1968, the bright dividing line between contemporary and classic horror - in the autumn of that year, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead brought terrifyingly explicit violence and gore to the genre and things change forever. But that groundbreaking horror classic was beat to theaters by a few months by a film whose seismic impact on the genre was just about as different as it possibly could have been. Rosemary's Baby - for of course that is the earlier release to which I refer - is subtle, classy, refined, and restrained in all the places that NotLD is raw, loud and punishing, but it too showed that horror could be something nobody had tried since at least Val Lewton's tenure at RKO: it is a horror film that's also a smart, urban drama for and about adults, a deliberate consideration of human behavior under extreme stress that just happens to involve a coven of Satanist witches. It is the movie that triggered a generation of smart horror by smart filmmakers invested in psychological realism and character-driven storytelling - without Rosemary's Baby, it's that much harder to imagine The Exorcist, and without The Exorcist, the subsequent history of grown-up horror looks massively different and largely empty. It's not overreaching to claim for Rosemary's Baby that it belongs in the company of the natal films in what would later be called New Hollywood Cinema - it has their pessimism and their grounded sensibility, even if unlike all of the other important New Hollywood seedlings, it lacks a home-grown director.

It was the first American production helmed by Polish émigré Roman Polanski, though it very nearly wasn't, and it is one of the most fascinatingly awful "what if?" exercises in cinema to daydream about what Rosemary's Baby might have looked like. For not only did it very nearly find itself directed by a true-blooded American, that American was none other than William Castle, the great huckster who'd made a name for himself in the late '50s and early '60s with horror movies that hinged on a single, highly ludicrous interactive gimmick that cropped up in the last act. He'd evolved out of that phase of his career by the mid-'60s, and not for the better; a Rosemary's Baby under Castle's direction would be competent at best, and the worst is best not to contemplate. Paramount felt the same way, and bought out the option on Ira Levin's novel that Castle had snatched up when the book was still in galleys, leaving Castle the dignity of staying on as the movie's producer, the most incongruous title in his entire filmography.

And so the studio brought in Polanski, who had left the Communist bloc behind to make a trio of horror or horror-esque movie in the United Kingdom, starting with 1965's Repulsion. That film was surely the primary qualification for getting him Rosemary's Baby; both movies are psychological thrillers about a woman's growing feeling of confusion and paranoia centered on the threatening physical space of her apartment. The primary difference being that Repulsion is ultimately about unreliable self-awareness, while Rosemary's Baby presents its threat as entirely real, and its protagonist's mental disintegration is shown as the result of the abuse she receives from others.

Almost a half-century of influence later, there's no reason to be precious about the film's plot: this is the one where a meek housewife is impregnated by Satan, as facilitated by a coven of Manhattan witches. She's Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), late of Omaha, Nebraska, and with her ineffective actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes), she's newly arrived in the Bramford, a gorgeous old New York apartment building overlooking Central Park. It's a building of grim and violent history, none of which bothers the Woodhouses overmuch when their previous landlord and good friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) tells them all about it with enormous relish, though we know better - we heard the freakishly minor-key lullaby with a mindless female vocal la-la-ing over over it in the opening credits (Krzysztof Komeda's score is all variations on that lullaby, and it is creepy as all hell), and we've been noticing the pile-up of broken, erratic compositions that Polanski and cinematographer William A. Fraker use to film the interiors of the Bramford, starting with a disorienting tilt down to the floor of an elevator. And when the thin walls dividing the Woodhouses from their next-door neighbors, the Castevets, let the young couple hear some manner of guttural chanting late at night, we're not as quick as they are to dismiss it.

Meanwhile, the septagenarian Castevets, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) start to insert themselves as very present members of the Woodhouses new life, not entirely welcome. That starts to shift when Guy becomes infatuated with Roman's wild tales of a long life, well-lived, which happens right as his acting career starts to pick up following a bizarre accident that leaves an actor friend of his blind and Guy with the other man's part. At this point, the Woodhouses begin to seriously talk about having a baby, and on one of their target nights to conceive, Rosemary blacks out - following too many drinks, says Guy, but the conspicuously chalky-tasting mousse that Minnie made for the couple earlier in the night says otherwise. That night, Rosemary has a peculiar series of bad dreams, one involving a surrealist boat excursion, the other involving a cluster of nude people - including both of the Castevets and Guy - gathered around as a black figure with talon-like hands and reptilian red eyes rapes her. A month later, she's pregnant - Guy having sheepishly confessed to fucking her during her intoxicated night - and the Castevets arrange for her to get a phenomenal deal from their good friend, New York's finest obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). And all is well, if you don't count the lancing pain that Rosemary constantly feels in her abdomen, or the way that she loses weight in her body and face, her skin growing pale and damp until she looks like a pregnant skeleton padding around. And this starts to convince her that maybe, possibly, her neighbors and husbands have some seriously ulterior motives regarding her and her unborn child.

Polanski adapted Levin's book himself, the first of his movies from a published source; the rumor goes that he wasn't aware that he had the legal right to actually deviate from the source material, which led to Rosemary's Baby being one of the most faithful adaptations in cinema history. And this leads to the only significant flaw I can point to in the entire movie: the pacing isn't great. It's well past the 40-minute mark that Rosemary finally has her demonic encounter, and almost an hour beyond that before she starts to openly wonder if there's something paranormally wrong with her. The film ends up at 136 minutes, and they are not boring minutes by any means. But there are places where the point has been made, and it would be nice if Polanski trusted that we knew what was going on. Because it's not really hard to figure out what's going on.

That being put out of the way, I have not a single meaningful complaint about one of the best-shot, best-scored, and best-acted supernatural thrillers ever made. Long before anything has happened in the plot that's plainly threatening (the first "scary movie" moment is the sound of the black mass being chanted in the Castavets' apartment, 16 minutes into the movie; the next isn't until her rape nightmare), the way that Polanski frames the inside of the Bramford has given the movie all its necessary horror bona fides. The shot of Gordon sitting on a bed, half-obscured by a doorframe, is well-known; but it's merely one of a countless number of shots of doorways in the film, all of them used to present half-seen and obscured spaces, to make the geometry inside the Woodhouse and Castavet apartments feel both sprawling and discontinuous. The interiors are deeply unsettling, without any need to fall back on typical haunted house design or lighting. It's just wrong, in a way that we can detect because of how Polanski shows it to us; Rosemary, can't see things the way we do, which explains and excuses how long it takes her to notice the terrible things around her.

Despite or because of her limited perspective, Rosemary is the film's not-at-all-secret weapon, one of the great protagonists in all horror; and Farrow's performance is one of the great marriages of character and actor in the genre. Set in 1966, the film is cosmopolitan enough for Rosemary to already be a bit of a throwback: a perfect doormat who allows herself to be guided by everyone around her, anxious to put her husband forward as the locus of her identity (she chirpily recites "He was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross, but now he's doing television and commercials" enough times for it to qualify as her mantra), and interested in nothing but having Guy's babies. This isn't as transparently a feminist parable as Levin's The Stepford Wives, but there's no missing the subtext of a movie in which a pathetically cheery woman relies entirely on the wisdom of her husband, her doctor, and her older friends, only to find that they are all working actively against her. The first sentence out of Guy's mouth is a lie (inadvertently, but still); Minnie Castevet blows past Rosemary every time the younger woman tries to open her mouth - the energy differential between Gordon and Farrow is astonishing and drives so much of the film - Sapirstein barks orders at her that resemble cult indoctrination, and even her first and less-Satanic obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) dismisses all her believes and hands her over to the the official men in her life. The horror of the film is hardly "the Satanists have put a grotesque Satan-baby in my body", which is appalling enough, it's "in my moment of need, all the people I have trusted to keep me safe and emotionally well have turned out to be exploiting me," which is decidedly worse on account of being more grounded and everyday. This is an early example of the beloved '70s genre "you can't be too paranoid to stay ahead of the people trying to kill you", but with a specifically gendered twist that makes it even more sociologically acute.

None of this is necessary to appreciate the film on its basic level as a visceral depiction of an out-of-sorts world. The claustrophobically tight compositions of the backs of heads and too-small doorways, the alarming contrast between Minnie's garish clothes and the brown-grey-black palette of the majority of the film, the blasts of electronica on the soundtrack, and Farrow's effortless ability to diminish herself in the frame, to look ever smaller and more damageable, all build terrifically to creating a constant sense of wretched rottenness in the world. And yet, there's also a rich variety of tones that Polanski employs in putting the terror across: chatty melodrama and pungent black comedy (mostly in the last scene and the strait-laced goofiness of the Satanic ritual in the rape sequence) both interrupt the pressure-cooker tension of the horror. It keeps Rosemary's Baby varied enough that it never really goes slack or loses focus across its undeniably overlong running time, and makes it one of the most compulsively watchable of all horror films, in addition to being one of the most urbane and intellectually precise.

Body Count: 2, with the admission that "How many people die in Rosemary's Baby?" is a question that really does not need the asking.