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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Best Horror Film Ever Made: a Halloween Post

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which is showing currently on HDNet Movies and also available as a budget-priced DVD, is just about perfect. It balances flawlessly on a knife edge between serious art film and pop entertainment, just as it precariously balances its story between fantasy and reality: Is there really a witches’ coven in Rosemary’s spooky old apartment building, intent on doing unthinkable things to her unborn child, or is it all a product of her fevered imagination? Most viewers will of course decide these are really witches by the end – but Polanski continually and slyly undercuts every supernatural scene with hints that Rosemary is bonkers….and maybe we are too for going along with her. This subtle and sophisticated storytelling is what lifts the movie into greatness.

It also features some of the most vivid (and often hilarious) character acting in any Sixties movie. The highlights include of course Ruth Gordon’s Oscar-winning turn as the exhilaratingly creepy nosy neighbor, her every line reading and gesture a unique delight (“If she ate the mouse, she can’t see or hear, she’s as one dead” may not sound like much until you hear it spoken in Gordon’s eloquently low New Yorkese). But don’t let’s forget the amazing Patsy Kelly as Lara Louise, the most earthy and plainspoken of the witches, with several classic lines, chief among them, to Rosemary: “Shut up with your ‘Oh God’s, or we will kill ya, milk or no milk.” Nearly every supporting role is beautifully cast and acted: Elisha Cook, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer.

Then there is Mia Farrow as Rosemary, in an iconic performance. You simply can’t imagine anyone else in the role. She’s utterly convincing as both a sympathetic, suffering heroine and as a crazy loon, and thus supports Polanski’s dual conception. When she reappears with her new very-short haircut an hour into the picture (“I’ve been to Vidal Sassoon”), the shot still packs a wallop, even if there’s a bit of camp mixed in – she’s suddenly a starving waif with hollow eyes.

The movie is a visual feast, with cinematographer William Fraker (who shot Bullitt the same year) assisting brilliantly in the fantasy/reality duality. The dreamlike sequence when Rosemary is impregnated is superbly shot and edited, just terrifying enough and just absurd enough to be indelible. And the magnificent final sequence, in which Rosemary (apparently) finds out the truth about her newborn, is extraordinarily well staged, with peerless bits of surreal lunacy to keep you guessing.

Credit must go to Ira Levin as well, since Polanski (who wrote the script) follows the plot of the original novel quite closely. But while a less skilled director might have made an entertaining trifle out of this material, the dark, mercilessly pessimistic genius of Polanski takes it into another dimension. It’s too bad that he has never chosen to return to the type of pop genre movies that gave him his greatest boxoffice success as well as his most lasting artistic contributions: both Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are among the greatest of American movies. Some may prefer the earlier Repulsion or the later The Pianist, but for me they lack the power of these two well-told “entertainments.” Plot-driven as they both are, I can watch them over and over again and be just as enthralled as the first time.

(A note to those still waiting to get an HD television: If you are a movie fan, there is almost no better way to see a classic film, except of course in 35mm on a big theater screen, which is unfortunately too rarely used for older movies. Get the TV, get an HD DVR from your cable company, subscribe to those ‘extra’ HD channels like HDNet Movies and Universal HD, and check the schedules frequently. They show a lot of crap, but you can wade through it and see, for example the 1954 A Star is Born and the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde in images so bright and clear and vivid that the movies seem reborn. Of course, you’ll spend even more time in your living room, and your significant other may disown you and your social life may slip, unless you invite all the other movie nerds you know to come over for popcorn feasts. But if you’re like me, seeing something like Rosemary’s Baby, preserved like a jewel, is worth it.)

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