Stars: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer, Victoria Vetri, Maurice Evans
Director: Roman Polanski
1968 Released by Criterion
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Almost everything that Ira Levin wrote became a hit movie. His books, A Kiss Before Dying, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil, Sliver and his play Deathtrap all received first class productions on the screen. Two of them even got the remake treatment. When Roman Polanski set out to adapt the book, it’s no wonder that so much of Levin’s rich cinematic descriptions and dialogue wound up almost verbatim on the screen. In one of Ira Levin’s essays about the movie he wondered if Polanski even knew that he was allowed to make any changes when he adapted it. The other element that contributed so much to the enduring success of the movie was the casting. Polanski states in his recent interview included with the disc that with the exception of the leads, he drew sketches of all the characters and Paramount’s casting department sent him actors that looked just like what he had in mind. Mia Farrow turned in a performance as Rosemary that became the highlight of her career. Ruth Gordon who walks away with any scene she is in won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her memorable role as Minnie Castavets.
The other bit of casting that stands out so strongly from the movie was the decision to use the landmark New York City building The Dakota as Ira Levin’s The Bramford. This very old Upper West Side edifice dates back to the late 1800s. Most people associate it with John Lennon, his life with Yoko there and his tragic death at the entrance. However The Dakota for many years served as a residence for lots of actors and artists. The huge imposing gothic building hold courts at the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street. The Germanic influence can be seen in the marvelous architecture. But most important to horror movie fans was the fact the Monster himself, Boris Karloff maintained an apartment there. Many of the old apartment houses there had small fenced in cubicles for storage in the basements. A trip to do the laundry would go through a maze of these until the laundry room was discovered in yet another wire fenced housing. Lots of films are shot in New York but to get that kind of detail into one of the first scenes in the film while Rosemary talks to Terry as she does laundry is the mark of the kind of fantastic and thorough production design that permeates this film. While The Dakota served for the exteriors intricate sets were constructed to portray the large and spacious apartments found inside. The very first person that Polanski asked for for his crew was the production designer Richard Sylbert who just came off of The Graduate and Cool Hand Luke. Sylbert would work with the director again on Chinatown. His design here accounts for so much of the feel of the film. Those old hallways, the decorations and furniture in the Castavets apartment and that creepy passageway that Rosemary discovers are all his work.
Rosemary’s Baby is a stunning horror film. The book was a huge bestseller that seemed to tap into the public’s fear of witches and the devil. The occult and Satanism became a big hook for the story. The young couple Guy and Rosemary Woodehouse move in and in short order the peculiar old couple Minnie and Roman Castevets have them over for dinner. They become fast friends. Guy’s acting career suddenly picks up and Rosemary gets pregnant. Only she begins to suspect that something is going wrong with her baby.. That’s where the story works its real magic over the audience. We’re left to try and figure out if there really is a coven of witches in the Bramford that has chosen Rosemary to carry this child for them. On the other hand, Rosemary has grown incredibly paranoid. Does her body belong to her anymore? Is she descending into a psychological nightmare of her own making? The ending works so well, no matter how you choose to take the story. The insidious ways that Ruth Gordon’s character Minnie controls things are a delight to behold. She is one of the kookiest characters. She dresses in bold outrageous colors, her hair often tied up in some kind of a Pebbles bow. She is so nosey, so pushy and so charming all in one infectious bundle of energy. Gordon has always been a great actress, but Minnie Castavets outshines all her other roles. That image of her as Rosemary sees her through the peep hole in the door, with that thing in her hair is priceless. And you know she is coming in no matter what, if only for a moment.
The pacing of the film is very well done, drawing you in slowly and surely into Rosemary’s terror. We see the happy young couple setting up house in the Bramford. There’s a tender scene as they have a romantic picnic dinner on the floor of an empty room. John Cassavetes as Guy starts to become obsessed with his acting career as event after event plays out in his favor. Ralph Bellamy as the best doctor in New York keeps reassuring Rosemary through her pregnancy that everything is alright. She gets a book from an old friend that traces the exploits of a satanic coven leader who was chased into the Bramford’s courtyard by a desperate crowd. As her concern grows into abject fear the film keeps us on her track with no deviation. She can’t escape and neither can we. Editor Stan O’Steen is relentless. At one point Rosemary runs in a dead panic down the beautiful sunny streets alongside Central Park. She is literally trapped in a phone booth desperately calling her old doctor. Producer William Castle in a cameo stands impatiently outside. The horror of the devil is loose on the streets of New York City. The maelstrom of evil is palpable. Pregnant Rosemary is under siege whether by her own inner demons or a very real demon. That very last scene in the Castavets apartment is chilling. There is the black bassinet. An old woman is rocking the baby, Rosemary’s baby. Poor shell shocked Rosemary delivers the most unsetting line in the film when she says, “You’re rocking him too fast” Is that truly the devil’s spawn, a miscarriage, or something completely in her head.
Mia Farrow is completely compelling in the film. Her expressive eyes carry so much. She projects a cute very sixties perkiness that contrasts remarkably with her later breakdown. The entire cast is on the money. Director Polanski was apparently at odds with Cassavetes’ improvisation driven acting style, yet the performance works for the film. We start to mistrust him a little and then a lot, as it should be. Sidney Blackmer as Roman is so soothingly seductive. It’s a perfectly realized motion picture. The mainstream success of this occult driven horror film made the entire industry take notice. It has been said that horror films move in cycles. With Rosemary’s Baby that late sixties cycle that eventually begat The Exorcist got a roller coast style jolt. Cult movie fans will be quick to spot Film Noir regular Elisha Cook as the building manager, cigar chomping horror producer William Castle and Hammer film star Victoria Vetri as the doomed Terry. Bonus points go to those who can identify the voice of Baumgarten (the actor who went blind) when Rosemary calls him on the phone. The cover touts that this new Blu-Ray special edition was director approved. It is a very satisfying presentation on all counts. As William Castle himself would have said, Step Right Up!
1.85:1 Criterion’s new 4K resolution presentation taken from the original 35mm camera negative is satisfying on all counts. Colors are richer. The first time we see Minnie and Roman on the street their outlandishly loud clothes stand out like beacons. Mia Farrow’s Mod style costuming comes across wonderfully revealing both color and texture. .I did a quick A/B comparison with the previously released DVD from Paramount and the upgrade is immediately apparent. As Mia Farrow grows paler you can really see her skin tone change. The darker gothic tones of the building both inside and outside still hold a strong filmic quality.
LPCM Mono track in English, subtitles offered in English. Dialogue is very clear. Sound effects play fine with nothing receiving any undue escalation, as it should be. The music by Komeda has that sweet lullaby and a more traditional horror theme. It’s a nice juxtaposition as the lullaby become more and more unsettling as the film goes on.
Booklet with essay and some of Ira Levin’s character sketches and a floor plan as well as his afterward from the 2003 book release. Komeda, Komeda about the jazz artist’s score.
Audio interview with author Ira Levin. The best is a new interview with Polanski, Mia Farrow and producer Robert Evans. Each of them is very articulate and contributes fascinating information and stories. Robert Evans looks like he’s been bronzed but has such a captivating voice and is a great storyteller. Fans of the film will find this feature to be richly rewarding.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Movie – Classic
Blu-Ray – Excellent