13 Movies That Scared Us: Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary's Baby is the mother of devil movies. Dr. Spock's childcare rewritten by Aleister Crowley.

In celebration of Halloween, we are counting down the days with 13 of the scariest, creepiest, or simply unforgettably grim horror movies that ever crawled under our skin and never left. Join us each day as we look back on 13 horror movies that still know how to trick and treat viewers to their nightmares. Enter Rosemary’s Baby…

Rosemary’s Baby is probably more frightening to people who grew up in apartment buildings than in houses. The idea that a neighbor, who’s maybe a few doors down or an elevator ride away, can be harboring satanic secrets is a tad scarier than that demon kid down the block. Remember, if the evil magician who lives a floor above you has to hide a homunculus in the basement, that’s your apartment.

Rosemary’s Baby was made in 1968 by Roman Polanski. It was based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. It was supposed to be directed by William Castle, director of House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and other low-budget classics. Castle was scared that no one would take it seriously, so he let Polanski bring on the suspense.

Polanksi did, and he did it with a creeping claustrophobic conspiracy that threatens the most vulnerable of all creatures, a pregnant mother. Mia Farrow is haunted inside and out. Her skin color greys and her eyes get sallow. She falls into a quicksand of ill health so confusing that Dr. Bellow’s wife from I Dream of Jeannie makes her cry. Farrow’s wide eyes almost pop out under the new-mother haircut that so upset Frank Sinatra. Rosemary is breathless and trapped, when Farrow makes the big decision at the end and drops the knife, the transformation is subversive. 

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Roman Polanski doesn’t stray that far from Ira Levin’s original book, though the movie never leaves Manhattan.��For those who don’t know, Mia Farrow plays Rosemary Woodhouse, who’s married to an actor who’s career has stalled. The Woodhouses live across from the most darling of elderly buttinskis, who have a penchant for bad chocolate mousse. Rosemary gets pregnant just as Guy’s acting career gets a bump. Rosemary has a difficult pregnancy and a devilish delivery. 

John Cassavetes is positively oily in this movie, and it’s not olive oil. He wears the stench of patchouli or something, essence of tannis root.  Guy Woodhouse is the consummate actor, meaning he is self-absorbed to sociopathic proportions. He celebrates when he gets a part because some guy went blind. That’s an actor. Living from one gig to the next, wishing for superstardom.

Ruth Gordon is most frightening because she really is just like someone who lives in every single apartment building. You don’t expect evil doings from people like her no matter how many people jump from her fire escape. Sidney Blackmer is so kindly as Roman Castevet that you feel for the old devil when you find out he’s only got a few months left to live. 

Now, for those of you who’ve seen the film, you know that Roman Castevet is an anagram for the nefarious devil-worshipper Steven Marcato, who was chased from lower Manhattan. For those of you who don’t know that, forget I said anything. I always believed that Marcato is a reference to Mocata, a recurring character in the books of Dennis Wheatley who based him on Aleister Crowley. Anyone who can verify that, please – there’s a comment section at the bottom.

Ralph Bellamy is the perfect family doctor as Rosemary’s obstetrician, filled with bonhomie and gravitas, haughtily poo-pooing all of Rosemary’s concerns with daily intake of tannis root. Charles Grodin makes his first film appearance in Rosemary’s Baby as rival obstetrician Dr. Hill.

The devil is played by Clay Tanner, who was mostly a TV actor who’d appeared on Bonanza, Get Smart, The Big Valley, and Perry Mason. There are rumors that the devil was played by Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LeVay, who was often used as a satanic consultant on films and who acted in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation to My Demon Brother. Tanner could really use a manicure. The ritual that precedes the rape is done through the hazy lens of a doped up sacrificial offering, but there are enough details to make it seem very realistic. 

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Another thing that’s scary about Rosemary’s Baby: the building they live in, the one with all the devil-worshippers, that’s about as a good as Manhattan real estate gets. The Dakota building, where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed, on West 72nd Street was home to John and Yoko (who lived next door to Roberta Flack), Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and Joe Namath. Boris Karloff lived in the Dakota. The still pictured above looks like it was filmed near the spot where John Lennon would be shot 12 years later.

The movie posters and commercials said “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.” Can you petition the lord through prayer, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, for the devil? There’s something scary about devil movies that stay with you long after the creepy crawlies of the Freddies and paranormal activists. Maybe more for me, because I don’t believe in the devil and see these as horrific psychological breakdowns. The devil is imagination and devil pictures are the brain food of the horror genre. They require you to think and once they do, the devil gets into your brain.

Rosemary’s Baby did conjure box office magick. Like a lot of William Castle’s films, it was made on a relatively small budget of $3.2 million and pulled in ten times that in spilled popcorn, $33 million.

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