ROSEMARY’S BABY – Blu-ray review

The following review was written by John Puccio for the 2003 SD release of “Rosemary’s Baby” by Paramount. The Video, Audio, Extras and Film Value section are written by Christopher Long in conjunction with the film’s 2012 Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection.

The Film According to John (orig. published in 2003):

In show business it’s said you’re only as good as your last hit. That’s nonsense, of course. To have done just one thing in life that touches on greatness is an accomplishment most people can only dream of. Director Roman Polanski has already achieved more than his measure of greatness with films like “Knife in the Water” (1962), “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “Chinatown” (1974). If his more-recent films have not quite reached that same level of importance, well, it isn’t as though he’s not trying; and in a hundred years who will remember, anyway. Besides, with a movie as good as “Rosemary’s Baby,” it might just as well have been made yesterday; it has lost nothing from the passage of time, and on DVD it looks better than ever. And it can be pretty spooky, and pretty funny, too.

Younger moviegoers brought up on Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and their like may find “Rosemary’s Baby” a bit slow, especially the first hour, but once one gets into the film, one cannot pull away. It isn’t about blood, guts, and gore. Indeed, with the exception of a suicide early on, there is no sign of violence in the film, whatsoever. Instead, Polanski creates a genuinely eerie mood, builds suspense by adding one tense moment after another, and keeps one glued to one’s seat until the film’s final, spellbinding climax. It’s a horror film whose horror is derived not from what we see but from what we don’t see.

There are no special effects and no special makeup of any kind. The director relies entirely upon our imagination. To this day, for instance, I can remember arguments from people who have sworn they saw the demon baby’s face and features in vivid detail–eyes, hooves, horns, the works. Polanski is monumentally successful at manipulating his audience through the power of suggestion alone. Of all the motion pictures about demon-possessed babies that have ever been made, and there have been plenty, I’d be willing to bet it’s this one that a majority of people remember most.

The movie is all the more disturbing for its juxtaposition of the horrifying and the commonplace. The story opens in 1965 as a happily married couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes), move into a new apartment in New York City. Rosemary is a beautiful, fragile, innocent-looking young housewife; Guy is a handsome, struggling, young actor making TV commercials, and the apartment house, the Bramford, is a big, old, Gothic affair with an intriguing reputation. As the manager of the building, Mr. Nicklas (old pro Elisha Cook, Jr.), is afraid to explain, two sisters were long ago convicted of cooking and eating several children there, and another fellow, Adrian Marcato, was killed by a mob for supposedly practicing witchcraft in the place.

Mind you, this spook story is not happening in some lonely, haunted, derelict mansion atop a hilltop in some storm-tossed countryside. This story is occurring in the middle of bustling, downtown Manhattan. Anyway, no sooner have Rosemary and Guy moved in than they meet two of their neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). These are truly neighbors from hell. Minnie is constantly barging in uninvited and setting up shop with her knitting, and Roman claims to have been everywhere. “Ask me where I’ve been.” “Fairbanks, Alaska?” “I’ve been there.”

Then, the fun really begins. Guy starts spending more and more time with the Castevets, and one day, quite unexpectedly, he gets a leading part in a play when the star suddenly goes blind. Some people have all the luck. Or do they? The next we know, Guy is keen to have a child, and Rosemary is happy to agree. But during their first lovemaking after making the decision, Rosemary dreams she is copulating with the devil! After that, things escalate in a hurry toward a terrifying conclusion. Guy, Minnie, and Roman insist that Rosemary quit her regular obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), and use a specialist, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who prescribes special herbal drinks prepared expressly for her by Minnie from her window garden. When Rosemary starts eating raw meat, losing weight rather than gaining during her pregnancy, and turning pale and skeletal, she calls upon an old friend, Hutch (Maurice Evans), for advice. Soon after their meeting, Hutch dies mysteriously; but just before he does, he leaves her a copy of book on witchcraft that sends her over the edge into near hysteria. Rosemary suspects a coven of witches is operating in the city, and that they are all together in a plot to bring the Antichrist to Earth through her.

Mia Farrow is well cast as the vulnerable mother-to-be. Originally, the role was to have gone to Jane Fonda, who would have brought to it a tougher and more glamorous tone, probably not quite suited to the story’s intent. Farrow, rather, would seem more able to appear susceptible to people’s demands, more malleable, more easily manipulated by those around her. Robert Redford was initially considered for the role of Guy, but John Cassevetes’ dark good looks make him ideal as the New York stage actor; plus, he brings a sinister, almost Satanic look to his part as the film progresses. Redford, probably not. Ruth Gordon won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part as the noisy neighbor. She swivels her hips and prances around in flamboyant fashion, at first seeming like a harmless old biddy, then an annoyance, and finally a genuine threat. Of all the scary people in the film, though, my own favorite is Ralph Bellamy as Rosemary’s physician. Always quietly spoken, tranquil and mild mannered, he is the epitome of eloquence and proper decorum. He seems a gentleman from head to foot in whom one could put one’s complete trust. But the respected doctor may not be all that he appears.

Polanski, who adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s best-selling novel, said he purposely wanted his film to be ambiguous. That is, he wanted his audiences guessing throughout the story whether Rosemary was actually in danger from Satan and witchcraft, or if she was hallucinating everything. The entire movie is seen through Rosemary’s eyes, through her point of view, and she is in virtually every scene; we see and hear only what she sees and hears. As such, it is easy to interprete the story two ways. She may, in fact, be imagining everything she suspects. Or she may actually be experiencing her worst fears. In either case, the story is fun to watch unfold. It is the ultimate nightmare for paranoids of every stripe. In the film, everything turns sour. Even a simple lullaby and Beethoven’s lovely “Fur Elise” take on an ominous tone.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For you techies: “this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the original 35mm camera negative.” It’s exciting to finally have “Rosemary’s Baby” available in 1080p, and Criterion certainly hasn’t disappointed. The image resolution in this high-def transfer is sharp throughout and for whatever reason I found the fine grain look unusually pleasing. I don’t what else to say except that this looks remarkably filmic and I can’t imagine a better home video presentation in this format.

The linear PCM Mono audio track is more dynamic than many Mono mixes and is particularly effective at giving the excellent music in the film a sense of depth and resonance. All dialogue is clearly mixed and the sound effects really pop; there are times this almost feels like listening to a surround mix. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Fans who were expecting a deluxe Criterion treatment will be a little disappointed. Unless they are also big fans of the film’s composer, Krzysztof Komeda (credited as Christopher Komeda). The primary extra on this disc is the new documentary “Komeda, Komeda” (71 min.) produced for Polish television in 2012. I must be honest and admit that I was not interested enough to check this out, but I can’t imagine there’s much material available on DVD concerning this artist who also worked on several of Polanski’s earlier films (including “Knife in the Water” and “Cul-de-sac”) and passed away in 1969, shortly after “Rosemary’s Baby” was released.

“Remembering ‘Rosemary’s Baby’” is a new documentary (2012, 47 min.) shot for the Criterion Collection. It combines interviews with Polanski, Farrow and producer Robert Evans. While this is certainly entertaining enough, I didn’t find it particularly insightful. It is a reminiscence rather than an analysis, and that’s fine, but it has its limits.

Of somewhat more interest in audio recording of a radio interview with novelist Ira Levin (19 min.) from a Sep 1997 appearance on Leonard Lopate’s “New York and Company” on WNYC. Levin discusses his new novel, “Son of Rosemary,” as well as the first book and the film.

The 28-page insert booklet includes a lively essay by author Ed Park, Ira Levin’s afterword to the 203 New American Library edition of “Rosemary’s Baby,” and some pages from Levin’s personal notebooks including character sketches and a floorplan of the Woodhouses’ apartment.

Film Value:
This release is absolutely worth getting just for the high-def upgrade in video and audio. Criterion’s transfer is superb, and it’s great that somebody stepped up to the plate to do what Paramount couldn’t or wouldn’t do. On the other hand, for such an important film, it’s a shame there aren’t more substantive extras. The Komeda documentary is wonderful for fans of the composer, but otherwise the lack of scholarly analysis (a commentary track or at least a Visual Essay would have been welcome) of this influential horror masterpiece is rather glaring. Still, this should be one of Criterion’s stronger sellers and for very good reasons: it’s a great film that never looked better.