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Hell House: "Rosemary's Baby" at 50

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Roman Polanski's film, a horror story for apartment hunting in New York.
There are four main subjects in Rosemary’s Baby: Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and the baby, of course; Guy (John Cassavetes), the Janus-faced aspiring actor husband who betrays his wife to a coterie of geriatric devil-worshipers in order to further his career (also rendering his thespian competition blind in the process); and the apartment in which the Woodhouses reside. It is the apartment that, 50 years after the film’s release, remains most intriguing, and most frightening. To the young and new-to-New-York, those trying to navigate the hostile housing market, the film presents an anxiety-inducing depiction of the arduous endeavor of searching for an apartment in an unwelcoming, unaffordable city. Attractive and of enviable size, walking distance from the theaters where Guy hopes to perform, the Woodhouse’s abode is the kind of place fit for an affluent family, with an herb garden and affable neighbors and lots of natural light flooding the many rooms. It’s also an apartment rife with secrets, doors hidden in closets, pervaded by the sounds of mysterious chanting at strange hours of the night. It has its own identity, its own history. Rosemary has to be assured that the previous tenant died not in the apartment but in a hospital; no one wants to live in a haunted house.
The film opens with a shot panning across the sun-dappled New York skyline, a long, slow, leftward sway, ending on the Bramford (played by the Dakota, where, 12 years later, John Lennon was murdered), in New York’s Upper West Side. Rosemary and Guy view the apartment, guided by a gregarious agent (played by the perpetually sad-faced Elisha Cook, Jr., a man who looks like a born loser), and Rosemary begs for them to take it even though it’s out of their budget. Guy agrees. Rosemary’s Baby is, among other things, a film about a young couple getting what they want, all their privileges and the desires—the lavish apartment; the acting gig; the baby; the gaggle of friends. But those privileges and desires come at a cost. It’s a movie about having to make a deal with the Devil in order to afford a life in New York.
Similar to how a marriage is the conflation of two lives, the engendering of a new, shared, always-changing life of compromises and discoveries, moving into a new place is a commingling of histories, of personalities. An apartment is a stable structure, one whose superficial appearance can be altered—furniture rearranged, walls painted new colors—but whose essential shape and foundation remain the same, regardless of who inhabits it. The apartment is, in a sense, the dominant partner, forcing its residents to change, to accommodate. The change of location alters the life of the new habitues: their routine, their neighbors, those with whom they interact on a quotidian basis, the way others view them. After moving, Rosemary and Guy fall in with a group of older, eccentric characters. Guy assimilates quickly, befriending the patriarch Roman Castavet (Sidney Blackmer), who becomes “something of a father figure” for Guy. Rosemary is more reluctant. She prefers to stay in at night reading and listening to records. She prefers the safety and tranquility of her apartment.
The way Roman Polanski turns the large apartment into a character, gives it an ominous personality despite the pleasant wallpaper and all that light, is redolent of the writing of Shirley Jackson, who used architectural sentience to sustain moods of paranoia and menace, as in The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. As with Jackson’s work, in which ghosts are more often metaphorical menaces rather than simply literal, the apartment is haunted with past lives, with unfulfilled hopes and with nightmarish revelations. Most of the film takes place in the apartment—Rosemary is, after all, an expectant mother, a homemaker, and we follow her almost invariably, seeing what she sees, experiencing the city through her limited perception—and Polanski plans his shots around the apartment, not the people inhabiting it. The Woodhouses’ lives, their shared life, is altered and influenced profoundly by their new residence.
Rosemary’s Baby is a supernatural horror film shot in like a mundane, realistic drama. (It’s fitting that Cassavetes plays the chicanerous husband, as the film is, at its core, a familial drama about motherhood, about a disintegrating marriage, about the banality and disquietude of New York life. It has more in common with A Woman Under the Influence than it does The Omen.) The repertoire of shots mostly comprises medium long takes, with Polanski turning or panning the camera instead of cutting, so that the actors are enclosed by the architecture and the decor of the apartment. It harks back, in a way, to Ozu with the use of door frames and hallways as frames, the simple but layered compositions placing subjects in context of their surroundings. Characters are obscured or obfuscated by walls, by door frames. When Guy is first told of the Chthonian proposition by Roman, Polanski shoots the meeting from Rosemary’s perspective, the two conniving men hidden by a door frame, with whorls of smoke spilling balefully by. We, like Rosemary, are not privy to the conversation, and, in this initial viewing, nothing overtly inauspicious is happening. It’s only upon repeated viewings that the nature of their conversation becomes clear. It’s as if the Castavets’ apartment is hiding their secret from Rosemary.
In 2018, New Yorkers, especially the young and trust fund-less, struggle to afford housing in an economy that caters to the moneyed and connected, as prices swell and the underemployed are relegated to the margins of an increasingly centrifugal zone, to neighborhoods whose personalities are sapped by gentrification, the imaginary lines representing worth and class spreading like a patch of darkening malignant skin, like a StreetEasy ad adorning the subway station walls. The Woodhouse apartment, afforded by a theater actor (!) best known for television commercials and a turn in Nobody Loves an Albatross, is the most unbelievable aspect of a film in which the Devil impregnates a woman, and that woman in turn decides to be a loving mother to her satanic bastard spawn. To a young New Yorker accustomed to living in a glorified closet, the Woodhouse apartment can almost make one want to sell their soul.
The film concludes on a happy note. In the opening theme, with its oneiric “La La La”s recalling a lullaby, the piano keys sound distorted, unclean; at the end, as the camera again pans across the New York skyline, this time rightward, the soporific vocals return, but now the piano is smoother, as if content. Rosemary, surrounded by friends, her husband ashamed and relegated to the background, rocks her son in his cradle. Her apartment has become a home.

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