, The Devil Rides Out, also released in 1968, is the only peer to RB as an English-language film on the topic).

For the decade that followed, studios, filmmakers, and audiences seemingly couldn’t watch enough movies about Old Scratch and his antics. And movies such as The Exorcist, Lisa and the Devil, The Devil’s Rain, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Omen and To the Devil…A Daughter, their sequels, and their remakes (just to name a few) all benefited from the legacy of Polanski’s film.

Farrow kept in step with the audience for a time, continuing on to make the occult-themed Secret Ceremony (with Liz Taylor!) in 1972, before essentially abandoning the genre until the 2006 remake of The Omen which featured Farrow in the Mrs. Baylock role. Her cameo was a chuckle-inducing in-joke for horror nuts as she essentially flipped her role from RB, taking on the devil’s-child protecting nanny role in 2006 after being the victim in 1968.

Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow in Secret Ceremony Photo Credit: IMDB
Mia Farrow in The Omen (2006) Photo Credit: IMDB

Part of the legacy mentioned before, frankly speaking, are the oddities, rumors, and urban legends that have sprung up around Rosemary’s Baby in the years since.

As part of the attempt to infuse the shoot with realism, Polanski had Farrow run into actual, unscripted, uncontrolled Manhattan traffic while chasing her with his camera. While it produced one of the film’s best scenes, there were certainly a few real life curses thrown around New York that day.

Anton LaVey Photo Credit: flavorwire.com

A member of the cast left off the official credits has also been an issue of much speculation, as certain sources have always insisted that Anton LaVey, the late founder and leader of the San Francisco based Church of Satan, was the figure behind the monster suit during the film’s rape scene. This version of events has never been officially confirmed or denied, and the person behind the mask receives no official credit on any subsequent listing of the film’s cast and crew.

Ira Levin Photo Credit: IMDB

Also adding to the fire are the words of Ira Levin himself. The author of the original novel said in the years before his death that despite his atheist‘s take on the subject matter, he regretted that his work had led to belief in Satan and had helped kick off the “Satan Craze.” (He also added he had never returned any of the royalty checks from the work despite offending his own sensibilities).

And then there is Roman Polanski, whose life after the film that made him famous can also be seen as the stuff of horror. Not a year after the acclaim that came to him with Rosemary’s Baby, his seemingly charmed life began to unravel. During the summer of 1969, his wife of two years, actress Sharon Tate (Eye of the Devil, Fearless Vampire Killers, Valley of the Dolls), along with their unborn child and four others were brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson‘s “Family” cult at Polanski’s LA area home.

Away on a movie shoot in Europe at the time, Polanski returned to play a muted role in one of the 20th century’s most sensational murder trials, one whose legacy forever blurred the lines between fictional and real-life horror.

Polanski was convicted of the statutory rape of teenager Samantha Geimer in 1977 Photo Credit: infotel.ca

That court room drama was only the beginning for Polanski’s travails. In 1974, on the heels of what many consider his best picture, Chinatown, Polanski was arrested for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl for whom he had agreed to shoot modeling photos (some in a state of undress). This arrest led to Polanski pleading down to a statutory rape charge and subsequently fleeing the country to various European locations before his sentence was completed.

He has remained floating around France and Switzerland for the forty years since, is still active in movie making, and is still a fugitive from American justice, despite the acclaim and acceptance of mainstream Hollywood filmmakers and actors. He was awarded the 2002 Oscar for Best Director (The Pianist) in absentia only to have the Academy pull a full reversal by expelling him in March 2018 in the wake of the #metoo movement. Several attempts to apprehend him on European soil by American authorities have proven unsuccessful.

Roman Polanski today Photo Credit: oxygen.com

New York’s Dakota Hotel, the film’s primary location, already discussed in years prior as a place of restless spirits and hauntings, was also enhanced further by the film’s spooky reputation. The 1980 murder of former Beatle John Lennon on the hotel’s front steps only added to the strange reputation of the building. The renowned recording artist, who immortalized his amorous pursuit of Farrow’s sister with The White Album‘s “Dear Prudence,” died just feet from the spot where Mia made her mad dash into traffic. Some have reported seeing his ghost on the building’s steps in recent years.

The Dakota building as it looks today. The apartment doubled for The Bramford in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Photo Credit: artofthetitle.com
John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota apartment building in New York City. Photo Credit: murderpedia.org

One of the neighbors who likely heard Mark David Chapman‘s fatal gunfire that December night was Farrow herself, as she has lived next door to the Dakota for over three decades. Every morning if she chooses, she can look out her window and see the sun rise over the edifice where she became one of the greatest horror performers of all time.

Too bad it was only a primer for her to find out what happens when you sleep with your own personal version of the Devil. If walls could talk… (cue RB’s bedroom scene, “You’re lying…You’re Lying….YOU’RE LYING!!”)

Rosemary’s Baby is regarded as one of the most intense and frightening movies of the past 100 years. It touches all points of the horror compass, channeling horror themes, celebrity, and weirdness like some celluloid Kevin Bacon.

The coven surrounds Rosemary (Mia Farrow) on the set of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Photo Credit: theartofthetitle.com
Joan Crawford in 1965 Photo Credit: IMDB

In fact, according to reliable sources, a cameo by Joan Crawford as the head of the witches’ coven was left on the cutting room floor by some shortsighted coming together of run time and salary dispute. Could the weirdest movie of all time actually have been stranger? Did the Devil’s Child almost get the “No Wire Hangers!” treatment? If we only could find those cuts!

Given the trend and mystery of the film, someone will be talking about Rosemary’s Baby fifty years from now. However, we’ve said enough about the subject. Dana Carvey‘s “Church Lady” at your door as we speak to bop you with the Bible and drag you to evening service. Let’s hope you survive that experience!

J. Malcolm Stewart is a Northern California-based public relations/marketing professional. He holds degrees in Political Science and Comparative Religion, but can have a conversation someone without starting a small war. Long interested in suspense, thrillers and horror, he writes and reviews on the subject for websites far and wide. When he's not writing, reviewing or reading, you can find J. Malcolm riding around Northern CA with something radioactive in his trunk. Folllow J. Malcolm on Twitter: @sabbathsoldier Learn more about J. Malcolm @ http://about.me/jaymal

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