With NBC’s remake of Rosemary’s Baby into a mini-series in the news, I sat down to watch the original again. I’ve blogged about it before, but with most available funds being diverted to college, watching new movies will be a rare treat for some years to come. Besides, the original is a mishmash of religious ideas that despite their lack of coherence still leave the viewer somewhat disturbed. Since the last time I watched the movie, I’ve read several books on witches and have come to recognize the strange brew that Roman Polanski concocted for public consumption. Reaching back to the myth of diabolic witches, the original movie presents such witches initiating a new world by literally spawning Satan on a woman whose name is based on the mother of Jesus and who will ultimately care for the helpless little devil. The viewer, despite the knowledge that Rosemary is carrying evil incarnate, still sides with the vulnerable, pregnant protagonist. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
I’m not sure how you make a miniseries out of this thin plot. I suppose a nine-month pregnancy would lend itself to slow development, but haven’t we grown a little too old for witches and devils? In fact, Wicca is now a recognized religion in much of the industrial world, and the devil’s been on the run for decades. Religious movies, or at least movies based on religious themes and characters, are perennially popular, however, no matter what the secularists tell us. And why not open a series about pregnancy on the weekend of Mother’s Day? Nothing stirs the emotions like putting a young mother at risk. That’s perhaps the insidious side of the original movie—we silently side with the devil.
Rosemary is, of course, manipulated by her husband with the everyman name of Guy. This isn’t in any sense his child and, like any businessman, he stands to gain enormously from someone else’s labor. Exploitation is the cost of the continuation of the human race. It doesn’t take much to figure out that we’re watching a parable here. After all, the Time magazine cover asking if God is dead makes a cameo in Dr. Saperstein’s office. And the setting in Manhattan clues us in from the beginning that this is the place were many millions are asked to make a few very rich. There is a witchery in New York, and for those who know how to look, the devil may be found in the details.
The Ninth Gate, a Roman Polanski film from a bygone decade, portrays a world the director doesn’t believe in. Typical of “devil movies,” the story involves a personified evil that not only seeks world domination, but who also writes books. I’ve been working on a book review for Relegere, the new online journal of Studies in Religion and Reception. In part the book addresses how the devil is portrayed in movies, although this particular film is not cited. Perhaps it is difficult to take seriously a film where the screenwriter is not a believer.
As a young teen I listened with horror as friends described The Omen, a movie that I never saw until just last year. The premise of the movie, that the Antichrist has already been born and is now walking the earth, ready to usher in Hal Lindsey-esque last days, is frightening to those who find a biblical basis for the idea. When finally watching the film the scariest part was viewing the extras. David Seltzer, author of both the book and screenplay, eerily tells the interviewer that he believes the Antichrist to be here now. His acceptance of mythology is admirable, but it is the problematic acquiescence to a modern reconstruction of disparate ancient views that is troubling. Like many late-twentieth century westerners, Seltzer has been influenced by attempts to construct a coherent account of the apocalypse from tattered bits of ancient traditions that never belonged together.
If education included a serious, critical look at how religious ideas developed, the world might be spared this sad predilection for seeking its own end. Apocalyptic ideas thrive in cultures of persecution, such as those very real torments of Jews under Antiochus and Christians under Nero. Their hopes for a brave new world of righteous rule, borrowing freely from Zoroastrian traditions of a new age, offered scraps of expectation of a better tomorrow to those dying today. When nineteenth-century evangelists saw the advances of industrialization and Darwin’s rational explanations of human origins, they felt the need to reconstruct the biblical demise of the world. Modern day apocalypticism, so evident in the Y2K, 9/11, and 2012 scares, is often ready to accept uncritically a supposed future already scripted by a sadly misunderstood Bible. If the world ends it will be our own doing, and maybe Roman Polanski will have to rethink whether or not a devil can actually write a book.
Roman Polanski has been in the news quite a lot lately. While I haven’t been following the story, his name is perennially associated with Rosemary’s Baby in my mind. In my youth I feared this movie and made no attempt to watch it until I reached my 40s. Like other works conceived by Ira Levin it features a threat to what we value most; the original Stepford Wives is still almost too scary to watch. While Rosemary’s Baby remains a good psychological thriller, the counter-Christmas theme became quite evident the last time I viewed it. I won’t worry about spoilers since the movie was released in the 1960s, but if you’re still waiting to watch it and want a surprise ending, you might want to turn to another post at this point!
The 1960s were times not only of a strong counter-culture but also a period of fear. Many popular evangelists were warning of the coming of the Antichrist and the Time article entitled “Is God Dead?” is featured in the movie itself. Although it is unclear until the end, upon first watching, who fathers Rosemary’s baby, the child-spawn of Satan is presented with many of the trappings of the first Christmas as Rosemary herself makes the discovery. In fact, Christmas comes as Rosemary is pregnant, and the film carefully accentuates the contrast between Mary and Rosemary. The suffering of the expectant mother still makes the film difficult to bear at points.
As Christmas nears in this very commercial and recession-ridden season, many lawns are sporting “Keep the Christ is Christmas” type displays. Isaiah is being taken out of context and the Religious Right continues its attempt to make Christmas a political petard. Babies represent new beginnings. And while Rosemary’s baby was born six months after (diametrically opposed to) the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in both cases the infant represents a radical change. Any human parent knows that babies are special and that knowledge demonstrates that a young Roman Polanski recognized a theme that would scare audiences for at least forty years.