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In Roman Polanski's Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the terror begins with chocolate mousse. References to a “chalky undertaste” have been among this compulsively quotable film’s main takeaways, seeping into our greater cultural vernacular, meant to signify something that inspires a suspicion you can’t quite place.
“It has an undertaste,” Rosemary (Mia Farrow) observes of a cup of chocolate mousse she eats after dinner one night. “A chalky undertaste.” The terribly odd woman next door (Ruth Gordon, in an Oscar-winning performance) concocted the dessert as a seeming gesture of neighborly goodwill. Her husband, John Cassavetes, doesn’t find anything weird about its taste. Rosemary compliantly spoons it into her napkin and tries to forget she ever ate it.
Within hours, the mousse renders her catatonic, disorienting her as Rohypnol would. This gives way to the film’s most unsettling sequence wherein Rosemary is raped and ritualistically impregnated by the devil, all orchestrated by her husband and his agreement with their satanic neighbors. She awakes mid-nightmare: "This is no dream, this is really happening!" Farrow declares with a reedy quaver.
Food is meant to be soaked in pleasure and sustenance, but in Rosemary's Baby, it is just another domain in which Rosemary misplaces her trust. Following this sequence, Rosemary will slink into a more listless version of herself, her luminosity dimming to a ghostly pallor. Her body becomes one she doesn’t know; whatever she puts into it grows inside her into something she can no longer recognize.
Rosemary's Baby is nearing fifty. Filmmakers and actors alike have tried to crib from what this film accomplished, whether in the form of wanting remakes or godawful sequels. They all miss the careful precision of this duet between Farrow and Polanski—how they, together, convey the brittleness and fragility that Rosemary eventually summons into strength. I saw Rosemary's Baby again this weekend as my way of celebrating Halloween, and none of its unsettling charge has been lost; the chalky undertaste lingers.
What does food mean in your favorite Halloween movie? Let us know in the comments!