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Taste Test: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) vs. The Exorcist (1973)

June 17th, 2009 · 11 Comments

Rosemary's Baby, 1968, poster The Exorcist, 2003, poster

By Joe Valdez

What the *&#! Are They About?

Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into the 7th floor New York apartment of a recently deceased old woman. They ignore the advice of a close friend, who tells them about the Bramford Building’s “unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century”, including a couple of notorious tenants who practiced witchcraft there, earning the building the nickname “Black Bramford”. Before they even meet their neighbors (the Castevets), the couple can hear them bickering through the thin walls. Rosemary later meets a reformed junkie named Terry who was cleaned up and taken in by the Castevets.

After Terry is found dead on the sidewalk of an apparent suicide, the nosy Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon) invites her new neighbors to dinner with her husband Roman (Sidney Blackmer). Guy is won over by the energetic couple, while Rosemary is suspicious of the strange potables and desserts Minnie tries to push on her. Guy’s acting career suddenly heats up and he suggests they have a baby. Following a strange dream the night they conceive, Rosemary is urged to leave her obstetrician for one the Castevets recommend. Weight loss and paranoia follow, leading Rosemary to believe those around her be to a coven of witches keenly interested in her baby.

Rosemary's Baby, 1968, John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow

While digging for antiquities in northern Iraq, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) unearths an ancient stone carving of a demon, strangely buried with a modern day St. Christopher medal. The discovery causes grave alarm for the priest. Across the world in Georgetown, Maryland, film actress and single mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) hears something strange in her attic, leading her to check and make sure her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is all right. Also in D.C., Father Karras (Jason Miller) wrestles with guilt over abandoning his elderly mother and questions whether he still has the faith to be a man of God.

Regan is diagnosed as hyperkinetic, which her mother is made to believe by doctors explains “lies” her daughter has been giving about her bed shaking at night. Chris experiences poltergeist activity as Regan’s behavior becomes more unsettling: spouting vile obscenities, running down the stairs backwards on her hands, and masturbating with a crucifix. A homicide detective (Lee J. Cobb) investigates a church desecration and the bizarre death of Chris MacNeil’s director, while Chris looks to the church for help. They turn to Father Karras, who reaches out to Merrin to help him expel whatever evil has taken hold of the child.

The Exorcist, 1973, Linda Blair


Bitten by a sting of commercial failures as a playwright, Ira Levin — whose debut novel A Kiss Before Dying was published to great acclaim in 1953 when Levin was 22 — found inspiration in his wife’s pregnancy for a second novel in 1967. Rosemary’s Baby would sell 5 million copies in the U.S. William Castle — the schlock movie director and promoter whose gimmicks included sending inflatable skeletons flying over the heads of audiences during House on Haunted Hill and rigging seats to shock moviegoers watching The Tingler — was sent the novel in galleys form and anticipated that a film version might be his bid for respectability.

Having already bet the farm acquiring the film rights to Rosemary’s Baby, Castle took on a partner in Paramount Pictures, whose young head of production Robert Evans loved the material, but had no interest in producing a William Castle cheesefest. Evans wanted Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski to direct. Knowing Polanski was an avid skier Evans lured him to the States under the ruse of directing Downhill Racer. Agreeing to adapt Rosemary’s Baby instead, Polanski consulted with production designer Richard Sylbert, a New York native who spent 30 days honing a shooting script with Polanski after he’d completed a first draft.

Rosemary's Baby, 1968

Ira Levin — who later authored The Stepford Wives — has been accused by some of being a hack, but for me, Rosemary’s Baby is a brilliantly executed study in paranoia; every character Rosemary encounters seems to have a vested interest in her pregnancy, or could they just be trying to help? Whether it was the fact that he was a committed agnostic, or just felt that it was better filmmaking, Roman Polanski also resisted supernatural thrills and instead, gave his adaptation an intense psychological edge, keeping us guessing until the end of the movie whether Rosemary is in danger from witches, or just experiencing some pregnancy related dementia.

William Peter Blatty was enrolled at Georgetown University in 1949 when his New Testament class covered a case he’d read about in the Washington Post, detailing the alleged exorcism of a 14-year-old boy in Mount Rainer, MD. A Catholic whose faith was wavering at the time, Blatty sold the idea of The Exorcist to paperback publisher Bantam Press, which commissioned a novel and ultimately sold it to Harper and Row. Published in 1971, The Exorcist was a runaway hit, selling 13 million copies in the U.S. alone. Blatty adapted a screenplay and attaching himself to the project as producer, saw every studio in Hollywood turn his bestseller down.

The Exorcist, 1973, Max von Sydow

Warner Bros. had passed on The Exorcist when head of production John Calley was slipped a copy of the novel. So terrified reading it at night that he tried getting his dog to share the bed with him, Calley would pursue every major director of the day — Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, John Boorman — to helm the picture. Each turned it down for technical or personal reasons. Blatty even pleaded with Peter Bogdanovich to direct before arriving on William Friedkin, whose kinetic, documentary-like approach had helped The French Connection win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Blatty felt a realistic aesthetic was just what his fantasy/horror picture needed.

Not caring for a 226-page first draft full of flashbacks, Friedkin compelled Blatty to adopt a straight forward narrative. The resulting script may have won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but isn’t very cohesive. Father Merrin drifts into and out of the story, most of the characters share tenuous relationships and the dialogue is passable at best. Still, the result is one of the most visceral portraits of evil ever conjured. In addition to the phantasm of levitation, projectile vomiting and demonic possession, the story does deal with the crisis of faith and hopelessness in subtle and powerful ways, making the story that more unnerving.

Rosemary's Baby, 1968, Mia Farrow

Writing edge: Rosemary’s Baby

Seeking an all-American girl for the role of Rosemary, Roman Polanski wanted to cast Tuesday Weld. But Robert Evans — looking for a bigger name — preferred Mia Farrow, who was appearing on the popular TV show Peyton Place. While I think Weld would have been extraordinary, there’s no question that the nervy but beguiling Farrow went full throttle here and made Rosemary her own. Robert Redford was the first choice of both Evans and Polanski to play Guy and would also have been terrific, but legalities apparently kept him out of the cast. John Cassavetes brings much greater edge to the role of a struggling actor who might turn to the occult for career help.

In casting the supporting players — the sweet old faces who might possibly be witches — Rosemary’s Baby is in a class all its own. It’s impossible to imagine the film being as great without Ruth Gordon, who is nothing short of a force of nature in this; Minnie Castevet alternates between being one of the great little New York characters of all time, and the neighbor from hell. Gordon won a richly deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Elisha Cook Jr. plays a realtor, Ralph Bellamy is Rosemary’s suspect obstetrician and newcomer Charles Grodin appeared as a physician whose best intentions only end up harming his patient.

The Exorcist, 1973, Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair

The first actress Blatty sent a script to had been Shirley MacLaine, who’d been his neighbor in California and provided the inspiration for Chris MacNeil. Once casting began in earnest, the writer-producer’s first choice for Father Karras had been Marlon Brando, but skittish that The Exorcist would become Brando’s show instead of his, Friedkin turned to a capable list of actors who were hardly matinee idols: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow. This decision goes a long way to giving The Exorcist a realistic texture. Burstyn in particular seems cognizant of the frustrations and fears of a single mother and communicates both vividly.

The Exorcist wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is without two actors. Radio and film veteran Mercedes McCambridge supplied the voice of the demon and it’s her vocal work — sounding like an ancient woman with a glass bottle jabbed in their throat — that makes The Exorcist so terrifying. The entire movie hinged on the casting of Regan. An above average child actor might have been cast here and the results would have been laughable, but Linda Blair’s ferocious, no holds barred performance is a standard bearer for any actor working under makeup. Strangely, Blair seems to make a much more convincing demon than she does a 12-year-old.

Rosemary's Baby, 1968, Ruth Gordon

Casting edge: Even

Production value
Roman Polanski’s aesthetic for Rosemary’s Baby has been discussed ad nauseum over the decades. In the 1992 documentary Visions of Light, cinematographer William Fraker relates a great anecdote about Polanski moving Fraker’s camera to the left so that only Ruth Gordon’s back would be visible during a shot where she’s in a room talking on the phone. When that scene went before an audience, 1,500 people actually craned their necks around to try to peek inside the room. I don’t subscribe to the notion of Director As God, but Robert Evans and Fraker have both credited Polanski with pushing the film’s look and finding unusual ways to create tension visually.

Intricately designed by Richard Sylbert, Rosemary’s Baby was shot in 14 weeks: two weeks in New York for exterior shooting around the Dakota Hotel were followed by 12 weeks of interiors on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. The dream sequences are like tiny art films in their own right. What surprised me watching this film again was how these sequences refuse to indulge in the psychedelia of the time. Watching Ken Russell flicks, I often feel like I’d enjoy them much better with pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, Rosemary’s Baby features some of the most textured dream sequences ever put to film, whether viewed sober or otherwise.

The Exorcist, 1973, Ellen Burstyn, Kitty Winn

What began as a 105-day production schedule when shooting for The Exorcist commenced on a soundstage at 20th Century Fox studios in New York would stretch on for 200 days, back when it was considered insane to spend more than $1 million on a horror flick. But the bucks are on the screen. The opening sequence in Iraq gives the movie an ominous, almost epic feel, while William Friedkin’s decision to shoot a good portion of the film handheld certainly has a sense of immediacy to it. We’re constantly kept off balance and while the jarring approach has produced vomit in most of Friedkin’s films since, The Exorcist is a punch in the gut.

The makeup effects in The Exorcist were designed by Dick Smith, whose protégé Rick Baker also worked on the film and credits his mentor with being responsible for the state of the art of prosthetic makeup in film today. Beyond just making an actor look like a demon, Smith’s work was pioneering: the projectile vomit, the welts that appeared on Regan’s stomach spelling out HELP ME, or her head spinning around. None of that stuff had been done before and it holds up remarkably well. Smith’s work is so great that watching the movie again, it never really occurred to me that I was seeing special effects.

Rosemary's Baby, 1968

Production value edge: Even

Neither Rosemary’s Baby nor The Exorcist feature the type of bombastic musical arrangements I’ve learned to endure in Jerry Bruckheimer type productions, thankfully. Instead of punctuating how we’re supposed to feel at any given moment, both films opted for very unconventional scores to eerie, even unsettling effect. Many people remember the lullaby that plays over the opening credits of Rosemary’s Baby, with a fine organ and string accompaniment floating underneath. There’s an elegance and bit of sadness in Krzysztof Komeda’s compositions for the film, subtle but extremely effective.

Lalo Schifrin was commissioned to compose the score for The Exorcist, but William Friedkin — who reportedly likened Schifrin’s score to “fuckin Mexican marimba music” — literally threw the reels out the door and brought in classical recordings he felt suited the movie better. These include “Night of the Electric Insects” by George Crumb’s string quartet Black Angels and portions of the 1971 “Cello Concerto” by composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Stanley Kubrick would later use Penderecki to great effect in The Shining. The spine tingling theme is “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield and can be heard every Halloween in TV or radio advertising to conjure spookiness.

The Exorcist, 1973

Music edge: Even

Cultural impact
Arriving in theaters June 1968, Rosemary’s Baby ultimately earned $15 million in the U.S. and finished the 7th highest grossing picture of the year. Today, it not only figures in debates over which horror films are the scariest ever made, but marked the beginning of a six year run for Robert Evans that would transform Paramount into the most prestigious movie studio in the world. The film was followed only by a forgettable made-for-TV movie in 1976 — Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby — in which Patty Duke played Rosemary and Ruth Gordon reprised her Oscar winning role, but does continue to be referenced in sitcoms and on cartoons.

No contest. The Exorcist was a box office sensation. Opening December 26, 1973, not even freezing weather kept audiences from lining up outside theaters on the East Coast. Through several re-issues, it would gross $232.6 million in the U.S. and $208.4 million overseas, making it the highest grossing R-rated movie ever in its day. Four sequels followed: John Boorman’s maligned Exorcist II: The Heretic (1975), the subpar Exorcist III (1990) written and directed by William Peter Blatty, Paul Schrader’s little seen Dominion (2005) and the version reshot by Renny Harlin, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). The original is widely considered the scariest movie ever made.

Cultural impact edge: The Exorcist

Rosemary's Baby, 1968, Mia Farrow

Winner: Rosemary’s Baby

The Exorcist is the scarier movie. Rosemary’s Baby is the better film. I can watch it over and over and always find something new to savor — in the art direction, in the performances, in the story — while The Exorcist is not a movie I feel the need to revisit. Though in many ways superior, once The Exorcist is over, that’s all folks, it doesn’t resonate for me all that much.

Your thoughts?

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on novel · Beasts and monsters · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Paranoia

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rachel // Jun 17, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    I agree with your winner.

    Though I’ve watched The Exorcist several times, I always end up forgetting multiple importmant elements as time passes between each viewing. However, I’ve only seen Rosemary’s Baby once and it truly stuck with me. Of course, I myself was trying to get pregnant at the time, so for obvious personal reasons, it completely freaked me out.

  • 2 Pat Evans // Jun 18, 2009 at 4:21 am

    What a fascinating comparison you draw and how thorough you are with the relevant points. In the end I must agree that while both films are memorable, you are right in saying that Rosemary’s Baby is the better (and I would argue scarier) movie largely because of its terrific casting. The Exorcist may be something of a freak show, but it it is also the more difficult to believe.

  • 3 Chuck // Jun 18, 2009 at 7:56 am

    I also prefer Rosemary’s Baby. The Exorcist has that blunt, broad ugliness that is frequently off-putting in Friedkin’s work (though it fit Sorcerer perfectly). Rosemary’s Baby is so good that its tempting to take it for granted, but its one of the great, most perfectly controlled, horror movies of all time. Polanski doesn’t make a show of his control like a Hitchcock or a De Palma does (and I like both of them), his picture has an unshakable tepid bath water malignance (an enterprising college student could, and probably has, written a hell of a paper linking Polanski and Bunuel together).

  • 4 AR // Jun 18, 2009 at 9:03 am

    I’m inclined to agree. Compared to a lot of horror films since the 80’s, The Exorcist is subtle, but the horror payoffs are more over-the-top than Rosemary’s Baby. The latter is a lot more focused on the disturbing undertones of the human relationships and the horror is more ambiguous. Both are pretty effective films, but I think of Rosemary’s Baby more fondly.

  • 5 Flickhead // Jun 18, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    The Exorcist is a more interesting picture to watch for its visual gimmicks — the subliminal stuff that the later “uncut” version heaped on until it had no more impact. That later version is one of the wost films I’ve seen in the last ten years.

    Rosemary’s Baby is undoubtedly a better film, artistically and dramatically.

    One thing that’s gone for good: both of these pictures played in first run to packed houses for months. The Exorcist was a summer movie but it was still playing in first-run theatres by Thanksgiving. I miss pre-home video movie exhibition.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jun 19, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Rachel: May I also suggest putting Marathon Man on the old Netflix queue the next time you have a dentist appointment? You’re hard core. Hey! We agree on a movie!

    Patricia: Thank you so much for that compliment. As always, you summarize things succinctly, in language I can understand. The Exorcist is a freak show and I’m a little surprised feminists aren’t as upset by it today as they were in the early ’70s.

    Chuck: Thanks for this erudite observation: “that blunt, broad ugliness that is frequently off-putting in Friedkin’s work “. Hmm, now I know why I don’t like his movies. Friedkin seems more like an art film documentarian who briefly entertained the notion of making prestige, mass appeal movies. The end results — Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die In L.A., Bug — hit neither mark for me.

    Amanda: I feel a Roman Polanski love fest coming on. Polanski was an actor first and foremost and seems to genuinely love actors, if not people in general. This may have gotten him into a legal brew in California later on, but has a positive effect in his films. Friedkin I just don’t feel gives a shit about actors or people in general. Brilliant effects and camerawork. Emotional resonance, not so much. Thanks for commenting!

    Ray: I can also remember movies being “held over” and later, being re-issued. I think the last major “re-issue” was Return of the Jedi in 1986. These days, going to see a movie in a theater is just not the same. Exhibitors have really let things go to pot.

  • 7 Neil Fulwood // Jun 19, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Having revisited ‘The Exorcist’ and its sequels and gone back to Blatty’s original novel and re-read Mark Kermode’s fascinating analysis of the film in the BFI Modern Classics series as part of a week-long ‘Exorcist’-fest on my blog last month, can I be the lone voice in the wilderness giving a big sounding out for Friedkin’s classic?

    ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a fine chiller, but I always find Farrow’s characterisation histrionic where Burstyn communicates real and palpable desperation. Polanski’s direction is clever and you’re absolutely right, Joe, in describing the dream sequences as “tiny art films in their own right”. And I think that tinges ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. It comes across as very much an art form, very much imbued with a European aesthetic. Ordinarily this would have me championing a movie to the hilt, however when I watch ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ I can never shake the knowledge that I’m watching a movie. The blunt documentary sense of realism that Friedkin brings to bear makes ‘The Exorcist’ all the more frightening. And if the dream sequences in Polanski’s film are beautifully designed, let’s not forget how brilliantly, how disturbingly Friedkin’s dream sequence works, how chillingly it resonates on a psychological level.

    Moreover, ‘The Exorcist’ represents a staggering improvement on its source material. Blatty’s novel, while thought-provoking, lurches into aesthetic absurdity with its purple prose, screaming capital letters and explosions of exclamation marks.

    My vote goes for Merrin and co.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Jun 19, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Neil: We agree that Rosemary’s Baby is, was and always will be a movie. Mia Farrow is not somebody you run into at the pagoda. She exists only in the movies, as does the predicament of her character and the way it was filmed. But The Exorcist — in spite of its technical brilliance — just lacks an emotional and narrative logic I would’ve liked. Rosemary’s Baby resonates so much more with me on those counts, although I have known Catholics who are terrified of The Exorcist. Thanks for registering your dissent; it was very well articulated.

  • 9 Neil Fulwood // Jun 19, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    A good point well made. Interesting that you know Catholics terrified by ‘The Exorcist’ – it scares the hell out of me and I’m an atheist! I’m enjoying your “taste test” format, btw; plenty of possibilities for future entries.

  • 10 JAMES WHALE // Aug 3, 2013 at 4:11 am


  • 11 norman bates // Aug 4, 2013 at 7:51 am

    I think The Exorcist overrated , Rosemary’s Baby is more smart , scary and better !

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