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Virginia Wexman on Polanski's Horror and Rosemary's Baby

 

One of the very first books that I purchased wich explores horror films from an academic perspective was Gregary A. Waller, ed., American Horrors: Essays on the American Horror Film (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987). The volume includes a number of intriguing essays, including one by Virginia Wright Wexman titled "The Trauma of Infancy in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby". Dr. Wexman teaches in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her contribution to American Horrors drew in part upon her her PhD studies. The abstract for her chapter reads as follows:

"Drawing upon material included in her 1985 book, Roman Polanski, Virginia Wright Wexman situates Rosemary's Babyin the context of Polanski's career, particularly his other horror films, which take as their pincipal concern not simply the 'other' - a time-honored motif in the genre - but 'otherness' itself. Wexman argues that by presenting insanity, regression, physical alienation, and female sexual dis-ease against a realistic backdrop, Rosemary's Babyand Polanski's other horror films evoke the sort of ambiguity that Tzvetan Todorov finds to be characteristic of the 'fantastic..' Unlike Dillard, Wexman devotes considerable attention to the textual positioning of the film viewer and thus raises fundamental questions about our role in response to horror films."

Dr. Wexman recently responded to a few questions concerning her thoughts about Polanki's horror, particularly Rosemary's Baby.

TheoFantastique: How did you come to the study of Roman Polanski's work, and what place does Rosemary's Baby have for you in his cinematic canon?

Virginia Wexman: I had written a chapter on Chinatown as part of my PhD dissertation on the hard boiled detective film and became interested in Polanski as a result
of that research.

I see Rosemary's Baby as the most successful example of Polanski's popular horror films (which include Repulsion, Dance of the Vampires, The Tenant, and The Ninth Gate).

TheoFantastique: In your discussion of Polanski's films in American Horrors you refer to Polanski's ability to transform the horror genre's focus on the "monstrous other" as he shapes it into the "monstrous us." How did he do this in Rosemary's Baby?

Virginia Wexman: Polanski is able to engage his audiences' sympathies with the "monstrous" characters at the center of these films (for example, the murderous Carol Ledoux in Repulsionand the profoundly disturbed Trelkovsky in The Tenant). In the case of Rosemary's Baby, the threat of Satanism lies outside of the heroine, but the changes in Rosemary's appearance and the putative devil child in her womb put her own body at the center of the horror that is being perpetrated.

TheoFantastique: One of the interesting facets of your discussion for me was when you drew attention to the positive and unambiguous depictions of religion in Levin's story upon which Polankski's film was based, but that this was changed so that religious belief is satirized and made more ambiguous by Polanski. Was this just a reflection of the culture of the 1960s or was this somehow a reflection of Polanski's own feelings on such matters?

Virginia Wexman: Polanski has always been inclined to satirize religious beliefs. One can see this tendency even in the short film When Angels Fall, which he made while still a student at the Lotz film school.

TheoFantastique: In the forty years since Rosemary's Baby appeared in theaters how do you think it holds up as a film in general, and specifically as a horror film? And what might its legacy be?

Virginia Wexman: Rosemary's Baby began a cycle of devil child films that lasted through the early 1970s. More generally, it rescued the horror genre from the exploitation backwater it had fallen into during the 1950s, opening the way for subsequent prestige horror movies such as The Exorcist and Alien.

TheoFantastique: As a student of Polanski's work, what are your thoughts about The Ninth Gate? Some have suggested that this film may rival Rosemary's Baby as his finest piece of horror cinema.

Virginia Wexman: I find Rosemary's Baby of special interest because of the way in which it creates ambiguities between the "real" world and what is going on inside Rosemary's mind and body. These ambiguities are part of a larger uncertainty the film develops about whether Satanism or insanity is at issue. The Ninth Gate, in my view, lacks these ambiguities; it is closer to a conventional horror film, with an emphasis on the supernatural.

TheoFantastique: I appreciate your perspective on that film but this is where I would have to respectfully disagree. On my first screening of The Ninth GateI initially dismissed it, but upon subsequent viewings and reflection, I think it is a multi-layered, significant, and neglected horror film and piece of Polanski's work in horror. While it may not include the ambiguities that Rosemary's Baby does, the way unique way in which it treats the figure of Satan, and its incorporation of Western esotericism within the horror genre, make one of Polanski's best films, and perhaps a horror film that rivals Rosemary's Baby. For those interested in my discussion on this see my previous post on the topic of "Satanic Cinema."

Dr. Wexman, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Polanskis' horror, and specifically on Rosemary's Baby.

Virginia Wexman: Thanks for your interest in my work.

(The book American Horrors and the related book The Satanic Screen, as well as the DVDs Rosemary's Baby and The Ninth Gate can be ordered as part of the TheoFantastique Store.)

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