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My Year of Scary Movies (Part 7): Roman Polanski's Unholy Trinity

My Year of Scary Movies (Part 7)
Roman Polanski's Unholy Trinity
by Daniel Hutchens

Roman Polanski made three horror films over the course of eleven years which have come to be referred to as his “Unholy Trinity” or his “Apartment Trilogy.” Not exactly a trilogy of connected stories, but more a connection of images and themes and fears...they all involve characters who live in apartment buildings, and who begin to have strange experiences––at times the viewer isn’t sure if said experiences are really happening to the characters, or simply shards of paranoid delusion––and ultimately there’s no real difference; objectively real or subjectively perceived, either way, terror is terror, and these three films probe at the roots of fear in the human mind, like a child who can’t stop wiggling a loose tooth.

 The first of the films is Repulsion.

Repulsion (1965) Directed by Roman Polanski
Strarring Catherine Deneuve

Yes, Catherine Deneuve circa 1965 was devastatingly beautiful. Which seems to be the starting point for every review of this film ever written. She was beautiful, gorgeous, alluring...etc. So did Polanski simply plop her into this film to cash in on her looks? Or is there a deeper comment being made, something to do with watching Beauty descend into Madness?...Or maybe Polanski was up to a little of both?

I don’t know, but I do know the results are hypnotic. You can’t turn away from Deneuve’s glazed gaze (almost pre-heroin-chic), and you can’t help but suffer along with her as she stumbles across the hypocrisies and sexual hungers and petty cruelties this world has to offer...Deneuve’s sister (and roommate) in the film is a cynical, adulterous, predatory piece of work. Deneuve’s co-worker is mired in an abusive relationship with “a pig” of a man...and Deneuve’s character, Carole, is single, lonesome, quiet, and perhaps more righteously pure-hearted than anyone else she knows. She seems a bit confused by, and maybe a little disapproving of, the riotous love affairs she witnesses thundering down all around her. But Carole doesn’t really have any answers. Everyone she knows is impure...Life is impure...what’s a single girl to do?
Carole comes across as a bit of a dreamy innocent. When a young man makes a date with Carole and she doesn’t show, he finds her sitting on a curb by herself, deep 
thought. He tells her, “I’ve been waiting over an hour!” And Carole replies haltingly, “What for?”

And the scenes of Carole in her bed at night, lying awake listening to her sister make love with her married boyfriend in the next room, are so heartbreakingly sad, the lost look on Carole’s face, with hints of anger and lust barely beginning to creep in...

Then the sister leaves town for a few days, and Carole is left to contend with her own mind, or her own mind is left on its own to deal with the outside world...and things get stranger, more intense. The phone rings and it’s an ominous jolt, especially when no one answers on the other end...there’s the plate of gruesomely sauteed rabbit leftover in the fridge, and now that skinned rabbit just...sits there. Water drips in the sink. Sounds waft up eerily through the window from the city below. Everything just seems somehow more sinister...and then the walls of the apartment begin to crack.

And when Carole touches those walls, her hands sink in, leaving fingerprints, as if in wet clay...and then a man is at the door, calling Carole’s name. “If you don’t open the door I’ll bloody well break it down!” What ensues is a genuinely chilling and disorienting piece of film...

Has Carole gone crazy? What does “crazy” really mean, anyway? The whole world is obviously crazy to begin with...who’s to say what’s right and wrong? Doesn’t a girl have the right to defend herself from all those sex-crazed brutes disguised as human beings who make their way to her door? Is she just imagining things? Maybe it all depends on which side of the door you’re standing on, staring into that other eye on the other side through that ghastly little peephole.

Polanski dives deep here, into the well of madness and/or evil, detailing a dark side of humanity most artists avoid. And along the way he’s perfecting techniques that three years later would rock the mainstream moviegoing world, with the release of Rosemary’s Baby.

Rosemary’s Baby(1968)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon

“He has his Father’s eyes.”

First, the strange but true facts behind this movie: the plot of Rosemary’s Baby involves pregnancy. The Devil seems to be the father of this particular child, but still, a large portion of the film deals with a pregnant woman who’s concerned about the welfare of her baby. This is primal stuff, and it’s part of why the film is so effective: we can’t help but care about this woman and her unborn child.

The strange but true part begins in 1969, the year following the film’s release: director Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was among those murdered by the Manson family, as part of Charles Manson’s “Helter Skelter”––he believed the Beatles song by that title was a coded message to him, signaling it was time for him to begin a revolution/race war––and so Manson’s followers painted “Healter Skelter” (they misspelled it) in blood on the wall, at the scene of one of their grisly murders.

In 1973, in another weird coincidence, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved into the Dakota Building in New York City. This is the building used in the filming of Rosemary’s Baby, though in the film they refer to it as the “Bramford.” In 1980, John Lennon was murdered outside the front entrance of the Dakota, completing a bizarre and terrible circle begun with the filming of our movie.


The very first shot of Rosemary’s Baby sets the tone for the entire movie: it’s a sweeping aerial shot of cityscape rooftops, zeroing in toward the Bramford, the building in which our movie is set. But during the bird’s-eye-view shot, we hear a painfully haunting little tune, sung by Mia Farrow... “La La La La, La La”...the song is “Lullaby” by Christopher Komeda, a composer of Polish heritage, like director Roman Polanski. And the effect of the tune is immediate; it really does make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and right away you know the kind of ride you’re in for.

A young married couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, move into a lavish old apartment building. The previous tenant of their new apartment has just recently passed away...and so the Woodhouses move in and begin setting up their new home. Before long they meet their neighbors, an elderly couple named Roman and Minnie Castevet. A young woman is staying with the Castevets, but before long she jumps to her death from the window of their apartment. A few days after that unfortunate event, the Castevets seem to begin shifting their attention toward Rosemary...

The film shifts into a mode of uncertainty and dream scenes...Rosemary’s not quite sure if some of the things she thinks may be happening really are, or if they’re just dreams, or some kind of hormonal hysteria, because she comes to find out she’s newly pregnant. But the pregnancy isn’t proceeding well...Rosemary feels sicker and sicker, begins to lose weight, grow pale, and suffer terrible stabs of pain in her uterus...and all the while the Castevets from next door seem to be getting more and more interested in the pregnancy.The film is unfolded masterfully by Polanski, who repeats some of his “Am I crazy or is this really happening” moves from Repulsion, but this time with even better results. I think mostly because the heroine in this case is more sympathetic––Mia Farrow pulls off what I consider her career-best performance as Rosemary, who at the beginning of the film is a cheerful, upbeat sort, and who fades during the story into a pale, thin, razor-cheeked apparition, a physical transformation comparable to that accomplished by DeNiro in Raging Bull––though of course Farrow’s transformation is mostly due to make-up, not the massive weight gain DeNiro achieved for his role––but the effect is just as startling.

In my mind, Rosemary’s Baby is also set apart by the quality of the supporting cast, who really balloon the film out to its greatest potential––I think they’re the most thoroughly developed supporting characters in any Polanski film, with the possible exception of Chinatown...and even that’s arguable. I can’t think of any Polanski character more endearing and loveable than Hutch, as played in our movie by Maurice Evans. Hutch proves to be the one old friend Rosemary can really depend on. Then there’s her ambitious husband, Guy, who as played by John Cassavetes is just so smarmy and glib and insufferable, you really want to smack him around––he deserves a lot worse than Rosemary’s spitting in his face at the end of the film.

Then of course we have have Minnie Castevet. A truly inspired performance, a finely wrought note of comic menace, for which Ruth Gordon deservedly took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar...she just keeps so many balls in the air at once, comic relief alternating with heavyweight villainy, and she makes it all seem so effortless.

Rosemary’s Baby, produced by longtime horror great William Castle, and adapted from a bestselling novel by Ira Levin, was Roman Polanski’s first American-made film, and it was a resounding success, both in terms of critical reception and box office profits. It holds up as easily one of the top 10 horror films ever made, and it certainly paved the way for the massive 70s Devil movie craze which included The Exorcist...and to this day, Rosemary’s Baby is a disturbing film to watch. Though sprinkled with notes of black comedy, and though on one level it’s just a hell of a finely tuned thrill ride, it also remains a meditation on human treachery and the nature of Evil.

Most directors would probably have felt satisfied after two such successful riffs on the same themes as Polanski achieved with Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. But Polanski would return to a similarly wicked apartment building eight years later, and complete his Unholy Trinity with a genuinely weird little film titled The Tenant.

The Tenant(1976)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Shelley Winters

This time Polanski himself plays the character who moves into the ominous apartment building. Again the previous tenant has been struck down and so won’t be coming back to the apartment, though this time the poor soul isn’t quite dead yet, but hospitalized, in full body cast and essentially a hopeless case... “The previous tenant threw herself out of the window,” concierge Shelley Winters says, and then giggles, showing the apartment to Trelkovsky, the latest in Polanski’s film parade of ill-fated tenants.

Again we have an old, spooky apartment building, and again we have a set of odd neighbors. Melvyn Douglas as the building owner, and Jo Van Fleet as the imperious Madame Dioz, strike the proper notes of vague peril and austere moralism. “If you’re looking for a place to entertain your girlfriends...” Douglas warns, as if such a thought were unmentionably monstrous.

Trelkovsky can’t stay quiet enough for his new neighbors...he receives constant complaints about his late night disturbances, though he’s usually only walking across the floor, moving a chair, or at most entertaining a few friends...but such activities are looked down on harshly by the occupants of his new building. He eventually finds himself called in to talk to the Police Inspector, who threatens him bluntly to either quiet down, or face the consequences. “This time I shall close my eyes to the whole business. Just make sure I don’t hear any more about you.”

But far more disturbing are the subtle hints by Trelkovsky’s neighbors that he act more like the previous tenant of his apartment...down to what she drank at the local cafe, and what brand of cigarettes she smoked...eventually Trelkovsky begins painting his fingernails, in a brief scene without dialogue, which though only a few seconds long may be the most ominous of the entire film...

The Tenant is a moody riff on personal identity––what truly makes you who you are?––and is your “self” really interchangeable, just a matter of an actor playing a role and putting on a costume? This film is more subtle than its two predecessors, lacking the artsy eroticism of Repulsion or the Hollywood starpower fireworks of Rosemary’s Baby––but it definitely puts the finishing brushstrokes on Polanski’s apartment nightmare. It’s easy to see why The Tenant wasn’t as big a success as the first two films, but it’s also hard to argue that certain scenes in this movie––particularly for me the climactic image of Polanski’s broken and bleeding body in full drag and make-up––aren’t among the most unnerving ever filmed.

My Year of Scary Movies by Daniel Hutchens


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