Our review of Rosemary's Baby (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published November 19th, 2012, is also available.
Pray for Rosemary's Baby.
Rosemary's Baby is a horror film that relies on tension and atmosphere more than thrills to speak its message, and works on every level. One of the greatest horror films of all time; it led the way to films like The Exorcist that would draw horror out of seemingly real life; bringing the feelings of dread and fear to the viewer in a way that slashers and classic monsters never could. Director Roman Polanski and a stellar cast, along with an Oscar nominated screenplay, created a rare film that could be considered "great" on its own merits and not just a "great horror film." Paramount has now released this jewel on DVD with a new anamorphic transfer and a couple nice extras.
Facts of the Case
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is living the American dream as the wife of up-and-coming actor Guy (John Cassavetes) in New York, and is happy to move into a nice new apartment, without a care of the building's notorious past reputation for strange crimes. They quickly meet and befriend the kindly old couple who lives just behind their bedroom wall, Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). They seem caring, kindly, and harmless, but Rosemary always feels a bit uneasy around them, while Guy seems to have taken to them as the parents he never knew. Things immediately change for the better for Guy, as he gains a big part after an unfortunate event befalls his rival, and seemingly better for Rosemary as she discovers she is pregnant. But strange events haunt Rosemary as she becomes convinced there is a conspiracy to take her baby with evil intent.
This was Roman Polanski's first Hollywood film, but shows the genius that he is capable of at times. His adaptation of the Ira Levin novel is literary and captures the vulnerability of Rosemary and the quiet intensity of the people and events surrounding her. A palpable sense of menace follows through the film, accentuated by the creepy and surreal musical score. Without having to resort to explicit gore or those "boo" moments where something jumps at you, the intensity grows from a seemingly innocent homespun beginning to remain with you throughout the rest of the film. That idyllic beginning to the film is one of its greatest strengths, as it lulls you into complacency before really turning on the tension. You know something isn't right, but for a good while you don't know what. Even after having seen the film years ago I let it happen to me on this viewing.
The characters are well drawn, expertly performed, and many of them become far creepier in the end because of their seeming normality before. Surprisingly, Mia Farrow was not the first actress Polanski wanted for the lead role; he thought she should be more voluptuous and All-American. But Mia Farrow's delicate looks and vulnerability really sell the part as she is in the hands of those who are always more powerful and able to control events than she. Ruth Gordon won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the busybody New York neighbor who sells that so well that when she goes into horror mode it is even more ghastly. Likewise the faces of the supporting cast are drawn right out of homespun America, with Ralph Bellamy playing a prominent role and even the epitome of the kindly aunt Hope Summers (Clara Edwards from the "Andy Griffith Show") playing so sweet and normal but turning out to be something frightfully different later.
Betrayal, conspiracy, and the natural fear and vulnerability of a pregnant woman and her baby drive this film to its infamous climax, and isn't to be missed.
Paramount isn't known for having extensive extra content on their discs, and they aren't overly numerous here. Fifteen minutes of retrospective interviews with director and writer Polanski, producer Robert Evans and production designer Richard Sylbert offer a lot of history and insight about the film. I learned that William Castle, the schlockmeister of cheesy horror films of the era, first brought in the story and wanted to do the film. Paramount put their foot down right away on his direction, which likely would have made this another one of those flack pictures featuring vibrating seats or something to drive the horror. He was allowed to co-produce the film however. A 23-minute feature about the making of the picture is also offered and was shot at the time of the filming, which has as much to do with the hippie era in which it was made as significant insight into the making of it. Still, there are a lot of nuggets in there, and was interesting to see how different things have become since that era of flower power. No trailers or other extras are included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Roman Polanski has led a checkered life without a doubt. The year after making this film his wife Sharon Tate was killed by the Manson family, and after his Oscar turn in Chinatown five years later was convicted of statutory rape of a 13 year old girl. He fled imprisonment to France and became a citizen there. I've always had a bit of a problem with objectivity with his work since because of my feelings about child molesters, but I do have to give credit where it is due with this excellent film.
My only real complaints have to do with the disc itself. The picture quality isn't really a complaint, because it's really pretty good. Adequate, good enough, and very watchable are all adjectives I would give it. Colors are a bit washed out, there is some grain (especially in outdoor shots), and some nicks and blemishes mar the source print and are evident. At least it is anamorphic, and the level of detail and color balance is fine. Artifacts are at a minimum, though some ringing or halo effects are occasionally noticeable. I'm not really knocking it here; it is still very nice to look at and doesn't effect the enjoyment of the film, but I have to mention it.
I have little to complain about with the soundtrack either; I just wish it had been done with the technology available today. This mono soundtrack is very clear, without hiss or popping to distract. The film is largely dialogue driven anyway, but there are a couple scenes that would have greatly benefited from surround channels in use. Voices are a bit strident from the lack of fidelity of these mono tracks, but nothing worse than when it first was shown.
Of course this film gets my recommendation; it's one of the great horror films of all time. Despite imperfections in the picture and sound it's still well worth having, but those who aren't sure should give it a rental first.
Paramount is given an acquittal for simply giving us this film on DVD, and credit for giving it an anamorphic transfer and a couple nice extras. The film itself is beyond reproach.
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