Cinefantastique's Greatest Movie Cheats: Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary's Baby horizontal
Hello, fellow movie cheaters! Hm, maybe that’s not the best way to describe fans of movie cheats, but it has a nice ring to it. In any case, I am back with another in an on-going series of the greatest movie cheats in horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. This one is a real gem – and long overlooked (even by me, who is deliberately searching for this kind of thing).
Please recall our definition of a “cheat,” which is a variation on movie terminology used when a prop or set piece is moved from its established position in order to create a more pleasing composition on screen (that is, when you move the camera to a new angle, you “cheat” lamp in the background to the left or right, so that it doesn’t seem to jump from one side of the character to another when the shots are cut together). In our usage, a “cheat” is a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, often violating the film’s own internal “reality.” Usually, a cheat works because the trickery is visible, though perhaps subliminal; if you couldn’t see it, the impact would be lost.
Writer-director Roman Polanksi’s 1968 film ROSEMARY’S BABY – based on Ira Levin’s novel, about a young married woman who believes her unborn child has been targeted for sacrifice by Satanists – is generally considered to be one of the great achievements in the horror genre – a subtle exercise in suspense that works because it remains grounded in the real world, its horrors suggested and ambiguous, its supernatural element possibly imagined. What has never been mentioned before (at least until it was pointed out to me*) is that the film features a remarkable movie cheat – one that may be unique. Before we get to the cheat, however, we have to take a look at the set-up.

Rosemary (Farrow) chats with Dr. Sapirstein, played by Ralph Bellamy - although in this scene it may be a body double since we see only the back of his head.
Rosemary (Farrow) chats with Dr. Sapirstein (played by Ralph Bellamy - although in this scene it may be a body double since we see only the back of his head)

Midway through the film, before the suspense has set in, the recently pregnant Rosemary (Mia Farrow) attends a party, where she chats with pediatrician Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). In this scene, Dr. Sapirstein is photographed only from behind; in fact, it is hard to say with certainty whether we are seeing Bellamy or a body double with Bellamy’s voice dubbed in. Whatever the case may be, we get a good look at the back of Sapirstein’s head – enough to recognize the doctor from behind later in the movie.
While speaking in a phone booth, Rosemary does not notice the back of Dr. Sapirstein's head.
While speaking in a phone booth, Rosemary does not notice the back of Dr. Sapirstein's head.

This recognition takes place during a four-minute sequence during which Rosemary, convinced that Dr. Sapirstein is part of the Satanic conspiracy, uses a phone booth to contact her old pediatrician, begging him to see her. While Rosemary is facing toward camera, her back to the phone booth door, a man slides into view; the audience immediately “knows” it is Dr. Sapirstein.
Rosemary turns to see Dr. Sapirstein waiting outside the booth.
Rosemary turns to see Dr. Sapirstein waiting outside the booth.

Finishing her call, Rosemary turns and pauses in alarm when she sees the man. She closes her eyes in fear and desperation; when she opens them again, she is relieved to see that the man has turned around revealing not Dr. Sapirstein but just someone wanting to use the phone (a cameo by producer William Castle).
Rosemary sees that the man is just an innocuous stranger (played by producer William Castle)
Rosemary sees that the man is just an innocuous stranger (played by producer William Castle)

The scene is deceptively simple: a single, continuous take in close-up, with only a short camera move to emphasize the appearance of the man waiting outside the phone booth. But there is more here than meets the eyes – at least the eyes of the character. I have deliberately omitted a few frames in order to convey what Rosemary perceives, which might also represent the erroneous impression that a viewer could take away from the film: that there was a man who looked like Dr. Sapirstein from behind, but he turned around to reveal an unexpectedly innocent face.
What Rosemary does not notice is that, while her eyes are closed, the “Sapirstein” character walks off-screen, then walks back into the shot – or does he? It may not be apparent on first viewing, but if you go back and look again, the switch takes place a little too quickly for the man to have walked away, done a 180-degree turnabout, and come back.
Instead, this is what seems to happen:
Rosemary closes her eyes and "Dr. Sapirstein" exits to the left.
Rosemary closes her eyes and "Dr. Sapirstein" exits to the left.

After Mia Farrow closes here eyes, Bellamy (or his body double) exits to the left.
Rosemary waits, eyes closed; the sinister Dr. Sapirstein is gone - or at least off-screen.
Rosemary waits, eyes closed; the sinister Dr. Sapirstein is gone - or at least off-screen.

For a brief moment the “Sapirstein” character is off-screen, while Farrow plays Rosemary as if she is silently praying for deliverance.
Rosemary waits with eyes closed while the man apparently returns.
Rosemary waits with eyes closed while Dr. Sapirstein apparently returns.

The “Sapirstein” character appears to re-enter the frame – actually William Castle. It is hard to tell from the brief glimpse we get, but if you pause the film and look carefully, Castle’s hair does not quite match the back of Dr. Sapirstein’s head, confirming that a switch has been made.
Rosemary opens here eyes, the man visible just over her shoulder.
Rosemary opens here eyes; the man we take to be Saperstein is visible just over her shoulder.

As she opens her eyes, Farrow is blocking our view of the actor outside the booth, making it difficult to notice the switch that has taken place. When she finally turns, the movement of her head reveals not Bellamy’s Dr. Saperstein but the smiling stranger played by Castle.
Once again, the shot of Rosemary seeing the smiling stranger
Rosemary turns to see the smiling stranger.

What makes this cheat uniquely interesting is that it may not be a cheat at all. On a superficial level, the gag is that Rosemary and the audience think the man outside the booth is the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, but he turns out to be someone totally innocuous; the “cheat” is achieved by simply having Castle quickly replace the other actor. However, the switch takes place in full view of the camera, leaving the scene open to a second interpretation: that we are supposed to notice the switch, even if Rosemary does not; although we sympathize with her relief when she re-opens her eyes, we have to wonder whether she was right the first time: maybe that was Dr. Sapirstein, and he has simply gone off to alert the other Satanists that he has located Rosemary. In which case, the “cheat” of using Bellamy (or his double) to fool us into “seeing” Sapirstein is not a cheat at all but rather an accurate depiction of what happens in the scene.
There is a delicious ambiguity to this interpretation: Was it, or was it not, Sapirstein? Was it, or was it not, a cheat? And on a meta-level, was it, or was it not, Bellamy’s body double in either or both scenes?


As intriguing as these questions are, there is yet a third, equally intriguing interpretation of the scene. As much as ROSEMARY’S BABY is a story of witches, Satanists, and the Anti-Christ, the film is also a study in paranoia, with Rosemary driven to hysteria by fear for her baby. In the phone booth scene, she thinks Dr. Sapirstein has found her. She closes her eyes as if wishing him away, and it works: when opens her eyes, he is gone – like magic. What we may be seeing in the shot is an externalization of Rosemary’s inner mental state: her fear manifests as the appearance of Dr. Sapirstein; the appearance of the harmless stranger represents a return to a semblance of normalcy, a momentary quelling of paranoia, as Rosemary briefly gets a grip on her emotions that have been driven to extremes by both the events around her and the hormonal changes inside her body. In which case, we’re back to calling the scene a movie cheat, because two actors were switched right before our eyes to create an erroneous impression. The difference is that, in this new interpretation, the switch conveys not a mistaken identity but a paranoid delusion.
That’s an impressive amount of significance and meaning to pack into a single shot, making this scene worth a second look not only to spot a great movie cheat but also to appreciate the subtle tour-de-force machinations of a master filmmaker at work.
Note: This article has been updated to explain our definition of movie cheats, in order to clarify that it is not a derogatory term.

  • A tip of the hat to Ted Newsom for pointing out this overlooked movie cheat.


Ink, Ghost Writer, Dr. Parnassus: Overlooked & Underrated Films on the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast V1:E5

Overlooked and Underrated: Ink, The Ghost Writer, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Top: Ink. Left: The Ghost Writer. Right: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

It’s a genre light week, with no new horror, fantasy, or science fiction titles released in cinemas, so Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski take this opportunity to shine a little much-deserved light on some overlooked and/or under-rated genre titles. The main topic of discussion is INK, the surprisingly good low-budget fantasy film about a girl kidnapped by a dream demon. Also under analysis, Roman Polanski’s Kafkaesque thriller THE GHOST WRITER, starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. And Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, which received only a small release earlier this year.

The Tenant (1976)

click to purchase
click to purchase

Although overshadowed by director Roman Polanski’s more famous horror efforts, REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY, the more obscure THE TENANT is actually their equal and in many ways their superior — a haunting, mesmerizing tale of a man’s loss of identity and descent into madness.
Polanski himself stars as Trelkovsky, a Polish immigrant looking for an apartment in Paris. A potential vacancy occurs when a woman named Simone Choule leaps from her apartment window — an apparent suicide attempt. Visiting the hospital to see when horribly injured Choule will finally expire (technically, the apartment still belongs to her until she dies), Trelkovsky meets Choule’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani). Wrapped in bandages like a mummy, Choule seems to recognize Trelkovsky, and lets out a scream of horror before dying. Trelkvosky moves into the empty apartment and starts an affair with Stella, but his weird neighbors soon drive him to distraction. He suspects they may have driven Choule to suicide, and he suspects they are doing the same to him. Gradually, he begins to take on Choule’s personality traits: at first, they’re simple things like inadvertently taking Choule’s favorite seat in a cafe; later, they extend to buying wigs and cross-dressing. Eventually, the loss of his own identity and his fusion with Choule leads him to recreate her suicide attempt. Awakening in the hospital, he finds himself wrapped in bandages like a mummy and opens his eyes to see two visitors: Stella and…himself — exactly as when he visited Choule in the hospital. Trelkovsky opens his mouth and screams…
THE TENANT is short on typical horror movie action: there are no monsters, and there is little in the way of traditional suspense. That’s because the film is not operating on the kind of fear that most horror films exploit: fear of death. Instead, THE TENANT’s focus is on an equally disturbing fear: loss of identity. Like Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) in REPULSION, Trelkovsky is a person alone in an apartment slowly going mad. The difference is that Carole seems to suffer from some vague but overpowering form of paranoia that makes her afraid to go outside, while Trelkovsky is slowly losing his own personality. Both think someone is out to get them, but Carole turns her deathwish outward, murdering a man in an insane fit, while Trelkovsky ultimately turns his own dark fears upon himself by attempting suicide.
Like REPULSION, the pacing of THE TENANT lacks urgency, because it is about a slow descent into madness that works toward what, in retrospect, seems like an inevitable conclusion. And yet, the film maintains a curious, hypnotic hold upon the viewer. Again like REPULSION, THE TENANT tries to bridge the gap between audience and character, using bizarre, surreal flourishes to put the viewer into the mind of the madman, such as a bouncing “ball” outside Trelkovsky’s window – that turns out to be a head. One particularly evocative and disturbing (if seemingly inexplicable) visual moment occurs when Trelkovsky looks through his apartment window (which gives him a good view of a window to the building’s communal restroom across the courtyard) and sees a nightmarish vision of someone in bandages — as Simon Choule was, in the hospital — slowly unwrapping them to reveal herself.
Fortunately, these hallucinatory interludes are more than gratuitous visual flourishes; they are more like sign posts marking the major turning points on the road to dementia. The nightmarish vision of Choule’s unwrapping herself evokes traditional horror imagery (the bandages suggest the Mummy, and the revelation of a hidden, possibly disfigured face is an iconic element of the genre at least since 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), but the scene’s overwhelming power stems from its apparent irrationality – it seems to make no sense, and we feel as if we too are losing our grip on reality, along with Trelkovsky. And yet, the image actually has a point not that hard to divine, designating the moment at which the Choule personality, formerly only teasing at the edge of awareness, emerges full-blown into Trelkovsky consciousness, like a re-awakening phantom – or, more accurately, like a guilty conscience that refuses to stay under wraps.
Equally unsettling is Polanski’s bizarre monologue, in which he recalls a newspaper account of a man who lost his arm in an accident and was refused permission to performa a burial service for the severed apendage. He seems disturbed by the concept limbs like arms and legs are no longer considered an intrinsic part of a person after they have been disconnected from the brain: “What right does my head have to call itself me? What right?”
Polanski’s horror film is not a shocker — you won’t find yourself leaping out of your seat as a monster or masked killer lurches into frame — but it is genuinely frightening on a deeper level, living on in your mind like a bad nightmare that refuses to be forgotten. THE TENANT creates its own strange Kafka-esque landscape, where inexplicable events breed and give birth to ominous portents lurking in the shadows of the mind. The fact that it’s someone else’s dream offers little comfort as the lights come up and you leave the theatre…


Director Roman Polanski stars as the film’s protagonist, Trelkovsky, but his name does not appear among the actors’ names on screen — a rare case of an actor going without credit for playing the lead role in a film. At the time of the film’s release, Polanski explained that it would look too egotistical to take credit for his performance, because his name was already on the credits as writer and director.
THE TENANT is the third installment of a loose trilogy that includes REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY. All three films deal with characters living in apartments who gradually succumb to paranoia, believing themselves to be victims of persecution. In the case of ROSEMARY’S BABY, Rosemary’s paranoia turns out to be justified (although whether her baby truly is the Son of Satan is an open question). Polanski’s later historical drama THE PIANO PLAYER takes a similar approach, although in that case the persecution is so clearly genuine that the word “paranoia” no longer applies.
THE TENANT (Le Loctaire, 1976). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Polanski & Gerard Brach, based on the novel by Roland Topor. Cast: Roman Polanski (uncredited), Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Bernard Fresson, Michel Blanc, Shelley Winters.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski


Polanski's Ghost Writer climbs Summit in America

Summit Entertainment has signed a deal to distribute THE GHOST WRITER in North America. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film is based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, who collaborated with Polanski on the screenplay. The story is a thriller about a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who hires a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) to help finish writing his memoirs; the writer arrives to learn that his predecessor died under mysterious circumstances. Also in the cast are Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Jim Belushi, and Tom Wilkinson.
Although Polanski has directed a wide range of films, including the Oscar-winning THE PIANIST, he is well regarded among horror fans and critics for his classic films REPULSION (1965), DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (a.k.a. THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, 1967), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1969), THE TENANT (1976), and THE NINTH GATE (1999).

The Ninth Gate (2000) – Horror Film Review

The original DVD, released on July 18, 2000, now out of print

Roman Polanski’s diabolical little thriller may not rise to the level of his acknowledged classics in the horror genre; nevertheless, it represents a return to form for the director of such memorable films as Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Decades later, THE NINTH GATE may not be groundbreaking in the way those films were back in the 1960s, but it features the same sure-handed control of cinematic elements.
Unlike modern horror films, THE NINTH GATE takes a more classic approach to its subject matter, slowly and carefully building up and sustaining suspense, with an undercurrent of supernatural dread, while seldom offering overt shocks. The storyline is basically a Satanic variation on Dashiell Hammett’s  The Maltese Falcon, with Johnny Depp as Corso, an ethically unscrupulous procurer of rare books. A rich collector named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires Corso to authenticate a Satanic volume in his collection. Once he takes the job, Corso encounters a Satan-worshipping widow (Lena Olin) and an enigmatic motorcycle-riding woman (Emmanuelle Seigner), who turns out to be his guardian angel of sorts — although demon may be the more appropriate designation.
The audience is supposed to respect Corso because because he is a talented professional, good at what he does, regardless of the fact that he behaves without ethics. Yet by the end of THE NINTH GATE, Corso has, like Sam Spade before him, given up on just completing the job and collecting his paycheck; he has become consumed by the mystery, which he wishes to solve for its own sake. The film’s wicked joke is that the character’s spiritual awakening dives in the opposite direction of salvation. Apparently Lucifer’s chosen one (for no apparent reason, except perhaps that the Devil likes his style), Corso puts the pieces together and unravels Lucifer’s mysterious puzzle. When last seen, approaching a castle gate (presumably the ninth gate of the title) from which emanates a blazing, glorious light (recall that “Lucifer” originally meant “bringer of light”), Corso is presumably heading toward—what?
Damnation? If so, THE NINTH GATE’s vision of damnation is a strange one. The Devil-worshippers we see preparing for a black mass are derided mercilessly by Balkan, who interrupts and chastises them for chanting “mumbo-jumbo.” His sentiments echoes those expressed earlier in the film by the owner of another copy of the rare Satanic volume. The film seems to tell us that these Satanists are just in it for the orgies and the kicks; they are not carrying on the true faith. Yet somehow Corso, the non-believer, winds up receiving the Devil’s blessing, and in some way, apparently, we are meant to see this as an achievement. Needless to say, this ending (which lacks the visual and/or dramatic punch it really needs in order to cap the film satisfactorily) did not go down well with audiences in theatres, but it does make a kind of sense in the context of the film.


THE NINTH GATE’s was original released on DVD by Artisan Entertainment on July 18, 2000. That now out-of-print DVD has sinsce been replaced by Lionsgate’s May 22, 2007 DVD, which was followed by Lionsgate’s subsequent Blu-ray disc on August 11, 2009. These later releases essentially recreate the bonus features from the Artisan DVD, while improving upon the Artisan disc’s interminably slow opening menus; the Blu-ray disc also offers a new 1080p high-defintion transfer. The special features include an isolated music score, a featurette, a gallery of satanic drawings, storyboard selections, theatrical trailers and TV spots, cast and crew info, production notes, scene access, and an interactive menu.
The featurette truly puts emphasis on the suffix “ette”—it flashes by in about the length of time one would expect for a commercial, but it does include a nice moment or two (such as Depp’s observation that you begin the film by hating Corso because he’s a bad guy, but by the time you’ve grown to like him near the end, he has in fact grown even worse).
Fortuantely, Roman Polanski’s audio commentary makes up for the disappointing behind-the-scenes featurette. The director is clearly uncomfortable sitting through THE NINTH GATE again; right off the bat he calls the experience “unusual” and emphasizes that he doesn’t go back to his films “unless compelled to.” Later, he explains, “I avoid watching my films because most of the time I feel like I would like to improve certain things. In other moments, I’m straight ashamed of certain things I did, and it just doesn’t do me any good to revisit this.” This discomfort is apparent also in the way that the commentary drops out and returns periodically throughout the film, no doubt indicating various stops-and-starts during the recording process.
Despite this, Polanski turns out to be a thoughtful and amusing commentator on his own work. His voice is slow, and occasionally he apologizes for his pronunciation, but overall his English is good, and he delivers numerous behind-the-scenes details and philosophical tidbits that make the experience amusing and informative. During one of his many explanations for not wanting to re-view his films and ponder the way he might have improved them, he states that after a certain point, one is no longer improving a film; one has only the illusion of making it better and “better is often the enemy of good.”
Most interesting from a technical point of view is that this deceptively simple film is loaded with hundreds of special effects of the most invisible kind (often to establish settings or enhance live-action effects, sometimes to film tricky bits of action without putting the actors in danger). In an amusing early note, Polanski points out that the opening skyline shot of Manhattan was filmed by a second-unit; he discretely neglects to mention that this had to be the case—not because it’s a shot not involving principal actors, but because the director is a fugitive from justice in this country (since pleading guilty to a rape charge in the 1970s) and cannot legally return to the location. There are other amusing omissions. At one point, the director explains his reasons for casting Emmanuelle Seigner (“I thought Emmanuel had the right looks for the role, and she can be enigmatic”), but he neglects to mention that he’s married to her.
In other interesting asides, Polanski also confirms the film’s debt to the writings of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler, admitting that the proceedings are almost a parody of the private detective genre. He mentions, “It’s a good thing to make a movie about a book…now that it has competition from the computer.” On the subject of his Satanic subject matter (which he handled before in Rosemary’s Baby), he claims, “I’m not a believer, but the Devil is a good guy to make a film about—even if you don’t see him” (as indeed you don’t, in either film). He adds that Rosemary’s Baby was a more serious take on the subject matter, so he felt compelled to set that film up so that everything could be interpreted without recourse to the supernatural—as a paranoid delusion by Rosemary, brought on by the strain and stress of her pregnancy. THE NINTH GATE, on the other hand, is a “fairy tale for adults,” so he felt no concern about downplaying the supernatural element.
Polanski briefly addresses this element during the film’s closing scenes. After describing Johnny Depps’s character as a “mercenary” who later comes to want “access to the mystery,” he adds a few words about Seigner’s unnamed character “who clearly represents the Devil.” Still, Polanski stops short of clearing up the details: he leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether the character is merely servant of the Devil or the Devil disguised in a form that would appeal to Corso, and he states clearly, “I’m not going to explain the film.”
Commenting on THE NINTH GATE’s existence on DVD, Polanski says he was thinking of adding missing scenes for the disc, but there were none to be had; although some scenes were trimmed or shortened, none were entirely cut out. Later, he mentions that all the insert shots of books (which revel important clues to the mystery) were very carefully planned for the benefit of nitpickers who like to rewind and check details over and over again, looking for cheats and/or continuity errors.
“I challenge anyone to find any lack of logic in this!” the director proudly states.
Near the end, he states that there is no better way of seeing a movie than in a theatre, but viewing one at home is the next best thing, so he is grateful for the invention of DVDs, because the image quality of VHS is poor and Laserdiscs were too heavy and clunky.
Finally, after a cigar and some chocolate to help him through the film, Polanski signs off by sighing, “Well, this was an experience!”
Perhaps a trying experience for him, as a director forced to sit through one of his finished films when he would much prefer to be looking forward t his next work, but for us in the audience, the experience is perfectly enjoyable. THE NINTH GATE may not be a perfect movie (typical of Polanski, the deliberate pace is a bit too deliberate, and the climax could have used something more…climactic maybe?); nevertheless, this is a worthwhile film, and Polanski’s commentary provides a glimpse of a talented mind still capable of applying the craftsmanship necessary to fashion an effective, suggestive horror film without relying on shock effects.
THE NINTH GATE may not appeal to the MTV audience (Polanski himself states that the film’s style is a reaction against flashy contemporary fashions in cinema), but fans of thoughtful, intelligent horror movie-making, with carefully modulated scenes and performances that lull you into accepting the incredible story,will find the subject matter intriguing enough to be worth investigating. Just don’t lose yourself in the mystery as Corso does.
THE NINTH GATE (2000). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by John Brownjohn & Enrique Urbizu and Roman Polanski. Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford, Jack Taylor, Jos Lopez Rodero, James Russo.

Repulsion (1965) – Horror Film Review

Although it cannot quite live up to its reputation, Polanski’s startling psychological horror film is a bona fide genre classic.

Repulsion (1965)Back in the day when newspaper and magazine critics had some influence, Roman Polanski’s REPULSION was one of the few horror films (along with Alfred Hitchock’s PSYCHO) that earned any respect. Variety called it “a classy, truly horrific psychological drama,” while the New York Times Bosley Crowther warned, “Prepare yourself to be demolished when you go to see it – and go you must, because it’s one of those films that everybody will soon be buzzing about.” At a time when British horror consisted mostly of colorful Victorian-era Gothic tales produced by Hammer Films (a company with a reputation as profitable entertainers rather than artistic visionaries), Polanski’s startling, black-and-white depiction of homicidal madness, set in swinging London, was just the sort of thing to make critics sit up and take notice, assessing REPULSION as an artistic achievement rather than a routine genre effort. It certainly didn’t hurt that Polanski had established his artistic bona fides with his 1962 feature film debut KNIFE IN THE WATER; shot in his native Poland, that three-character drama identified Polanski as an upcoming European auteur who would not be dimissed as just another genre filmmaker when he made his English-language debut with psychological horror movie.
Unfortunately, the supremely high level of adulation for REPULSION (which continue to this day, with a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes) is not altogether warranted; as good as it is, the film is not perfect. Fortunately, in spite of its flaws, Polanski’s dark little gem deserves to be regarded as a mini-masterpiece, because it merges horror conventions with art house aesthetics (one of the first films to do so – after George Franju’s 1958 EYES WITHOUT A FACE) in a way that creates a nightmare all the more disturbing because it is crystal clear and contemporary, carefully establishing a believable sense of reality (instead of Gothic atmosphere) before turning on the thumb-screws.

Carole is ready to resist advances from her landlord (Patrick Wymark)
Carole is ready to resist advances from her landlord (Patrick Wymark)

Co-written with the agoraphobic Gerard Brach, REPULSION depicts the psychological disintegration of Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a disturbed young woman working in a salon. Isolated and withdrawn, Carol is barely clinging to her sanity when we first meet her, living in an apartment she shares with her sister Helene (Yvonne Furneaux). Exactly what is wrong with Carol is not specified, but we have no doubt it is sexual in nature, a point emphasized when we see her lying in bed at night, listening to Helene and her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) make love in the next room. When Helene and Michael depart for a vacation, Carole’s tentative connection to reality is severed, and she succumbs to paranoia. A sleazy landlord (Patrick Wymark) makes sexual advances; Carol kills him with a pair of scissors and barricades herself inside. The abyss of madness yawns before her, and into it she plunges, succumbing to nightmare visions that seem completely.
Carole (Catherine Denueve) imagines hands emerging from the walls.
Carole (Catherine Denueve) imagines hands emerging from the walls.

Using the simplest of resources, director Roman Polanski manages to convey Carole’s descent into madness, in a way that invites audience inside her head even while giving viewers the creeps. Much of the imagery is memorably revolting (a rotting rabbit) or surreally disturbing (hands emerging from the walls to fondle the hallucinating woman).
Nevertheless, REPULSION does not sustain full tension for its entire length; the later scenes grow repetitions, and the carefully wrought camera set ups and methodical pace border on boredom as the film wears on, slowly charting the disintegration of Carole’s last shred’s of sanity. Although Polanski makes good use of the limited space to convey Carole’s gathering claustrophobia, which climaxes in a scene wherein the walls seem to press in on her, one cannot help noticing that the space islimited. With the last half of the film set entirely in the Ledoux’s apartment, the visual possibilities tend to run dry. One loses count of the number of times the degenerating character’s psychotic solitude is interrupted by the ringing telephone, always shown in the same close-up camera angle. When Carole finally cuts the phone’s cord, it’s supposed to symbolize her final break with the outside world; instead, you want to cheer, “At last!”
The visual monotony is combined with a storyline that wears down rather than amps up. Yet strangely enough, this ultimately works in REPULSION’s favor, leaving the audience without the catharsis of an explosive climax. The “morning after” scene – a return to normality in conventional horror films, like awakening from a bad dream – is rendered here in dark and distressing terms, suggesting that the nightmare never ends. Nearly comatose, Carole is carried out of her room by Michael, but the scene plays less like a rescue than a prelude to confinement. (Ian Hendry’s briefly glimpsed expression is hard to read: is it smirking satisfaction that the unwanted third wheel will be gone from the apartment, or does he seem to have some kind of designs on Carole?).
We are denied even the satisfaction of a last-minute revelation regarding Carole’s unhinged mentality. Polanski’s camera merely zooms in on a photograph of Carole as a young girl, staring angrily at her father, suggesting that the seeds of her madness were planted in childhood, perhaps buried forever, never to be fully explained. (It has become common to interpret the photo as evidence that Carole was sexually abused by her father, but Polanski has denied this in interviews, stating that he merely wanted to show that Carol had been disturbed from a very early age, without offering an exact explanation). 
These minor quibbles are not meant to argue against REPULSION’s reputation as a classic but rather to point out that certain films seem to get a fairer shake from critics than others. This is especially true in the horror genre, where a little bit of artistry goes a long way toward earning favorable reviews that less ambitious but sometimes equally effective films also deserve. However, it would be unfair to suggest that the critical consensus is totally exaggerated; it is merely blind to the minor blemishes that mar this otherwise excellent work.
repulsion1REPULSION may not be perfect, but it is an excellent example of the “horror of personality” sub-genre. Its imperfections tend to fade from memory with the passage of time, eclipsed by the haunting memory of Carole’s malaise. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to shock, but the shocks are few and fleeting; instead, Polanski wants to get inside your head and make you feel the dementia troubling Carole. The director has cast a light upon the inner darkness in the twisted corners of a human mind, but instead of exposing an enlightening truth, he casts more shadows – shadows that persist long after the theatre curtain has dropped and the lights have gone up.
REPULSION (1965). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Roman Polanski and Gerard Brach; adaptation and additional dialogue by David Stone. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston, Valerie Taylor, James Villiers. Helen Fraser.

Rosemary's Baby (1968) – Horror Film Review

Writer-director Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel has earned a reputation as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It is easy to understand why: this is a serious effort that gradually and carefully constructs a mounting sense of paranoia that climaxes in a horrible final-scene revelation. The setting and performances are completely credible; even the basic plot line (a woman undergoing a difficult first pregnancy) has an everyday believability that invites audience identification. In short, ROSEMARY’S BABY transcends its genre trappings: viewers are not allowed to sit back and enjoy a pleasant roller-coaster thrill-ride; they are lured into the plot and set them up to be terrified and disturbed by the unfolding events And yet, despite these undeniable strengths, the film is too deliberately paced and ultimately too tame to completely justify the high regard in which it is held. It’s a horror film for people who want to be scared – but not too much.


Despite being based on a best-selling novel, Polanski’s film actually seems inspired by THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943), a Val Lewton production about Satanists living in modern New York City. ROSEMARY’S BABY begins with Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse moving into a New York apartment, which was split off from a much larger apartment. The previous tenant died after lapsing into a coma but not before mysteriously moving a huge piece of furniture in front of a closet (which, we learn much later, hides a door leading into the other half of the apartment from which this unit was split off). Rosemary meets Terry Gionoffrio (Victoria Vetri), who lives with Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon) in that very unit; soon thereafter, Terry dies from a fall out the window. The Castevets invite Rosemary and Guy over for dinner; Rosemary has a strange dream in which she imagines being ravished by the Devil, and soon Guy’s acting career is taking off. Strange developments disturb Rosemary; her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) tries to warn her, but he too lapses into a coma and dies, although not before sending her a book about witches. After reading it, Rosemary becomes convinced that the Castevets are witches who plan to sacrifice her baby in some kind of ceremony.
Rosemary seeks help, but her husband and her doctor are in league with the Castavets. After being sedated, Rosemary wakes up to find her pregnancy terminated; Guy and her doctor insist the baby died, but Rosemary hears crying through the wall. Using the door hidden in the closet, she sneaks into the Castavets apartment and finds that the Castevets — and many others, including a visitor from the east, bearing gifts — are not sacrificing her baby but worshipping it. Rosemary screams when she sees her baby’s eyes, but Roman Castevet tells her the child has his father’s eyes — his father being Satan. Rosemary is shocked to learn that her child is destined to be the anti-Christ, but her maternal instincts take over and she decides to mother the child…


One of the problems facing ROSEMARY’S BABY today is that we all know the surprise ending, so much of what proceeds it feels like an extended prologue to the brief revelation of horror in the finale scene. What keeps the story somewhat interesting is that it is laid out like a paranoid thriller that, in retrospect, leaves open the question of whether or not anything supernatural really has occurred. Yes, the coven really believe that Rosemary’s baby is the child of Satan, and they convince Rosemary of this, but is there really any reason to believe they are correct?
The film even emphasizes the weakness of the supernatural explanation in a scene wherein Rosemary seeks help from a doctor and babbles out a litany of her suspicions — which sound like crazy ramblings that add up to nothing. To a certain extent, the film plays off the sense that Rosemary’s condition, with all the hormonal changes that go with it, may be leading to mood swings that cause her to succumb to paranoia.
Of course, ultimately her paranoia turns out to be justified — at least to the extent that she is the victim of a conspiracy, but whether or not it is supernatural in nature is not definitively clear. Rosemary dreams of being ravished by the Devil, but that is clearly the result of a chalky-tasting drug slipped into a dessert made by Minnie Castevet; the subsequent problems with Rosemary’s pregnancy, including her child’s appearance, might also be a result of the strange herbal concoctions that Minnie feeds her for ninth months. A couple people die while in comas, and another loses his sight (so that Guy can take his place in an important acting role), but those could be mere coincidences, caused by natural causes; or (recalling Minnie’s herbal remedies) they might even have been the result of some kind of poison.
The film’s two highlights are Rosemary’s dream sequence and the ending. The former is a marvelous piece of surrealism in the manner of the best of Luis Bunuel: dissolves linking disjointed scenes on a yacht with tracking shots of religious imagery, segueing into presumably “real” scenes of Rosemary being tied down by the Castavets’ coven so that Guy can mount her — only close-ups of Guy’s hands and eyes give way to briefly glimpsed scaly claws and burning red orbs.
And the final scene carries a wonderfully twisted sense of triumphant evil that is genuinely disturbing. The crib shrouded in black, with an upside-down cross dangling from it, is a memorable image, and not actually showing the title character is a brilliant stroke of subtlety that allows the audience to conjure its own mental images (the only hint we’re given is a brief flashback to the red eyes that Rosemary saw in her dream earlier).
There is a certain touch of black humor in the proceedings that underlines the horror (as in the Biblical account of the birth of Christ, there is a magi-type character bringing gifts from the east). Whether or not Rosemary’s Baby is in fact the anti-Christ who will sow death and destruction, the exuberant joy of the coven is terrifying, and it is tragic to see Rosemary becoming one of them, at least to the extent of agreeing to raise the child.
In the end, ROSEMARY’S BABY still works because it takes a character in an identifiable and relatable situation (going through pregnancy and all the concerns that entails) and magnifies it to horrific proportions. The realistic situation lends the film a sense of credibility lacking in most horror stories, which is maintained by presenting the supernatural interpretation in an ambiguous way.


Although ROSEMARY’S BABY is adapted from a novel, its story bears striking similarities to Roman Polanski’s other films:

  • As in DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES (or THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS), there is a group of characters representing evil (in this case witches rather than vampires) who are far more highly organized and effective than the hapless protagonists.
  • As in REPULSION, the film deals with a young blond woman living in an apartment who gradually succumbs to paranoid fears of persecution; the difference of course is that Rosemary’s fears turn out to be at least somewhat justified.Polanski’s subsequent films THE TENANT and THE PIANIST also deal with characters hiding out in apartments, hiding from persecution by some outside group. Again, the only distinction is how justified each character’s sense of persecution is. From least justified to most justified, they should be ranked: REPULSION, THE TENANT, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE PIANIST.

This was the first Hollywood film directed by Polanski, who had made a name for himself in Europe with such films as KNIFE IN THE WATER, CUL-DE-SAC, REPULSION, and DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES.
The film’s producer, William Castle, purchased the rights to the Ira Levin novel with the intention of directing the film himself, but Paramount Pictures balked, insisting the Polanski direct instead. Castle had directed several entertaining horror films (such as THE TINGLER and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, both with Vincent Price), but his style was campy and gimmick-laden — the antithesis of the serious approach employed by Polanski.
When Rosemary meets Terry Gionoffrio, she apologizes for staring, explaining that she mistook Terry for an actress named Victoria Vetri. In fact, Terry is played by an actress named Victoria Vetri  – although at this point in her career, Vetri was credited under the stage name Angela Dorian. Reportedly, Polanski asked her why she was using the name of a sunken ship – referring to the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which collided with another vessel and sank on July 25, 1956. Under her real name, Vetri (who was also a Playboy Playmate of the Year) later appeared in WHEN DINOSAURS RULES THE EARTH and INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (written by Nicolas Myers) before her career faded out.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Polanski, based on the novel by Ira Levin. Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Charles Gordon, Victoria Vetri.