(Photo: Sometimes movie classics don’t stand up to the test of time.)
The following is cross-posted on my Huffington Post Chicago byline. (Where on 9/22/09 it made it to the national Entertainment page, squee!)
Ever since I became an official Netflix couch potato, I’ve been spending my evenings popping one Hollywood back-catalog movie after another into my nifty new Blu-ray/DVD player. The mail-me-a-movie service is a godsend for ADDers like me. I almost never see first-run films–the idea of sitting quiet and still in a room full of strangers for an hour and forty-five minutes is too much for my restless psyche to bear. The joy of my new-found ability to plop on my futon in the comfort of my own apartment and progressively watch my way through a list of movies any human being should have seen by now tells me Netflix has an untapped market in anyone on drugs starting in Adder- or Rita-.
So I’ve been getting caught up with movies you’ve likely seen before, many times, and/or a long time ago. I particularly enjoy suspense and horror “classics”. Flip on the original Halloween, the original The Fog, Poltergeist, anything Hitchcock, and I’ll be there with popcorn before you have time to put down the remote. So when I got the Netflix email telling me Roman Polanski’s 1968 mega-hit Rosemary’s Baby was on its way, I was particularly excited. At the time, Roger Ebert gave the film adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1965 devil-worship novel four stars. Movie fans on Rotten Tomatoes rate the film 98% fresh even today. Even one of Marina City’s couch ladies told me how scary a film it was.
So it took a while for me to figure out why I was bored out of my mind watching it last night. All two hours and 16 ponderous minutes of it. This morning I awoke to two reasons wobbling around my noggin. For starters: maybe the shock value of first-of-their-kind movies pales over time?
In his period review, Ebert applauds the way the movie’s persistent telegraphing of a “horrific” and “inevitable” conclusion brings the audience along for a frightening ride. I doubt he’d write the same review today. In 1968, the mere idea of a woman being raped by a creature from hell so that a coven of witches could steal her baby and raise it as the anti-Christ would be inducive of shudders. But forty-one years of graphically violent splatter movies since then have reduced the power of such images to shock much of anyone anymore.
Having seen it all time and again, Polanki’s persistent early plot giveaways just made Rosemary’s Baby seem predictable to me. A groggy woman tied to a bed and pounced on by a figure covered in red scales in the second reel? Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s giving birth to Satan’s son somewhere before the credits roll–as Rosemary, or course, did, while I waited around another hour for something unexpected to happen. (The same thing happened to me watching 1973’s The Exorcist for the first time in the 1990s–head spinning, green vomit, and subliminal shots of demonic shapes weren’t going to make a Clinton-era cable-watcher rush from his living room in fright the same way they made Nixon-era moviegoers rush from theaters.)
My second noggin-wobbling reason was the real clincher for me, though: maybe you just have to be Christian to really be scared by movies like Rosemary’s Baby (or The Exorcist, for that matter)? And in particular, Roman Catholic?
Whether in 1968 or today, ominous religious ideas like hell, Satan, and demonic possession have the power to give pause to individuals whose personal beliefs give credence to them. The adult Buddhist in me watched these themes flit through Rosemary’s Baby and yawned. Having been raised Catholic, I could clearly understand how as a child I would have been terrified by a move that played upon the religious beliefs that my family believed in. Believing in a wholly different view of the universe today, however, reduced the move to an overly long exercise in camera angles for me, rather than an engaging evening.
While I’m on the subject, why do religious thrillers always seem to revolve around Catholic cosmologies? You can count Jewish, Lutheran, Mulsim, and Buddhist thrillers on one hand, but you can swing a cat and hit a theater showing a movie that features something coming up from hell and dragging off someone holding on to a cross, saying a “Hail Mary”, and praying to a saint for dear life. In a country with a Protestant majority, for that matter. Why is that?
For fullest disclosure, I have a healthy spirituality, have a close relationship with my concept of God, and respect the multitude of religious traditions that guide the people closest to me and those with whom I share the planet. But I’d pay money to see Hollywood make a horror film that acknowledged a wider religious cosmology than the one blessed in Rome. It can’t just end with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Vesak Terror Train, anyone?