Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

Possibly the best horror film ever made, this brilliant adaptation of Ira Levin's best-selling novel is the story of a loving New York City couple who are expecting their first child. Like most first-time mothers, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) experiences confusion and fear. Her husband (John Cassavetes), an ambitious but unsuccessful actor, makes a pact with the devil that promises to send his career skyward. Director Roman Polanski elicits uniformly extraordinary performances from the all-star cast. Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for her performance as an oversolicitous next-door neighbor in this classic chiller.

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy
Academy Awards: Won for Best Supporting Actress-Ruth Gordon. Nominated for Best Screenplay, 1969.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 32; chapters; rated R; 136 min.; $29.99; street date 10/3/00.
Supplements: 23-minute featurette "Mia and Roman"; 16-minute "Retrospective".
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Ira Levin

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B-/C+

My first screening of Rosemary's Baby occurred for odd reasons. Back in 1991, a major retailer ran a movie trivia contest packed with a long roster of obscure questions. These days the items might not have been much of a challenge, since I could just hop on the Internet and find the desired details, but back then the task required lots of serious research to solve the puzzles.

Since the reward seemed terrific - a big-screen TV and a top-of-the-line laserdisc player - and since I had little else to do during the summer before grad school started, I jumped into this activity with zeal. One of the questions related to a famous horror movie that used Beethoven's "Fur Elise" as a motif. From the phrasing of the query, I thought it was likely Rosemary's Baby, but to be sure, I rented the movie and watched it.

Yes, it was the one in question - there's one correct answer! Unfortunately, I either slipped up along the way or lost a tie-breaker to someone else, because I didn't get the grand prize. Well, it was fun to play movie detective for a while anyway.

I wish I could relate that it had been enjoyable to watch Rosemary's Baby back then, but I found the experience dull at best; I didn't understand the enduring appeal of the film. However, since I know my opinions aren't written in stone, I decided to give RB another shot with the release of this new DVD.

Almost ten years later, I've had a mild change of heart about Rosemary's Baby. While I'm not sure it deserves its status as a horror classic, I thought it was a pretty solid little film. Director Roman Polanski creates a creepy and unnerving atmosphere in which this quiet but effective psychological thriller thrives.

The movie follows Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) Woodhouse, a young married couple who move into a Manhattan apartment house with a sinister history. Soon thereafter some nasty events occur but things seem generally good; they make friends with the Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) Castevet, the nosy old couple next door, and Rosemary finds that she's pregnant with her first child.

Things aren't quite so rosy for Rosemary, however, as she experiences a great deal of pain during her pregnancy. Complications ensue, and she slowly becomes suspicious of a variety of circumstances. These continue through and beyond the delivery of her child.

And that's all I'll say, as it's best to leave the events of RB undiscussed. (If you haven't seen the movie, don't read the synopsis on the back cover of the DVD; it reveals far too much.) Actually, I'm not sure how surprising the plots twists and turns may be, but I sure wouldn't want them spelled out to me in advance; while the movie works mainly due to its execution, the uncertainty in its story contributes as well.

Polanski has the sense to build the tension slowly and quietly. Perhaps I didn't like RB nine years ago because it's not a slam-bang horror movie; its chills are more subtle, without any big "scare" moments. In the long run, however, I think it's an effective model, as the movie's insidious nature sticks with you after the film ends; it's one of those pictures that can be hard to dispel from your head.

In addition to Polanski's effective pacing, RB works nicely due to some strong performances. I've never liked Farrow but she provides a very nice turn as Rosemary. The character goes through a wide variety of moods and changes throughout the film, and Farrow achieves these effortlessly. In fact, she develops the character so seamlessly that I didn't really recognize these changes until the film ended; Rosemary becomes a very different person by the conclusion but Farrow makes the transition clean and smooth.

The supporting cast of RB also provide sterling work with no weak links. Gordon earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Minnie, but all of the others are equally good. It's a quality group.

Speaking of actors, RB contains one cute inside joke. Early in the film, Rosemary meets fellow tenant Terry, played by Angela Dorian. Rosemary states that Terry looks like actress Victoria Vetri. Terry indicates that although people tell her that all the time, she doesn't see the resemblance. The gag? Dorian is Victoria Vetri; "Angela Dorian" was another name that she used for some films and for her appearance as a Playboy Playmate in 1967.

(By the way, please note that Rosemary's baby was born in June 1966. I made my world premiere in May 1967. Hopefully this will put to rest all of the speculation over the identity of my father.)

My only significant complaint about Rosemary's Baby? The ending. Although the filmmakers apparently think it was vague (as they mention in the supplements), I disagree; I feel it spells out far too much and tells us more than we need to know. A such, the movie loses some of its impact through this too-graphic conclusion.

Despite this flaw, I liked Rosemary's Baby to a moderate degree. I don't think it's a brilliant film, but it accomplishes what it set out to do and does so with flair and strong craftsmanship. RB set the table for later pictures like The Exorcist and The Omen and it belongs with the better films of that genre.

The DVD:

Rosemary's Baby appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it shows some flaws, overall the picture looked quite attractive.

Sharpness usually seemed very good, with the majority of the movie crisp and well-defined. Some moderate softness could appear during interior shots, but this was not significantly problematic. Due to some striped shirts, I discerned a few moiré effects, but jagged edges seemed non-existent and I detected only a few instances of artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws looked surprisingly minor for a film this old. Light grain appeared at times, and I also witnessed some mild speckling and a few nicks, but no significant defects like hairs, scratches, tears or blotches marred the presentation.

Colors generally appeared nicely accurate and clear, and at times I saw some wonderfully warm and vibrant hues. This isn't a film from which I'd expect lively colors, and much of the movie uses a fairly bland palette. However, when bright hues were appropriate, they looked sumptuous. Black levels seemed nicely deep and dark with acceptable contrast, and shadow detail usually appeared pretty clean and concise, although some scenes - notably when Rosemary digs through the closet toward the end - were a bit too dim. Nonetheless, all of this image's problems remained fairly minor, and I found it to present an impressive picture most of the time.

Also surprisingly strong was the monaural soundtrack of Rosemary's Baby. Dialogue came across as slightly stiff and tinny but it remained clear and intelligible at all times with no signs of edginess. Effects were relatively crisp and clean and showed no distortion, while music seemed lively and brisk; the score even offered some decent bass at times, such as during the scene when Rosemary trots around New York on her own. I detected no evidence of background noise. The soundtrack obviously is nothing special, but it sounded pretty solid for an older mono mix.

The DVD includes a couple of solid supplements. First up is "Rosemary's Baby: A Retrospective" which features 1999 interviews with producer Robert Evans, production designer Richard Sylbert, and director Roman Polanski. This program lasts 16 minutes and 55 seconds and the participants offer a nice look at the creation of the film. We learn some interesting tidbits such as how the project was developed and what other actors were considered for the lead roles. Due to its length, the feature is not terribly comprehensive, but I found it stimulating and entertaining nonetheless.

We also find another video program, this one called "Mia and Roman". Created during the shoot of the movie, this 23-minute featurette provides a minor overview of the making of the film. It benefits from the large amount of footage from the set and from its then-contemporary interviews; best of all are some shots of Polanski as he shows Farrow how she to play a scene. However, the shows seems too glossy and superficial for the most part; we don't learn a whole lot about how the film was made, though some interesting tidbits appear.

In any case, the show is actually rather entertaining due to the attitudes of the period. Maharishi-visiting Farrow seriously bought into the whole hippie culture, and her discussions of peace, love and joy are almost as inadvertently amusing as was Melanie Griffith's inane audio commentary for Crazy In Alabama. The program is nothing special, but it deserves a look.

One facet that I mention occasionally and which deserves continued applause: the fact that Paramount's DVDs almost always include subtitles for their supplements. This is true for both the "Retrospective" and the featurette. Not only do we get text for the onscreen dialogue, but these are also pretty complete. No paraphrasing here -almost every word appears in the subtitles, and even "uh"s make the cut! I really appreciate the extra effort Paramount put into this aspect of their supplements; such accurate subtitles are a very classy and thoughtful touch.

Later films in the same "satanic horror" genre would surpass the quality of Rosemary's Baby, but the film makes for a creepy and effective experience nonetheless. The movie lacks overt scares but works nicely on a psychological level and is likely to get under your skin. The DVD provides slightly flawed but pretty solid picture and sound plus a couple of interesting extras. Fans of this sort of subdued chiller should enjoy Rosemary's Baby.

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