A caveat before I begin: my goal with this post (and the next few posts) is not necessarily to construct a cohesive argument regarding these films. Rather, I am hoping to use this space to simply respond to them, as they might be considered both independently and (eventually and more interestingly) together. I'm not sure where this is going to go--in fact, I haven't even figured out how to start this write up yet. But I feel like I should say something, if only because I spent ten hours of my life watching these five films this past weekend.
I suppose the best way to start is to introduce the format: my wife and I host an annual Halloween movie party at our house each year. In the past, this party has consisted of three or four horror movies, watched in between any number of breaks for snacks, meals and board games. Although this has been a pretty successful program, the introduction of Facebook to our lives prompted us to do something special this year: with the benefit of semi-formal "invitations" and a month of planning, we decided to organize a bona-fide schedule for this years events, all based around a particular theme for the movies. The theme we selected was originally conceived as a joke: having recently welcomed our first child into our home, Meredith and I thought watching movies about "evil children" would be just the right kind of "twisted." We were right, but we were also shortsighted: although we had recently started a family ourselves with the birth of Evangeline, several of our friends who were in attendance at the party were still "in transit" to this goal. Over the course of the party, not one, not two, but three pregnant women made an appearance, and as each new mother and prospective father entered the room, my confidence in our movie selections (and our taste) dwindled.
The problems were apparent from the start: our first film was ROSEMARY'S BABY, and although the film itself surprised me with the quality of its performances and its production, its politics were more unsettling than I remembered. Sure, everyone remembers the general set-up of the narrative: a woman falls victim to an elaborate plot hatched by a Satanic cult to impregnate her with the spawn of the Devil; she must uncover said plot and stop said hellspawn. But the problems come in with exactly how the film chooses to portray the heroine: Rosemary Woodhouse is not just a woman, she is an impossibly young and naive housewife to a small-fish/big-pond stage actor. She is never confident, never capable, and never particularly intelligent. Her childlike status is a sticking point for the director during the film's first half, as she frequently appears in oversized clothing, her hair in pigtails, her chin down on her chest and her large eyes looking up as if she had done something to get in trouble. She is a waif, and she is will-less. This makes her relationship to her husband, "Guy," all the more unsettling: Guy, who embodies approximately 47 of the 48 most common Italian stereotypes found in Hollywood cinema, is also loud-mouthed, self-centered and condescending (no, those are not Italian stereotypes). His idea of a romantic evening: she cooks, and then, mid-dinner, he takes his pants off (without a word) for sex. For her part, Rosemary is upsettingly compliant when things like this happen: when Guy begins to undo his jeans, she puts down her fork--also without speaking--and pulls her dress over her head. The resulting sex scene is filmed by a static camera and is one of the least erotic consensual sex scenes I can think of.
Of course, that's part of the issue: although Rosemary goes along with Guy's "request" without complaining, her lack of any agency up this point in the film prevents her from being able to offer any real "consent" to the encounter. This is the problem with her marriage to Guy: she is less than a child to him (or to us); she is an ornament, or a piece of furniture, to which Guy (and the movie) can do as they please. The fact, then, that Guy sells their unborn son to the Satanic cult next door in exchange for a part in an off-Broadway play is not a tremendous moral decision for him: as his wife, Rosemary's job is to produce babies, and since she is young, fertile and compliant (she mentions twice to random strangers how easy it will be for her to have a baby, even before she assumes, after a single sexual encounter, that she "MUST be pregnant!"), Guy assumes there won't be any problem having more children after the one he gives away is gone. The logic mirrors a kindergartener's response to the story of Rumpelstiltskin: losing your "first born son" (especially on the day of his birth!) is only traumatic if you don't have any more kids; therefore, just as the heroine of that story is able to make gold from hay (read: nothing), so the mother IS ALSO CAPABLE of making a potentially infinite number of children and, logically speaking, negate the terror of the crazy dwarf's threat of stealing (only!) one of them. In other words: what's the big deal? There's always more where that came from.
But this is where ROSEMARY'S BABY gets interesting: for Rosemary, the narrative purpose for being put in this predicament--her "job," so to speak, as a character--is not to solve the plot, but to successfully terminate it. Since she has already been raped and impregnated by the time she "awakens" in the movie from her passivity and blind obedience, the only "active" thing for her to do is to find a way (and the willpower) to terminate her pregnancy before she gives birth. However, there is, of course, a double-bind: as a "real mother," she is wholly and completely attached to the life of her child, even to the point where she puts her own life in danger to preserve it. The movie presents this as a completely natural response: this is what mothers "do." I can go with that. However, she is also bound by an intricate system of specifically male acquaintances who are responsible for controlling her actions, such that even when she begins to suspect Guy, she is still bound by a network of other men. At no point is this more apparent than in her frantic visit to Dr. Hill, a physician recommended to her by her girlfriends, who listens patiently to Rosemary's explanation of the plot against her ("and her baby"), only to tuck her in for a nap and then call all the people she just told him were evil so they can come pick her up. The problem isn't just the chauvinistic Guy; it's a patriarchal conspiracy, headed up (ultimately) by the Devil himself.
After Dr. Hill's betrayal, it is a narrative formality for her to give birth to her son and to have him taken by the cult that has control over her. It is also an efficient way to move through the threat that abortion poses to the sanctity of the narrative itself: by stripping Rosemary of agency (and even knowledge) regarding the devil-baby in her belly, the movie makes sure we know the social/political stakes of her quest to uncover the "truth" about the conspiracy that surrounds her: she is a girl playing detective and nothing more; in the end, what she finds is only relevant if it can persuade a presumably neutral man to call a hospital instead of her husband.
So what, then, is Rosemary "good" for, and why does a patriarchal order topped by Satan carry the day here? Well, the film's answer to the second question is most obvious, so we'll begin there: Satan is at the end and beginning of all plots here because "God Is Dead"--so saith a copy of TIME magazine Rosemary picks up at the doctor's office; so saith the high priest of her friendly neighborhood Satanic cult at the very end of the film. In fact, so saith the film itself, at least in terms of the faith it bothers to reward: the closest we come to a "Christian" presence is probably a tie between the Woodhouse's old friend Hutch and a young woman Rosemary meets in the laundry room of her hotel, and both of those characters end up dead, in both cases by suicide, and in both cases, through the direct interference of members of the Satanic cult that takes Rosemary's baby. But the pronouncement is also a strange one in itself, and it never receives sufficient explanation: if God is Dead, who killed Him and why? The movie dangles a few of the usual suspects before us--consumerism, materialism, greed, power, etc.--but nothing ever rises to the surface with any authority other than good old fashion Procreation: the Devil needs a son, and there ain't no she-devils in Hell. So, I suppose we might say it was Man who killed God, but only in that both God and the Devil need heirs to keep their kingdoms going, and (apparently) the only way to get them is to seduce literal or figurative twelve-year-olds.
But, to close this thing out, let's give brief attention to the former question from a moment ago: what is Rosemary "good" for? The deeply upsetting answer the movie gives is that Rosemary's purpose is, quite simply, to take care of her baby. In the movie's closing scene, Rosemary confronts the cult that has tormented her and demands to see her baby. When she gets what she asks for, her initial response is to recoil in horror: the child is a monster, too horrific for the camera to see, conceivable only through a flashback to Rosemary's rape and a shot of the eyes of the baby's father. However, after a few minutes of closing exposition, Rosemary asks the cult leader an interesting question: what can I do? Of course, the movie has prepped us for a particular response: you can kill it! You can take the crucifix hanging over its crib and stab it into the little bastard's heart! You can WIN! YOU CAN ACT!
But the cultist has a different response: "You can be its mother, Rosemary. After all, that's what you are." Rosemary's role, even unto the anti-Christ, is to hold, feed and nurture a baby, not because the movie is certain that "mothers mothering" is an important message to send but because there is simply no other message women like Rosemary--which is to say, all women--are capable of hearing. Thus, Rosemary is not--and perhaps was never--a moral agent; in fact, her disaster was set in motion before she spoke an independent line by the one who spoke and continues to speak for her--her husband, Guy. Of course, this is slimy to us, the viewers, but that's only because we've forgotten the rational way out of the old paradox with first-born sons: children are a dime a dozen, but a part off-Broadway? That's the Devil's bargain.