Criterion // 1968 // 136 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // November 19th, 2012
Pray for Rosemary's baby.
Back in 1968, my mom was looking for a movie to take us to see -- "us" being my ten- and eight-year-old brothers, along with my bad five-year-old self. Based on the title, she thought it was a family oriented film. Before all of you go "Aha! That explains everything!," my mom reevaluated her choice once we got to the theater and saw the poster, and we ended up doing something else.
That movie, of course, was Rosemary's Baby, a seminal horror film of the sixties. Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Ira Levin novel is brought to us today by the good folks at Criterion as Rosemary's Baby (Blu-ray).
Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes, The Dirty Dozen) and his wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow, Widow's Peak) have just moved into an apartment in an old building called the Bramford. They are quickly befriended by the Castevets -- Minnie (Ruth Gordon, Harold and Maude) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer, High Society). Guy unexpectedly gets a part, and, in a rush of excitement, they decide to start a family, leading to the whole charting temperatures and such. On the night that she's supposed to be at her most fertile, Rosemary has a bit too much to drink, and ends up with a seriously weird dream for her troubles; soon after, she discovers that she's pregnant. The Castevets are delighted -- Minnie starts preparing special vitamin drinks for Rosemary, and Roman gets one of the top OB/GYNs in New York, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy, Trading Places), to oversee the pregnancy. As her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary believes that something's not quite right. She grows increasingly pale and wan, and starts craving raw meat. An old friend, Hutch (Maurice Evans, Planet of the Apes), calls to tell her that he's found something, but he falls ill and slips into a coma before they can meet. As Rosemary's delivery date grows closer, she grows suspicious not only that the Castevets are not who they seem, but that they have some sort of insidious plan for her baby.
In fact, Rosemary may have to take drastic steps.
By the way, this is a forty-five-year-old film, so I'm assuming that you have at least a passing acquaintance with the plot.
My mom's initial misconception illustrates why Rosemary's Baby works so well: it looks so normal at first, just a couple trying to get by in the big city. In fact, if you remove Rosemary's dream/vision, the first half of the movie plays like a particularly nondescript drama. That solid grounding in reality is at the heart of the movie's effectiveness. Still, from the beginning, things are a little...off. When the real estate agent asks Guy what he does, Guy responds "I'm a doctor," only to have Rosemary correct him: "He's an actor. Who plays a doctor." Later, when Rosemary meets Terry (Angela Dorian, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) in the laundry room, she comments "for a moment I thought you were [Italian actress] Victoria Vetri." The catch? Angela Dorian is Victoria Vetri; she generally acted as Vetri, but modeled as Angela Dorian. So from the beginning, there is an emphasis on people playing roles -- which only makes sense, as almost every character in the film is playing a role of some form or another, even Rosemary -- she just doesn't realize what her role is until it's too late.
Urban horror tends to be highly allegorical; The devastation of Carrie begins with the titular character's first menstrual cycle. In Rosemary's Baby, Rosemary stands helpless the two key "prizes" for the American Dream -- marriage and motherhood -- turn into literally a living nightmare. The final scene derives its power because of the hideous subversion of that most perfect of images, a mother caring for her baby. It's a nightmarish progression (that erosion of the American Dream also underlies the character arc of Charlize Theron in The Devil's Advocate). Given the movie's tag line: "Pray for Rosemary's Baby," when Rosemary starts brandishing that knife at the end of the movie, part of me feared that Rosemary might actually kill a perfectly normal baby.
The performances are magnificent across the board, but this is Mia Farrow's show from beginning to end. Her pale delicate features make it easy for you to initially think that she is, in fact just imagining everything -- particularly since everyone else plays their parts so carefully. Ruth Gordon picked up a well-deserved Oscar for her turn as Minnie -- she walks a wonderfully thin line that you don't really appreciate until you re-watch the film a few times. John Cassavetes also shines -- the morning after the baby is conceived, he's restless, with a slightly haunted, guilty look, reluctant to touch his wife. Again, you always return to Mia Farrow, particularly that last scene. Parts of the scene don't quite work these days -- the cries of "Hail, Satan!" come across as somewhat hokey, but the real drama is as strong as ever, as Roman tells Rosemary that the baby needs his mother. Here's the unanswered question: Does Rosemary start caring for the child because she's finally gone over the edge, or because her maternal instincts are so strong that they would make her raise such a demonic creature?
Criterion has done a first-rate job with the restoration of this classic. The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1.85:1/1080p transfer was scanned at 4k to provide the maximum amount of detail while retaining grain -- best observed in the patterns of Rosemary's clothes, or the texture of furniture. Colors are rich, though shadows get a tad mushy at times. There's nothing particularly challenging about the soundtrack, but the LPCM 2.0 Mono track is crystal clear; it's not really needed for the dialog, but it does let you fully appreciate Krzysztof Komeda's minimalist score, which is turn charming, playful, and ominous.
Trivia: A made-for-TV movie, Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby, was made in 1976 (It was broadcast in October; The Omen was released in June. I suspect a causal link). Ruth Gordon was the only actor to return for a second turn. The movie is in no way, shape, or form related to Ira Levin's sequel, but it would have made a nice bonus. In fact, one thing missing from the discussion is the degree to which Rosemary's Baby opened up the gates of Hell, as it were, with regard to movies.
As mentioned earlier, part of the final scenes are a little too over the top, but they do not undermine the drama underlying the scene, and indeed, the entire movie.
Extras are relatively slight. "Remembering Rosemary's Baby" is new for this release, and is composed of 2012 interviews with Farrow, Polanski, and producer Robert Evans. There is a wealth of background information to be had here. There is also a 1997 radio interview with Ira Levin, on the publication of the sequel, Rosemary's Son. Finally, the disc includes Komeda, Komeda, a feature-length documentary on Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda, a longtime friend and associate of Polanski. The film is in Polish, with optional subtitles. The disc case includes a small booklet, with a brief essay by critic Ed Park and Ira Levin's afterword for the 2003 edition of the novel. What's there is good, but you're left wanting more. Polanski was so detail-oriented on this film that some sort of commentary track would be useful; Farrow comments in her interviews that the film is frequently analyzed in film schools, so there should be a wealth of material with which to work. Polanski or Farrow would be preferable, of course, but even a commentary track from a film historian would be useful.
While the extras are somewhat weak, the transfer of Rosemary's Baby (Blu-ray) redeems the package.
Not guilty. But guys, seriously? Try harder with the extras next time.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Rated R