Tuesday, August 19, 2014

All of Them Witches

After watching the uninspiring remake of Rosemary's Baby, courtesy of NBC, I read the book over the weekend.  It is a quick read.  I got the sense Ira Levin was essentially writing a working script for producers who would quickly bite on the story, which they did. It wasn't even in print before Paramount bought the movie rights from Random House.  Robert Evans, the executive producer, had Roman Polanski in mind from the start.  Apparently, it didn't take much convincing, as Polanski had already done one "apartment" movie, Repulsion, and immediately accepted the offer.

What made Levin's book so good was the subtle sense of humor that disarmed the reader.  It was hard to imagine a doddering old couple like the Castavets as leaders of a witches' coven in central Manhattan.  In fact, there was little to suggest any such association other than an odd locket filled with "tannis root," which Minnie gave to Rosemary after the awful fate of Terry.  This too was part of Levin's dark humor, as there is no such thing as tannis root, nor a book called "All of Them Witches."  Polanski would similarly have great fun with both in the movie.

There were real references, such as to a Time issue entitled Is God Dead? published in 1966, and to Pope Paul's visit to New York in 1965.  Levin spins his story around this confluence of events to project his "Year One" of the reign of Satan.  Anton LaVey had proclaimed the year 1966 as "Anno Satanas," although there is no specific reference to this occult figure in the novel, unless maybe you scramble the letters.

I'm tempted to think that Levin might have been inspired by the Russian classic novel, The Master and Margarita, but it wasn't published in English until 1967, the same year his novel came out in print.  Levin probably was aware of it, as the release of the novel in Russian the year before had been a major event.  The novel was actually written between 1928 and 1940, but Soviet censors had kept it out of print

Levin himself may have made a pact with the devil given the runaway success of the book and the movie.  His only previous novel was A Kiss Before Dying, although he had success in drama, screenwriting and even songwriting during the 14 years between the two books.  Kiss had similarly been made into a movie in 1956 with Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter. But, Rosemary's Baby was quite a departure from anything he had written before.

The 1968 movie was very faithful to the novel.  Polanski didn't deviate from the story in any significant way, carefully building the suspense.  He relied on his fellow countryman, Krzysztof Komeda, for the mesmerizing soundtrack.  You couldn't ask for a better young couple than Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes.  The two played wonderfully off each other.  Ruth Gordon was a brilliant choice as Minnie, and Ralph Bellamy played Dr. Saperstein to perfect comic effect.  Ultimately, this was Rosemary's movie, and Mia fully embodied the role.  You couldn't help but feel for her every step of the way.

So why remake the film?  I guess one could say that for many of the remakes we see today, but you are asking for trouble when you try to measure yourself against a classic occult film like this.  Zoe Saldana was apparently the driving force behind the movie, as she is given production credit.  NBC called in a pair of dubious writers to reshape the narrative for the 21st century, resetting it in Paris for some reason, and reshuffling the characters like a pack of tarot cards to see if they could come up with something different but not stray too far from the proven plot.  The end result is a lavish production that looks wooden with the only compelling performance that of Carole Bouquet as a significantly reshaped Margaux Castavet.

I think it is wise sometimes to leave well enough alone.  That's certainly the case with Rosemary's Baby, a film classic and arguably the best movie of the occult genre.

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