Book Review: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

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Ira Levin wrote a classic book that came out in the summer of 1967 and went on to become an instant hit at the bestsellers list. In a foreword by Otto Penzler, he writes:

Levin was not a believer—not in any organized religion, not Satanism, not witchcraft, not in any of the myths or charismatic real-life figures who have engendered worship. In fact, he had rather hoped that his novel would help to increase the skepticism that had always resided with him. It wasn’t to be.

The summary of Levin’s mentality that propagated him to inscribe the classic horror novel might have been to slash the quacks associated with Satanism, Alternate Religion, Devil Worshippers, and such widely intriguing concepts that have absorbed horror fanatics and skeptics of religion for a long time. What resulted was of course, as expected, increased fascination into the already beguiling topic of Satanism and the underground society of Satanic Covens. We could say that the popularity and the ensuing leapfrog into these occult phenomena defeated the purpose of Levin’s work. Yet in doing so—not only did Ira Levin produce a classic in the genre of horror and mystery, but also handed the likes of Stephen King further incentive to venture into this genre that might date back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula for creating a character that is arguably the greatest modern fiction character in the history of Western Literature. Fortunately, for us, it kick started a plethora of horror fiction and characters that live on until today rivaling the hymns of religion and God, whilst shaping the world of fiction into two poles of white and black—led by God on one side and Satan on the other side. Simply ironic, isn’t it?

For a book that has lived on for 47 years, and counting, the plot of Rosemary’s Baby would hardly be anything but unknown. Accelerated by the movie adaptation by Roman Polanski, in an as exact manner as he could, Rosemary’s Baby had now transformed from a state of visual imagination to a state of visual reality. The movie itself went on to become a feather in the hat of horrors in film and without much hesitation; it is one of the best movies from the lens of Roman Polanski. Saying all of that, this piece is hardly about the movie. It is about the prose that Levin created from his own imagination and observation of the world around him—as a critic of such forms of religion and as an inscriber of imagination, one of the best in the game.

The story begins with a couple, Guy Woodhouse and Rosemary Woodhouse in search of a new house to begin a new phase in their lives. They come across an old Victorian-styled Gothic house at Bradford in New York. The catch, of course, is that the house carries its own air of controversies and a history of witchcraft and devil worshipping. Aesthetics override logic; the lovey-dovey couple decides it’s the house for them. Once they grace the architecture of the classic house, realities change for both, with Guy flourishing in his career, and poor Rosemary spiraling into a dreaded circle amidst witchcraft that promises to take away her unborn baby; thereby shattering her life, or so it seems…

Ira Levin has an exquisite style of writing, minimalist without wasting words and getting to the point as quickly as he can. When he does describe the atmosphere and surroundings in detail, you’d wonder what clues is he giving you, or how it would all work out in the end. This is what sets apart Rosemary’s Baby. Being a horror novel, it barely exposes the horrific elements rather plays with the psyche of your personality, through Rosemary who is the central character. Laying down a set of omens, signs, and symbols, Levin places warnings as steps and as you climb on them, ultimately—you reach the point of no return. Midway through the book, I realized that the story doesn’t have anything drastic and such apparent episodes in a horror sense. It isn’t there, but it’s still eerie. It doesn’t freak the muscles out of you; it just keeps you hooked. With his limited omniscient narrator point-of-view, the writer makes you observe situations around, the environment, and notice the tiny odd details that may as well work as the biggest points in taking the story further and building to an unexpected and nervy climax.

In the build up to all of this, Levin is somewhat cagey. When things do fall into their place at the start of the second act, the story runs rampant almost difficult to keep track of the page count as I found myself turning it in rapid succession myself. With a visual style of writing, you could imagine the happenings quite astutely, almost as if it were a movie because Levin aids in this with a staunch grip over what he wants to show, what he wants us to know, and how he intends to take it further. My visual tubes were flying in imagination when reading this horror classic; engrossing would be the correct term.

Throughout the book, the reader will find dark undertones hidden under the normal lives the couple seems to live. Almost too dark, and I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, the narration persuades you to root for Rosemary in this house filled with a myriad of perplexing personas. At one point, you’d wonder who is sane and who is not; who is evil and who is good. The interactions between Rosemary and Guy (her husband) irritated me to no end, not because it was uninteresting or melodramatic. It was weirdly interesting and alarmingly freaky, but mainly because of the cold and distant behavior of Guy towards Rosemary indifferent to her woes, or perhaps even blind and suspending of Rosemary’s troubles. Add to that, the chilly twists, and the creepy mannerisms and auguries, I would be lying if I said I didn’t look around while reading this novel midnight all alone in my house!

Rosemary’s Baby is a distinct exhibition in genre of horrors. Not too long, not short, it is the right length and never once will you feel jaded reading this book. For the style Levin uses, clarity, precision, and matter of fact, the sequences are enthralling and keep you occupied throughout. For avid or selective readers, both, Rosemary’s Baby is the perfect go-to book if you want something clear-cut and interesting. Filled with motifs and almost ridiculing the phenomenon of vibes, signs, and textbook manuals into Witchcraft and Wizardry, Levin’s original purpose might have been to debunk the myth of Satanism and Superstitions, but this novel has only enhanced the curiosity of viewers, especially lovers of horrors and mysteries.

The final pages of the book could have been better. It’s one fault I found and as stimulating as the entire book is, the last wee pages didn’t live up to the gigantic expectations I was carrying towards a mammoth climax—perhaps rivaling Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde. It doesn’t pull the book down for me though, maybe slightly, but the climax is unexpected and startling—pulled off with a vivre of enchantment, so it has its own merits and gives a fresh look into things contrasting to what Levin coaxed me to expect. At one point, I was almost worried that all of it would turn farcical, and that is how much the book influenced me as a reader…

Rosemary’s Baby is a tense horror ride until the end and engrains the reader with a paranoid outlook even after you’ve finished reading the book. It is tautly written; exploring much more than the world of devils and spirits, whilst giving us an insight into the psyche of humans and the pervasiveness of ulterior dark arts in our so-called age of Science. A must read book for all readers, especially for aspiring writers of fiction because the second act of the book might be the most interesting pieces of stories, and a rarity that the build to the finality rivals the finality itself in anticipation, execution, and intrigue. Just read it!

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The Graduate (1967) – The Sounds of Silence

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Instant attraction, secretive affairs, coming of age, triangle of a tale, the dejected lover, and the runaway bride—most romantic comedies have since used this formula and in the process, have produced some fine romcoms. The Graduate is no different. Released during the early era of Hollywood romantic comedies, the Graduate could be stated as a path breaking movie for its era for it immortalized the light-hearted tensions and the classic runaway bride ending that has been beaten until death since then. The evolution of romcoms from the evergreen silent movie Girl Shy (1924) to The Seven Sweethearts (1942) to The Seven Year Itch (1955) leading towards the classic Pillow Talk (1959) and the mystifying Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), the Graduate completes the continuation. The movie lies as a historically loved movie—exclusive to its time—with nimble moments, humorous performances, and textbook storytelling.

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The new graduate from college, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home to his parents—celebrating his par excellence stretch in college. Nervous about his future and unsettled, Ben finds himself amidst the vivacious social circle of his parents and in one such a party, he comes across the pulsating wife of his father’s partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Somebody whom he has known since his childhood, Mrs. Robinson has sensual drives for Ben, and as Nature would have it—they start knowing each other in a complete different parcel. The daughter of Mrs. Robinson soon arrives from UCAL Berkeley and Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) alongside Mr. and Mrs. Braddock (William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson) set up a date, for Ben, with this charming young woman, Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross). Sandwiched amidst the filths of a carnal relationship with an elderly and married woman who happens to be the mother of the girl he loves, Ben faces up to his antics and resolves to marry Elaine. The Graduate is about Ben, Mrs. Robinson, and Elaine—the unlikely triangle that has no connections with one another, yet all three are deeply associated though the chains of love and lust.

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The first half of the movie is an outright comic satire focused on sexuality, lust, affairs, and the tensions and stress Ben undergoes due to the high expectations of his parents, as illustrated by his own records in college. After the coming of Elaine, the movie makes a paradigm shift from a sexually dominant one  to a love theme, with the director emphasizing on the power of love over sexuality, and love as a liberating force, whilst sex as the binding chain. Precisely, for this delicate management of the story and the construction of effective scenes to protract the movie, Director Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) won the Academy Award for Best Director—admirably handling the story by Charles Webb (novel) and screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. The realism in the characterizations enriches the story and tone of the movie, with the psychology behind the actions of all the characters and their instincts that seem to be coming from within the character’s nature, showing an inner battle in each of the major characters, and their responses being in line with the original portrayals of the characters themselves.

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The Graduate encompasses strong thematic philosophies beneath the subtle wit and comedy. The strongest of the themes are those of sexual revolution, rebellion, and the first sightings of American youth that would hover around aimlessly, without purpose or direction—an omen to the impending era of the hippies. Released during the highly unpredictable decade of the Swinging Sixties, with freedom and liberation at its peak, and just before the total rebellion of the 70s, The Graduate shows the path of American youth, whilst hip and cool, but lost in the glory of the shine—in search for a new philosophy, a way of living. The character of Ben is the archetypical man of those times—confused, lost, without much ambition, and reclusive in his own world. Mrs. Robinson, the lone wife without much of a relationship with her husband, she lives under the chasms of alcohol in search for a companion that she finds in young Ben. Elaine, the most positive force of the story, she is energetic, simple, and knows herself very well, unlike Ben or Mrs. Robinson. Three completely different personalities collide and the other characters ignite them to bring the worse out of each other and to learn how life is all about moments and not the past or the future—just moments.

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Despite its cult status—not just in terms of likeability but the box office success as well—The Graduate has numerous factors working against it. Chiefly, the movie’s concept has been overdone over the years, which why the movie may not stand test of time as some other movies of the past have. A beautiful movie, no doubt, yet because it was one of the first of its kinds, today’s generation may find The Graduate a story that they have read and seen on numerous occasions. Nonetheless, it still gives the vibes of an original classic that had content as well as perfect presentation. In terms of performances, the performances are unreal and realistic at the same time, especially Dustin Hoffman as Ben and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. With that said, Dustin Hoffman was around 30 when he assumed the role of Ben here, when the character is of age 20/21 in the movie. At times, Hoffman looks at ease playing a 21-year-old college graduate, especially his mannerisms and facial expressions—the nervousness of a boy entering the world of men—it’s top notch in expression, value, and sincerity. At other times, Hoffman looks too old to be convincing as a 21 year old—not due to anything else; his face does not seem to be that fresh. Notwithstanding such trifles, Hoffman does a prolific job in convincing viewers of the mental dilemma in the first half and the rock headed lover boy in the second half of the movie.

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The one fact that keeps the movie from the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be the penultimate drama, when Elaine finds of Ben’s affair with her mom. From that point on, viewers would feel anticipating the eventual reunion between the two lovers than pulsating into the drama and expectancy before the union. The movie might as well end there for some because everything treads an obvious path, with even the dramatics behind the expected not managing to roar louder in some way or the other. The climax does justify it all—as the movie started the trend of such climaxes and it has to stand as one of the most moving climaxes in film history, especially for romcoms.

When it comes to romcoms, the music/background score dare never disappoint—typically, the highpoint of the movie. The title track by Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sounds of Silence,” captures the mood of the movie straight into the net. The lyrical advancement reveals the state of all three central characters, and the background score by Paul Simon with additional music by Dave GrusinThe Graduate presents an absolute graduation feat of musical liberty. A heart-warming movie, with ample moments of humor, joy, and amusement, The Graduate is akin to a river flowing—graceful in its own swift manner and celebrating the hearts of viewers.  The Sounds of Silence, undeniably!

Image Credit – Noctis Mag, AMC TV, Rial To Pictures, Flickr

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) – Pardon Me, But your Teeth are in my Neck

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Originally named, “Dance of the Vampires,” The Fearless Vampire Killers is a parody of the legend of vampires created by Bram Stoker in his book, “Dracula.” From the onset, viewers are enthralled to the luscious visuals, panoramic landscapes, and the blankets of snows covering the beautiful region—in what remains today as one of the finest showcases of cinematography and photography. Incidentally, The Fearless Vampire Killers happens to be the legendary Roman Polanski’s first color movie. The very interesting aspects of this Polanski visual extravaganza are indeed the staging, lighting, breathtaking sets, extensive shooting in the Alps, and of course—the fine arts exhibition portraying the mesmeric landscapes and beauty of the land projected as Transylvania. In the history of Cinema, Dance of the Vampires remains—despite its storytelling strains—a classic movie rich in visuals, arts, and cinematography.

The movie starts off with the eccentric Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGrowan) making his way to the homeland of the vampires after having spent, almost, all of his life researching and in search of vampires. Professor Abronsius’ assistant, the clumsy and buoyant, Alfred (Roman Polanski) accompanies the Professor in his quest. Arriving at Transylvania, they find people tightlipped on the subject of vampires. In the tavern they reside, Alfred finds himself attracted to the daughter of the owner of the tavern, the beautiful, classy Sarah Shagal (Sharon Tate), who—to the utter dismay of Alfred—becomes a victim of one unfathomable vampire, unknown until that point. With a series of mysterious mishaps preceding and succeeding this uninformed tragedy, the Professor and his assistant finally reach their destination, the Castle—dreaded, beautiful, and devastating—the home of a Boyar, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). In the castle, the two brave hearts fall in a riddle of comedy, horror, investigative parody, as Polanski poetically draws the accounts of Professor Abronsius and Alfred in the dictatorial Castle amidst Transylvania.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers came before fate showed its cruelty to the great Roman Polanski. This could be the reason why the movie is stunningly beautiful, comic, and warm—despite the gloomy topic—and Polanski humorous direction/storytelling as well as performance lights the eyes while watching this mystically art of a movie. As people are aware, Sharon Tate was the real life wife of Roman Polanski, before her assassination when she was just a month away from giving birth to Polanski Jnr. It would be certifiable to assert that Polanski’s transition from this type of artistically rich cinema to the graver ends of filmmaking had much to owe to the tragedy he went through two years after this movie became reality.

Considering the theme of the movie and the execution of the content, the phrase that comes to mind when watching this Polanski classic is “poetic justice. This vampire classic is poetic justice to the myths of vampires, and lights up many ironic questions—including: how would you stop of vampire who is not a Christian? The cross would not work, right? And, Bram Stoker hasn’t given us any other tool to counterattack a Non-Christian vampire! The character of Yoine Shagal (Alfie Bass), father of Sarah, has some brilliant moments with numerous witty scenes and dialogs. It is a treat watching the paranoid, sex-hungry, yet amusing freak obsessed with his helper at the tavern. In one of the most stunning sequences, the Professor and his apprentice skate through the landscapes of Transylvania and when doing so, viewers are subjected to a ride into Nature and the beauty of the Alps.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers is a heartfelt visual illustration caped with humorous scenes and dialogs, and encompasses a much-welcome U-turn from the popular vampire culture and myth. In terms of the atmosphere, story, and overall look and presentation, Dance of the Vampires is a contrast—a wonderful one! Not completely flawless, but what would movies, stories, or even life be without those drastic inconsistencies? For love, for entertainment, or if you wish to realize why vampires are beyond the Christian origin today, watch this joyful, enjoyable, warm, and stupendous parody about vampires in the asylum of vampires itself under the direction of a film legend, Roman Polanski.