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Why Today’s Horror Filmmakers Can’t Escape Rosemary’s Baby

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Paramount Pictures and Hulu

False Positive opens with a shot of Ilana Glazer trudging through a darkened city street, blood caked across her face and shirt. She has clearly been through it, whatever “it” might be. The new Hulu movie, which Glazer co-wrote with director John Lee, is a contemporary spin on Rosemary’s Baby, and its inciting image bears some resemblance to the close-up of a gory woman at the start of 2017’s mother! — a movie whose promotional materials also directly evoked Rosemary’s Baby.

Despite Roman Polanski’s soiled reputation, it’s impossible to escape his 1968 magnum opus within today’s horror canon. Frankenstein, Night of the Living Dead, Jaws, and Halloween may have birthed thriving subgenres, but Rosemary — adapted from Ira Levin’s best-selling novel — has become the thinking auteur’s touchstone. Jordan Peele called it his favorite movie and cited it as inspiration for Get Out’s social commentary. In 2018, Hereditary director Ari Aster channeled Rosemary’s blend of domestic drama and cultish terror, chronicling an artist (Toni Collette) who learns that her teenage son (Alex Wolff) has been marked as a sort of Antichrist. Prior to that, the filmmakers behind The House of the Devil, Devil’s Due, The Babadook, Annabelle, and the British psychodrama The Ones Below tipped their hats to Rosemary. Trey Edward Shults rewatched it before making the psychological-breakdown chamber piece Krisha. And We Need to Talk About Kevin could be interpreted as a quasi-sequel about a mother (Tilda Swinton) and her troubled offspring (Ezra Miller).

False Positive, premiering June 25, seems like a natural progression of the sophisticated horror drawn from the oddly timeless story of a woman (Mia Farrow) whose husband (John Cassavetes) devotes their unborn baby to Satan in order to boost his patchy acting career. Here, Glazer plays Lucy Martin, a New York marketing strategist who longs for a baby but hasn’t been able to get pregnant. When she and her surgeon husband, Adrian (Justin Theroux), seek help from a renowned obstetrician (Pierce Brosnan), Lucy experiences symptoms not unlike the ones that haunt Rosemary: creeping paranoia, physical pain, ominous visions, memory lapses. Other women tell her she’s suffering from “mommy brain,” but Lucy knows there’s something more malignant happening to her — and she pretty quickly deduces that Adrian is in on it.

Aesthetically and narratively, Lee and Glazer used Rosemary’s Baby as a crucial reference point. But whereas Polanski and Levin were depicting the male ego and erosion of trust within a shared home, Lee and Glazer instead set their sights on a broader indictment of the American health-care system. (After Rosemary’s devilish goings-on gave way to The Exorcist, The Omen, The Sentinel and other ’70s thrillers, which then resurfaced during the so-called Satanic panic wave of the ’80s and ’90s, Lucifer alone as a villain feels a bit passé.) As Lucy’s syndrome worsens, no one will take her concerns seriously, not even her doctor, to whom she initially feels indebted because he mentored Adrian in school.

“Anytime you make a movie about motherhood, it is the high bar,” Lee says of Rosemary. “We would talk about it in comparison: ‘We can’t say that; that’s just the same point Rosemary’s Baby made.’ So we tried to make sure the movie was more grounded. Rosemary’s Baby becomes really fantastical, with witchery and cult societies. In those days, the political point of that movie was a little different, because you’re talking about a different time of feminism. Her hair getting cut short was radical — now that’s not radical at all. The thing I really wanted to do in this movie is for you to know what it means to be gaslit, to go through that confusion. I think most women have experienced it a lot in their lives.”

Lee, who also helmed Pee-wee’s Big Holiday and several Broad City episodes, is among a generation of filmmakers who grew up worshiping Rosemary and its progeny. By the time they were becoming cinephiles, Rosemary was already considered a classic that heralded the New Hollywood movement of the ’70s. Beyond being a smart, stylish box-office triumph, the movie’s cultural footprint spread after Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, whom he’d originally sought to cast in the title role, was murdered in 1969 at the hands of Charles Manson’s acolytes. As a result, Rosemary’s Baby seemed to predict the mood of the decade that would follow, when the Vietnam War, nationwide gas shortages, and Watergate rendered the forces that govern our lives untrustworthy.

When the French-born Polanski fled the United States in 1978, after pleading guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, he’d already been christened one of the era’s great auteurs. In addition to a visual flair that’s still influencing directors like Aster and Darren Aronofsky, Polanski can claim a number of resolutely feminist films, including Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, both of which side with the female protagonist as she weathers men’s avarice. Even the rape scene in Rosemary is relatively restrained, trading gruesome violence for a hallucinatory dread that involves a coven and a Jackie Kennedy look-alike. It’s far scarier when Rosemary’s husband, Guy, admits to raping her but exhibits no remorse. The irony that Polanski could show such empathy for Rosemary Woodhouse’s vulnerability and then proceed to commit heinous sexual predation is not lost on the directors who continue to valorize his artistic mastery.

Karyn Kusama, best known for Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation, made a spiritual sequel to Rosemary’s Baby in the 2017 anthology film XX. Her segment, titled “Her Only Living Son,” asks what might happen if Rosemary had gotten the help she needed mid-pregnancy and left town, borrowing the same framework about a husband who sold his child’s soul for showbiz success. That son (Kyle Allen) is now turning 18, and his mother (Christina Kirk) finds herself desperately clinging to what remains of his humanity while he morphs into Satan’s spawn.

“What I love about Rosemary’s Baby is that it’s Guy Woodhouse who is truly the villain,” Kusama says. “We can have big, bad Daddy Satan, but ultimately it’s a human being who demonstrates the most reckless disregard for other humans, and he is the evil we should be interrogating. What I find enduring about the movie is that I do experience it very solidly in the psyche and bodily space of this female character. For that reason, I really do see it as a feminist expression. I have to ask myself, Is this what art can do — tap into an unconscious level for the artist? Is Rosemary’s Baby the best version of Roman Polanski? Are we getting the most interesting, evolved, thoughtful, compassionate, vulnerable version of that filmmaker in that film? Because I have to ask that question aloud of the work still, I can’t dismiss it. Maybe it’s a piece of art that got away from him in that it expresses a more expansive version of him than what actually exists.”

Similarly, director Jennifer Reeder still watches Rosemary’s Baby roughly once a month, calling it “absolutely perfect.” The way Rosemary withholds information — dropping abstract clues about Guy’s scheme, only providing Rosemary’s perspective, never revealing what the demonic newborn looks like — made a big impression on her. While developing her 2019 thriller Knives and Skin, she took a screenshot of the famous final scene in which Rosemary walks from her apartment to the diabolical neighbors’ holding a butcher knife. That became Knives and Skin’s opening sequence: a nervous mother (Marika Engelhardt) inching toward a bedroom door, dagger in hand, only to discover that her daughter (Raven Whitley) is missing.

“In high school, I was totally obsessed with Mia Farrow in that film,” Reeder says. “We enter that apartment, and it’s dark and weird and there are herbs. She brightens it up and she’s always in these pinks and yellows. But the colors are so soft, which is a contrast to the blackness of the soul of her devil baby. That end scene is fast, but it’s really complicated. The idea of motherly instinct can go so bad so fast and just become a cliché. She does properly freak out, but she realizes at some point, That is my child and someone else is going to take care of it if I don’t. The idea of the world closing in around Rosemary, based on how that film is framed, also influences the way that one perceives what’s happening to her.”

Reeder’s sentiment sounds like what Peele said in 2016 about Get Out, another exemplar of a character forced to investigate malevolence close to home. Much in the way that Get Out examined commonplace racism, Rosemary’s Baby turns its lens to misogyny. “It’s a film about gender; it’s about men making decisions about women’s bodies behind their backs,” Peele told Criterion. “Rosemary uses her instincts as a new mother to protect herself and her child. On a subtle level, her personality and point of view are helping her out. And it’s the same with Chris [in Get Out]. His blackness is what allows him to perceive that something sinister is going on.”

False Positive gives Rosemary a vital twist, though. Polanski and Levin’s heroine doesn’t figure out what’s happening until the movie’s final half hour. She’s a naïve housewife in a way that feels very 1960s. False Positive, on the other hand, lets Lucy piece things together within about 20 minutes. She spends the rest of the running time corroborating her suspicions and enacting revenge. Devilish red herrings aside, Lee says they wanted it to be a battle of the sexes that’s really about the ways the health-care system fails to support women in times of distress — hence a colloquialism like “mommy brain,” which infantilizes female well-being.

With such towering contemporary esteem, Rosemary’s Baby may be the gold standard of highbrow American horror, even if its director will never step foot in this country again. Its legacy has only proliferated in recent years. The Dakota, the Manhattan building where the Woodhouses lived, became a popular tourist destination after John Lennon was killed there in 1980; 2014 brought a lackluster TV remake starring Zoe Saldana. In an age saturated by commercially safe franchises, Rosemary’s Baby represents the pinnacle of studio filmmaking — a shrewd, peculiar, and seemingly unmarketable excursion into the ghoulish human psyche that became a sensation.

“That movie really explores the male ego more than it explores Rosemary, and I was more interested in exploring the female intuition and the exploration of ‘Wait, who am I and why is this happening and what’s going on?’” Lee says. “To me, that’s the difference between those two movies. Lucy’s becoming aware of the truth, so slowly she comes to realize that these [scary] visions she’s having might not actually be visions — they might actually be the truth. You think it’s a demon, but I would hope you think by the end, it’s actually been giving her clues. It’s her own intuition saying, ‘Hey, wake up.’”

Why Today’s Horror Filmmakers Can’t Escape Rosemary’s Baby