Rosemary's Baby

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski (based on the novel by Ira Levin)
Stars: Mia Farrow (Rosemary Woodhouse), John Cassavetes (Guy Woodhouse), Ruth Gordon (Minnie Castevet), Sidney Blackmer (Roman Castevet), Maurice Evans (Edward “Hutch” Hutchins), Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Abe Sapirstein), Angela Dorian (Terry Gionoffrio, Patsy Kelly (Laura-Louise McBirney), Elisha Cook (Mr. Nicklas), Emmaline Henry (Elise Dunstan), Charles Grodin (Dr. C.C. Hill)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1968
Country: U.S.
Rosemary’s Baby Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Rosemary’s BabyRoman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece of paranoid tension about evil lurking in the mundane. It has been called “the horror film without any horror,” and much has been made of the fact that it doesn’t use special effects. This is something of a misnomer because, in fact, some make-up special effects and trick photography are used. But, what is important is not that they are used, but rather the manner in which they are used. That is, when the effects do come, the camera does not linger on them, and they take up just enough screen time to make a near subliminal impact, leaving us wondering, Did I see what I think I just saw?

The film, which was based on a novel by Ira Levin, marked the American directorial debut of Polanski, already known in Europe for nail-biters like Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), as well as the horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Rosemary’s Baby shares thematic similarities with Repulsion, in that both films are told from the point of view of a young woman who may be going insane. In Repulsion, Polanski gave visual form to Catherine Deneuve’s growing insanity in various horrific visions, such as human arms reaching out from her apartment walls and grabbing at her (the insanity here is very Freudian, as it is the result of her sexual repression).

Rosemary’s Baby is much more reserved in its visual manifestations, and yet it is no less scary. The central character is young woman named Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who is married to a struggling actor named Guy (John Cassavetes). They move into a spacious apartment in an old building in New York City where Guy is trying to get stage work. They become friendly with a nosy, eccentric old couple next door, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon) Castevet.

Once Rosemary becomes pregnant, she begins to suspect that something is not right. Guy gets a coveted stage role because the man who first got the part was suddenly struck blind. When Rosemary’s friend, a children’s writer named Hutch (Maurice Evans), tries to meet her one morning to tell her something important, he lapses into a coma. Rosemary becomes even more suspicious when her obstetrician, Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who was recommended by the Castevets, continually tells her not to be worried about intense pain in her uterus and prescribes natural vitamin drinks that Minnie administers.

Rosemary’s Baby turns into a pregnant woman’s worst nightmare, as Rosemary begins to suspect that Guy and the Castevets are part of a witches’ coven that is planning to steal her baby for their rituals. She reads several books on witchcraft, and the things described in the book fit all too neatly into the strange goings-on in her life. She finds out that a talisman given to her by the Castevets that supposedly contains “tanis root” actually contains a fungus called “Devils’ Weed” used in Satanic ceremonies. Soon, it becomes apparent to her that every person in her life is somehow involved in this conspiracy.

Or is it?

This is the central dilemma in Rosemary’s Baby and the point on which all of its terror hinges: Is Rosemary really the target of a modern-day coven of witches or is she simply losing her mind? Looking at Polanksi’s previous films, mostly notably Repulsion, it would seem that Rosemary is simply in mental anguish, and the witch scare is nothing more than a manifestation of her paranoia. However, if you take into account some of Ira Levin’s other work, most notably his novel The Stepford Wives, which was made into a film in 1975, it would seem that the witches are very much a part of reality, and Rosemary’s selfish husband did in fact sell her womb to Satan in exchange for material benefits.

In the end, however, it is left just ambiguous enough to support either reading. The final moments, in which Rosemary comes face to face with her baby, is a scene of chilling perfection in which all the loose ends suddenly come together. Mia Farrow is excellent as Rosemary throughout, but her horrified look when she first lays eyes on her offspring is a moment of greatness, brought to even greater heights by Christopher Komeda’s twisted musical score, which plays like a deranged child’s nursery lullaby.

Few horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby are made anymore because they demand too much of the audience (the only one I can think of in recent years is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter, which plays like a male variant on the same themes and fears). Horror audiences today want the visceral gore and the quick, cheap thrills, rather than the slowly mounting tension that Polanski achieves here. Running over two hours in length, Rosemary’s Baby is a not a quickly paced narrative, and it doesn’t offer jump-in-your-seat moments. What is does offer, though, is something much more difficult to achieve: A constant escalation in tension that climaxes as just the right moment and in just the right manner. It is, quite possibly, the best example of horror by suggestion ever made.

Rosemary’s Baby Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Rosemary’s Baby is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Remembering Rosemary’s Baby retrospective documentary
  • 1997 radio interview with author Ira Levin
  • Komeda, Komeda feature- length documentary
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Ed Park; Levin’s afterword to the 2003 New American Library edition of his novel; and Levin’s rare, unpublished character sketches of the Woodhouses and floor plan of their apartment
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateOctober 30, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    I still find it hard to believe that it has taken this long for Rosemary’s Baby, one of the quintessential modern horror films, to make it to high-definition. Thankfully, the film has been entrusted to the good folks at Criterion, who have given it a stellar new 4K transfer from the original 35mm camera negative that has been approved by director Roman Polanski. A significant step above Paramount’s 2003 DVD, this new transfer maintains an impressively film-like appearance with excellent detail and contrast, strong colors (the previous DVD looked a tad faded, probably due to the source print), and a healthy presence of film grain (it definitely looks like a film made in the late 1960s). The transfer also does a nice job handling the film’s darker moments, which tended to be a little murky in previous video editions. Digital restoration has removed thousands of instances of dirt and damage, returning the image to a nearly pristine condition. I imagine it didn’t look much better in theaters in the summer of 1968. The original monaural soundtrack, presented in lossless Linear PCM, was transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored to great effect. Krzysztof Komeda’s haunting musical score has good weight and depth, as do the creepy sound effects and the all-important everyday hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion has assembled a few lengthy new supplements for their release of Rosemary’s Baby. First up is a Remembering Rosemary’s Baby, a 45-minute documentary composed primarily of new interviews with director Roman Polanski, actress Mia Farrow, and producer Robert Evans. Fans of the film will probably be pretty familiar with most of the anecdotes and production history, but it’s still fun to listen to Polanski and company spin them once again. Plus, you might learn a few new tidbits (I, for one, was unaware of how Farrow’s involvement in the film led to her divorce with Frank Sinatra, who wanted her to come work on his film The Detective, and she also tells a funny story about her interaction with the actor in the devil suit who rapes her). Author Ira Levin, who passed away in 1997, appears in a 20-minute radio interview from the year of his death that was broadcast on Leonard Lopate’s public radio program New York and Company. In the interview he talks about his original novel, its sequel, and Polanski’s film. Finally, the disc includes Komeda, Komeda, an excellent 70-minute documentary on the life and work of jazz musician and composer Krzysztof Komeda, who frequently collaborated with Polanski and wrote the instantly memorable score for Rosemary’s Baby. The insert booklet is also worth mentioning: In addition to an essay by critic Ed Park and Levin’s afterword to the 2003 New American Library edition of his novel (in which he rather ridiculously worries that his novel might be to blame for so much religious fundamentalism), it includes scans of Levin’s never before published character sketches of the Woodhouses (typed on lined notebook paper) and the floor plan of their apartment he drew up in preparation for writing the novel.

    Unfortunately, Criterion’s disc does not include the 23-minute 1968 making-of documentary Mia and Roman that was included on Paramount’s DVD. Although not particularly informative, it was certainly entertaining and inadvertently funny with Mia Farrow’s sluggish voice-over narration in which she mumbles things like, “I love Roman. It’s our basic thing. We groove together” and footage of her painting her dressing room door with peace, love, and flowers and making a chart so she can keep track of whether everyone on set is being nice to her. So, be sure to hold onto your old DVD if you don’t want to lose access to that gem of late ’60s bliss.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Paramount Pictures

    Overall Rating: (4)




    James Kendrick

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