The original “Rosemary’s Baby” from 1968 is one of my all-time favorite supernatural thrillers. It’s a testimony to the principle of “less is more,” seen all-too-rarely in popular entertainment these days. Roman Polanski (yeah he’s a scumbag, but the guy knows how to direct) doesn’t need to use a lot of CGI monsters to generate chills. Just a slow-boiling, claustrophobic tension undercut with elements of sly humor that only accentuate the unease.
I’d hoped the four-hour miniseries update that ran last month would come out on DVD, so I could see if it was true to the original. But now? Well … I’ll let you read the interpretation by somebody who’s eminently qualified to judge the quality of supernatural thrillers. E.F. Watkins is one of the more notable and talented writers of supernatural thrillers out there these days. She generously agreed to let me run her review of the series. And once you’re done reading it, be sure to check out “Hex, Death and Rock & Roll,” her latest paranormal mystery, which was a recent finalist in the mystery category for the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Take it away, Ms. Watkins:
Recently, NBC presented a four-hour miniseries based on Rosemary’s Baby, the 1967 Ira Levin novel and 1968 Roman Polanski film. The TV version kept the basic plot but made many “updates.” In general, this was a good idea, since it avoided direct comparisons with the original classic. By the end, though, my complaint was not that they modernized the tale but that they didn’t update it enough.
The original Rosemary’s Baby was a “smaller” story with which almost anyone could identify. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young New York couple, luck into a great apartment in an upscale but spooky old Central Park building. Soon, they find their lives invaded by quirky old neighbors, the Castevets, who seem overly interested in the Woodhouses’ personal business, including Guy’s stagnant acting career. After a macabre sexual dream, Rosemary discovers she’s pregnant. Guy takes credit and “acts” delighted, but afterward becomes standoffish. As her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary feels worse and worse, but Guy, the Castevets and the obstetrician they picked for her all belittle her complaints. Some people who either block Guy’s career ambitions or try to help Rosemary get answers are eliminated through accidents or sudden illness. Eventually, her research on the building’s dark history leads her to believe the neighbors and their friends are “witches” (more accurately, Satanists) and she thinks they want her baby for a sacrifice. Rosemary makes several attempts to escape and get outside help, but in vain. In her apartment, struggling against her husband and the cult leaders, she goes into labor. Guy later tells her the baby was born dead, but one day she hears it crying from the Castevets’ apartment. Armed with a large kitchen knife, she investigates and finds her baby … not on a sacrificial altar, but in a black-draped bassinet in the living room. Strangers of many nationalities are gathered around, chatting happily. They coax Rosemary to put down the knife and see her healthy baby boy. It takes her a second to notice something inhuman about the infant’s eyes, and they tell her Satan was the father. She is horrified, but finally her mothering instinct wins out. In the last scene, she rocks the bassinet, cooing to the baby, and the Satanists around her hail the birth of their Dark Master into the world.
Levin said he was inspired by the 1966 cover of Time magazine, which asked in big block letters, “Is God Dead?” If he was, Levin wondered, might Satan get a chance to step into the void? The original book and movie also served as a clever satire on the hustling atmosphere of Manhattan, where an actor might literally sell his soul—and his wife—to the Devil for stardom. Not to mention, that great apartment on Central Park West!
The 2014 miniseries takes place in a different world. The young Woodhouses moved to Paris where Guy, an aspiring novelist, has a shot at a teaching position. They are living in cramped, temporary quarters when they meet up with the Castevets, this time a rich, attractive, sophisticated, middle-aged couple (“Minnie” is now “Margaux”). When a mysterious fire damages the Woodhouses’ apartment, the Castevets—who happen to own the Chimera, a mammoth apartment building lavishly carved with stone dragons—offer them free housing until they can get back on their feet. They also invite them to a glamorous Parisian party where Guy makes connections helpful to his career.
This approach lacks the cleverness of making the Satanists a doddering old couple across the hall, because we almost expect rich and powerful people to be in league with the Devil. And Parisians—! Don’t they already have a reputation for decadence? Still, it works on the level of The Devil’s Advocate, as Guy and Rosemary become seduced by their charming, generous new friends and The Good Life. As the familiar plot unfolds, the sex scenes are steamier, and the deaths of those who might scuttle the Castevets’ plans are gorier, than in the original. The acting and atmosphere are decent; though Guy is blander this time around, Zoe Saldana gives Rosemary strength and sass and realistically conveys the wild roller coaster ride of her emotions.
At the end, though, I felt the TV version fell apart in terms of both its internal logic and its final impact. In the original book and movie, one young woman in the apartment building in the past had committed suicide—apparently because the Castevets tried to recruit her for their scheme and she became desperate to escape. You had the feeling they’d just begun this attempt to create an Antichrist in the flesh (possibly because God was now dead?). In the miniseries, a police captain finds that a string of young women have been murdered over the decades by the Castevets. Have they really been trying for all that time to find a suitable mother for Satan Jr.—and failing, in spite of all of their powers?
In the original, it seems as if Minnie and Roman are just picking young, fertile women who live nearby. But this time around, the Parisian couple appear to seek out Rosemary, an American visitor, and toward the end they tell her, “You were chosen.” Why? There aren’t enough fertile, young French women with ambitious husbands? If there’s something special about Rosemary, it’s never explained, and it should be.
But I think the biggest flaw in the remake is that the consequences of this baby’s birth don’t seem ominous enough. Back in 1968, life for most Americans was pretty comfy. Just the idea that God might be dead, and Satan might rise to power instead, was enough to shock audiences. But in 2014, unfortunately, it takes more than a few fatal hexes and a baby with black, fathomless eyes to frighten us. If the Castevets and their friends really are the most successful Devil-worshippers ever, with many power brokers among their circle of friends, what is their ultimate agenda? Satan Jr. should have at least as much apocalyptic horror up his sleeve as the kid in The Omen!
Without at least some inkling of that threat, though, an updated Rosemary’s Baby falls flat. In these days of global climate change, worldwide financial disasters and international terrorism, mankind seems all too capable of destroying itself without any outside help from the Devil.