Saturday, October 23, 2010

Make Room for Satan!

Films: Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop.

It’s October, which is uniquely associated with horror. This, naturally, is because of the presence of Halloween at the tail end. Well, Halloween happens to be my birthday, and it’s been awhile since I’ve had a good scare. That being the case, I’m going to look at some scary stuff today. I’m in that kind of a mood.

Roman Polanski is, or at least was at one point in his career, associated with horror of a sort. Repulsion, which I viewed earlier this year, is a slow descent into madness—an existential horror. This was the first in a loose trilogy of films recounting the horrors of living in the city, and of the three, the most believable. His second is Rosemary’s Baby, famous for any number of reasons, and most of them warranted. The third film in the trilogy is The Tenant, and while plenty weird, is the weakest of the three.

But let’s talk about Rosemary’s Baby, shall we? We have a delightful young couple named Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) apartment shopping. The find a nicely furnished place in an old New York building (shown to them by character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and Rosemary falls in love with it. The price is high, but Guy, who works as an actor, thinks they can handle it, and the two move out of their old place and into the new one. However, before they go, their former landlord Hutch (Maurice Evans) warns them that their new building has something of a morbid history, the most gruesome being a former tenant named Adrian Marcato. Yes, that will be important.

Once in the apartment, Guy throws himself into his work, in part to afford the new place. Rosemary is lonely; we discover that she married the Jewish/Protestant Guy against the wishes of her Catholic parents. While she does have friends, she is alone much of the time, and soon strikes up an acquaintance with Terry (Victoria Vetri). Terry is a former addict rescued by the Castevets, who live on the same floor as the Woodhouses.

Shortly after their first meeting, though, things go south for Terry in a big way. She is discovered having committed suicide by leaping from the seventh floor of the building. Her guardians, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), now bring the Woodhouses into their lives and quickly become surrogate parents for the young couple. Shortly thereafter, Guy’s career gets a huge boost when his main rival for an important role is suddenly struck blind. He throws himself into his work even more, further isolating Rosemary. Despite this, the couple decide that they are ready to start a family. On the night they plan to start, Mrs. Castevet gives them a chocolate mousse (which she pronounces as “mouse”), which may well have something wrong with it. We’re certainly led to believe that it might be drugged. This is presaged by some strange chanting the couple here early in their tenancy.

What follows is one of the two most famous sequences from the film. Rosemary finds herself at the center of what appears to be a Satanic ritual, and disturbingly, she is the real attraction. Essentially, this is a supernatural rape scene, and Guy is not the rapist. Instead, the man in the center of the ring is the Prince of Darkness himself. She thinks it might be a dream, and she awakens with scratches, which Guy attributes to himself being a little wild the night before while she was passed out.

Shortly after this sequence, delusional or not (and despite her protesting), Rosemary discovers that she is pregnant. And everything in her world starts to fall apart. Much like in Repulsion before it and The Tenant after it, paranoia becomes the watchword. Rosemary begins to suspect that her delusion of being raped by Satan is not so much a delusion, but a fact. Things start happening around her and to her. She loses weight and is stricken by terrible pains. The doctor everyone tells her to see, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) prescribes bizarre treatments. She becomes more and more convinced that everyone in the building is a Satan worshipper, and even begins to suspect her husband. This is reinforced by the fact as the film continues, Rosemary looks more and more like she is wasting away.

While the initial set-up of the film is good, it really takes off after the rape sequence. Before this, especially in the opening, it’s a domestic drama. It might just as well be about Rosemary’s boredom and seeking a soulmate, looking in the apartment for someone to have an affair with. But slowly edges into weird, and then takes that hard left turn, and it never comes back. Rosemary slips in and out of paranoid delusions, and as the film continues, we’re led to believe that they aren’t so much delusions or altered reality as they are evidence that her world has slipped entirely into another, much darker and despairing reality. It’s no coincidence that Rosemary’s severe haircut happens just when she begins to feel more vulnerable; it’s almost as if she’s lost a piece of the armor that protects her.

Mia Farrow is also the perfect choice for the role, despite not being originally desired for the part. In this film, particularly with that little haircut, she is elfin and tiny, and always looks so frail and ready to snap. Her perceived frailty is just another thing for the audience to worry about as her paranoia deepens.

Say what you’d like about Polanski. The man can direct a hell of a film. Chinatown might be my personal favorite of his, but Rosemary’s Baby is in many ways a more effective (and affecting) film. What’s most impressive about it is that it so effectively scares the hell out of the audience without showing a single thing, other than a few flashes during the rape. We never get to see the baby, and so we never learn which of several possibilities is the reality. Instead, we only learn Rosemary’s reality. It’s genius.

On the other end of the scare spectrum is Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Where Polanski holds back everything from our vision and leaves the scare entirely in our minds, Argento gives us blood, guts, and some of the most creative murders ever filmed, and these are shown from stem to stern, with nothing left to the imagination. Often, it seems like filmmakers show us the blood and guts when they don’t trust themselves to do a good enough job of scaring us without it. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Argento, who uses it to push the scares over the edge into true creepsville.

I can vaguely remember this film coming out. Vaguely in the sense that I remember seeing a trailer for it on television. The trailer shows a woman from the back in a luridly colored sweater brushing her hair as a lullaby plays. Then the figure turns around, and we see that it’s a skeleton with luxurious black hair. Weird. Totally Argento. That trailer always intrigued me, but I forgot about the film for a long time until I came across it while Internet surfing. That intrigued me even more, and I hunted it down. While I was interested because of that memory of the trailer, it was hearing that Argento’s goal was to make a film that looked like a horror film made by Walt Disney. That I had to see.

The story takes place in Germany, although that’s not terribly important—it’s just sort of vaguely Europe-y. Our heroine, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, who is very Karen Allen-y) is a young dancer, who has chosen to come to Europe to an exclusive conservatory of dance. She arrives late at night and during a rainstorm just as another girl is leaving. This girl is Pat Hingle (Eva Axen, who looks nothing like Pat Hingle, the actor), and she’s leaving because the conservatory has expelled her. She’s convinced that something terrible is happening at the school, but she lives long enough only to tell (and doom) a friend. Pat is killed in one of the most gruesome screen deaths I’ve ever seen. She is attacked through a window, repeatedly stabbed, and then a rope is thrown around her neck. Her body is then placed on a stained glass skylight. She breaks through, and when her body falls, the rope tightens around her neck, finishing the job. Her friend, meanwhile, is diced by the falling shards of stained glass.

Mysterious and terrible happenings continue at the school. Suzy suffers a swooning spell after a servant at the school bewitches her, and that night, all of the girls are attacked by a horde of maggots falling from the ceiling. The next day, the school’s blind piano player’s dog attacks a child and the pianist is released. That night, the dog attacks him brutally, killing him.

Following this, Suzy and her friend Sara (Stefania Casini) begin to investigate the school, but still under the spell, Suzy cannot awaken at night. Sara goes on her own and gets her own brutal death involving a room filled with razor wire, and yes, this is exactly as brutal as you’re imagining, and Argento shows it in gruesome detail. Her disappearance is simply explained away, leaving Suzy on her own to discover the terrible secret of the school.

Originally, Argento conceived of this film as taking place in a school for young girls, but realized (or was told) that with the brutality contained within, no one would release or show it. The killings are horrific, and seeing this done to children would immediately squash any distribution. So he changed the ages of the girls, but changed nothing else. What that means is that much of the dialogue appears geared for pre-teens, and listening to the girls bicker with each other like junior high school kids requires a mental leap. Argento also rearranged the set so that things like doorknobs were set higher, making the girls appear smaller, and more childlike. Additionally, the film is shot with huge blocks of primary and secondary colors. There are huge blocks of blue, red, and green light. Everything is hyper-colorized. The blood looks not like blood, but a thick, red syrup, almost like strawberry ice cream topping or unset Jell-O. It creates a strange non-reality for the film that, to me, adds to the experience even as it makes the film less scary. It’s unsettling and disturbing, though.

The most frightening part of the film is the soundtrack created by Italian prog-rock band Goblin. At times childish, like a music box, at other times the soundtrack pounds with a demonic intensity with wild drums and howling, incoherent vocals. This, almost as much as the bizarre and unsettling visuals, is the driving force behind the film. Listen for yourself—this is the international trailer for the film, and it features Goblin’s work: Suspiria International trailer(This is not safe for kids or those with tender tummies.)

Suspiria is an aggressive film. The shots are intended to be visually unsettling, and they are. A few minutes into the film, there is really no safe harbor for the audience because the world constantly skews further and further away from typical reality. Because of this, there is a haunted quality here, but not a romantic one. There’s nothing romantic about this film. Argento’s demons and witches are hungry ones, rampant, aggressive, and terrible, and stop at nothing to get what they want, both on screen and from the audience watching.

While not the scariest film I’ve seen, or even the most disturbing of this year, Suspiria is absolutely worth watching. There is no other film like it, and few that went this far to be visually innovative. That, and the soundtrack, is what will haunt you, not the action on the screen.

Why to watch Rosemary’s Baby: Terrifyingly scary and showing virtually nothing.
Why not to watch: It’s nightmare fuel.

Why to watch Suspiria: Horror, Disney-style.
Why not to watch: The characters don’t always fit the dialogue.


  1. rosemary's baby is an old favourite from way back, but suspiria was too much of everything for me when i first saw it a couple of years ago

    after reading this post, though, i feel that maybe i should give it another try

  2. Well, if you still hate it, that's probably okay. So far, you and I have agreed on about 95% of everything, so maybe a little disagreement is healthy.

  3. I just watched Suspiria last week, as well. While the story and some of the acting was a bit cheesy, I felt that visually it was a good movie that made up for some of it's shortfalls with stunning camera work (especially noting Argent's use of intense color saturation) and also recalling my youthful crush for Jessica Harper, I liked her in "Phantom Of The Paradise" and "My Favorite Year".

  4. Happy Birthday, Steve! I'm with you all the way on Polanski. I haven't seen enough of his films yet.

    1. I haven't seen as many as I'd like. That's one of the reasons I do these lists--it catches me up on what I should see instead of just what I want to see.

      And thanks.

  5. There are plenty of links between Repulsion and Rosemary's Mary. It is almost a sequel. Bigger budget, better actors and more experience. Too bad you say The Tenant is poorer.

    1. It is, but it's not bad. It's worth tracking down, if only to complete the trilogy.