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For what Rosemary’s Baby is, it is just about perfect, but what the hell is it? Some kind of awkward conjunctive like “horror-comedy” seems warranted, but it would fail to capture the film’s garish creepiness. Roman Polanski’s first American effort, it is an undeniably affective bit of Gothic dread, but it is also rather unpleasant in ways that are difficult to pinpoint.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is the wife of struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes). They move into a large Manhattan apartment despite warnings about the property’s dark reputation from Rosemary’s friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) and are soon befriended by their new neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). It turns out the Castavets head a witches coven that chooses Rosemary to be impregnated by the Devil. Most of the action requires suffering through Rosemary’s pregnancy with her, as her suspicions about the Castevets (and Guy) deepen.

The film is sometimes described as a nightmare vision of the fears and doubts that all women experience in pregnancy so, while exaggerated, there is an underlying emotional core to the situation. Fey and frail Farrow perfectly embodies Rosemary’s vulnerability. She manages to be believable and touching despite our awareness of how ludicrous the situation is. This dual awareness peaks when Rosemary tries to convince Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), an obstetrician she trusts, about what is going on. His sympathetic, but misguided reaction is like a stand-in for any rational viewer’s response to the story’s conceits.

With this openly ridiculous premise, it is hardly surprising that Polanski’s script and direction emphasize much of the absurdity of Ira Levin’s best selling novel, pushing the characterizations to the brink of hysteria. Overwrought as things may be, however, Baby is not camp, at least not in the sense of being unintentionally funny. The grotesque over-acting and obnoxious, barely bearable caricatures are deliberate, part of an insidious design that proves genuinely suspenseful and unnerving.

Calling attention to the wealth of loose threads and implausibilities may seem rather dim or humorless, but they are difficult to ignore. For example, a young, recovering drug addict boarding with the Castavets commits suicide, but her function in the story is never clear. The involvement in the conspiracy of some of the secondary characters, such as the building manager Mr. Nicklas (Elisha Cook Jr.) is uncertain, although that arguably works to the story’s advantage. But you can’t help wondering how any of the witches expect their cloven-footed darling to move in the world once he (it?) grows up.

Polanski pulls off this double awareness through perverse wit, imaginative camerawork and superb timing. Rosemary’s “nightmare” the night she is impregnated is particularly evocative. But for all the skill, between the laughter and the creeps there is a lingering doubt as to Rosemary’s Baby’s purpose. Devilishly clever at its best, it never shakes off a lingering sense of gratuitous nastiness.