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Rosemary's Baby: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Rosemary's Baby (1968) movie poster Rosemary's Baby

Theatrical Release: June 12, 1968 / Running Time: 137 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Roman Polanski / Writers: Ira Levin (novel), Roman Polanski (screenplay)

Cast: Mia Farrow (Rosemary Woodhouse), John Cassavetes (Guy Woodhouse), Ruth Gordon (Minnie Castevet), Sidney Blackmer (Roman Castevet), Maurice Evans (Edward "Hutch" Hutchins), Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Abraham Sapirstein), Angela Dorian (Terry Gionoffrio), Patsy Kelly (Laura-Louise), Elisha Cook Jr. (Mr. Nicklas), Emmaline Henry (Elise Dunstan), Charles Grodin (Dr. C.C. Hill), Hanna Landy (Grace Cardiff), Phil Leeds (Dr. Shand), D'Urville Martin (Diego), Hope Summers (Mrs. Gilmore), Marianne Gordon (Rosemary's Girl Friend), Wende Wagner (Rosemary's Girl Friend), Tony Curtis (voice of Donald Baumgart - uncredited), Clay Tanner (Devil - uncredited)

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When it comes to what is upheld as the all-time benchmarks, horror is more cleanly divided into eras than other genres.
You've got the classics -- Nosferatu and the earliest Universal Monsters -- which are considered sacred, but are old enough to leave many a present-day viewer cold. At the opposite end chronologically, you have today's new fare, which can be highly popular and immediately influential, but requires a minimum of ten to fifteen years of distance to really determine its worth, thus eliminating anything recent from contention. Then there is the line-blurring boundary, which casts doubt over great films like The Sixth Sense and certain Alfred Hitchcock works, which can be plenty frightening, but are often more readily classified as "thrillers."

In between the very old and the very new is horror's hot spot, an era that includes many of the genre's most revered and least disputed entries. In this class are the likes of The Shining, The Exorcist, Halloween, Alien, Carrie, The Thing, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Spanning from what I'd consider the beginning of modern film (the late 1960s) to somewhere around the mid-1980s, such films are not so aged as to predate the general public or to limit their accessibility, but they've been around long enough to be embraced by multiple generations and accepted as not just thrilling entertainment but exceptional art by many authorities in film.

One of the most highly regarded horror films ever made appeared near the beginning of this fruitful period: Rosemary's Baby. Next week, on the eve of Halloween, this 1968 release adapted and directed by Roman Polanski, becomes one of the few horror films admitted into the Criterion Collection. That symbol of prestige is rarely applied to a genre American blockbuster, but then Rosemary's Baby isn't your typical genre American blockbuster.

Before Ira Levin's novel of the same name was even published, its film rights were optioned by William Castle, director of such films as House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and The Tingler. Rather than having Castle direct, Paramount Pictures, under the new leadership of young, brazen head of production Robert Evans, would make this the American film debut and first adaptation of Polanski, who had made some waves with his debut, the Oscar-nominated Knife in the Water in his native Poland, and three subsequent British thrillers.

Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) inspects the foul-smelling tannis root necklace she has been given by her neighbors. The Castevets, Minnie (Oscar-winning supporting actress Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), waste no time extending a dinner invitation.

Rosemary's Baby centers on the Woodhouses, a young married couple that moves into a seventh floor apartment in the Bramford, an old Manhattan building with some dark history. Struggling theatre and television actor Guy (John Cassavetes) and his homemaker wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) brighten up their spacious new home and are generally happy with it. They're a bit reluctant to accept a dinner invitation from the elderly couple that lives next door, but Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) are friendly hosts, if a tad eccentric.

The Woodhouses decide that they are ready to procreate for the first time. Conception is quick to occur, though it does so under strange circumstances; Rosemary has been impregnated while unconscious, under the weather, and dreaming of unsettling images involving the Castevets and others. She awakens with scratches on her arm and back and Guy offering a half-hearted apology. Sure enough, the baby is due in late June and the Castevets begin taking unusual interest in the pregnancy, insisting that Rosemary switch obstetricians from young "dreamboy" Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin in his film debut) to their dear friend Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). He extends a discount, discards Dr. Hill's prescribed pills, and advises Rosemary to take a daily herbal drink supplied by the nosy Minnie from her in-home garden.

Something is off with the pregnancy, as Rosemary begins losing weight and experiencing severe abdominal pain around the clock. Dr. Sapirstein insists she is fine, but Rosemary has her doubts and she is increasingly disturbed by how little say she has in her treatment, with Guy and the Castevets giving curiously rigid orders.

Of course, writing this 45 years after Levin's novel was published and 44 after Polanski's movie was released and widely seen, chances are that the phrase "Rosemary's baby" already means something to you. If not, then you are in luck as the movie allows its mystery to unfold slowly and with plenty of ambiguity. Is Rosemary just paranoid, delusional, and losing her mind from "prepartum crazies"? Or are sinister forces truly conspiring against her and her unborn first child?

Rosemary's abdominal pains come to an immediate stop as she is talking to Guy (John Cassavetes) one night. Rosemary consults Scrabble tiles to uncover a meaningful cautionary Anagram.

Definitive answers to these compelling questions do eventually come, but the movie takes its time getting there, allowing us to enjoy the delicious, intriguing atmosphere of this potentially horrific scenario. Despite the uncontested classification and prominent implications, the movie actually contains very little traditional or supernatural horror. Faithfully adapted from Levin's book, this is primarily a domestic tale of a young woman's pregnancy. That may not sound relatable or terribly interesting, but it proves to be a perfectly poignant setting for psychological terror.

Polanski heightens the tension with his use of long takes and a moving camera. So much time and effort goes to establishing the Woodhouses as a real, humorous ordinary couple, creating sympathy and genuine stakes for what is to come.
Most horror movies these days are eager to expedite and minimize character development to get to the fear and carnage. There is unquestionably an audience for those kinds of films. It's just unlikely that they or anyone else will still be passionately talking about them over forty years later. The horror films from Rosemary's era, effective works like The Exorcist, Jaws, and The Shining, and the better ones of our time (e.g. The Ring, Paranormal Activity), are in no rush to startle you. They wisely realize that without sufficient groundwork, there is no way they'll be able to get under your skin and truly creep you out. What you get proves to be a lot more disturbing than the sight of a blade penetrating realistic-looking flesh.

Acting elevates Rosemary's Baby considerably. A three-time Oscar nominee for writing in the late '40s and early '50s, Ruth Gordon won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress here, a rare instance of prominent horror film recognition. She enlivens her every scene with loud personality and ample humanity, but there is no question that the movie belongs to Mia Farrow. A two-season veteran of the primetime soap opera "Peyton Place", Farrow was quite new to film. That shows a bit in her unnatural delivery in early exchanges. Nonetheless, Farrow commits to the part when it counts, conveying believable reactions to unthinkable possibilities and carrying a lot of the film, even nonverbally. She picked up a third Golden Globe nomination (her first for a film), but went unrecognized by the Academy.

I suspect 1968's Oscars are ones that the Academy now wishes it could go back and correct. The films from that year that people still remember and exalt, like this one, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes, were largely shut out of the top honors in favor of the prevailing forms of the day, musicals and epics. Perhaps if films like Oliver! and Romeo and Juliet had been overlooked then, they would be more appreciated today. But it seems more like the Academy gets attached to certain forms and then is slow to celebrate the less familiar and more inventive. A film like Rosemary's Baby was announcing the arrival of New Hollywood, which, catching up to the public, the awards would warm to over the next few years.

One of the few Paramount titles licensed to Criterion, Rosemary's Baby makes its Blu-ray debut alongside its first two-disc DVD edition, each given spine number 630.

Rosemary's Baby: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
1.0 LPCM Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Polish Extra Subtitled in English
Release Date: October 30, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP)
Still available as 1-Disc Paramount DVD ($8.99 SRP; October 3, 2000)
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

There was no way that Criterion would treat a film this major and a production this significant to a less than satisfactory Blu-ray and gladly, they do not. Rosemary's Baby looks terrific, likely as good as it ever has and as good as current technology allows. The 1.85:1 presentation offers a spotless element and good definition. The picture is a bit soft and sometimes grainy, but I'm sure that both qualities are true to the film's original and intended look.

You'd think this film would have been treated to a 5.1-channel remix, but Paramount didn't do that in 2000 and Criterion still doesn't bother now. True to its theatrical exhibitions, Rosemary's Baby is presented monaurally. The uncompressed 1.0 LCPM soundtrack is crisper than you'd expect, level, and always perfectly intelligible. Typical for Criterion, English subtitles are offered on the film.

Mia Farrow provides an actor's perspective in Criterion's 2012 documentary "Remembering 'Rosemary's Baby.'" A young Roman Polanski frames a shot with his hands in behind-the-scenes footage from "Remembering 'Rosemary's Baby."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Criterion gives Rosemary's Baby fewer bonus features than you would expect for a film of its stature.
Just three items are included here, each substantial and each presented in high definition.

First and most significant is "Remembering Rosemary's Baby" (46:54), a newly-produced Criterion documentary that interviews Robert Evans, Mia Farrow, and Roman Polanski. Their complementary perspectives yield a nice and thorough reflection on the film, which is spiced up by plenty of behind-the-scenes photos and silent clips from production. Among the most notable topics touched upon are Frank Sinatra's effect on filming (serving Farrow divorce papers on the set), John Cassavetes' clashes with Polanski, shooting the trippy fantasy sequences, and Farrow's Catholic faith shaping her experience.

Next, we get the audio from Ira Levin's September 1997 appearance on WNYC's New York and Company (19:21). Over a single publicity photo, the author discusses his then-new sequel Son of Rosemary, the original novel, and the film adaptations of his books. It's a most enjoyable chat.

An article discusses Krzysztof Komeda's Sekstet Komedy in "Komeda Komeda", but it's all Polish to me. A central swatch of the poster/cover art's carriage becomes the Blu-ray's menu accompanied by Rosemary's lullaby.

"Komeda Komeda" (1:10:43) is a 2012 Polish television documentary celebrating the life and work of Krzysztof Komeda. Before it gets to his efforts as score composer of Rosemary's Baby and other Polanski films, Komeda's work as a jazz musician gets forty minutes of our attention. Classmates, relatives, fellow Polish musicians, and Polanski share their memories and admiration.

It's a well-produced piece, revisiting his schools and hometown, but unless you're familiar with Poland or fond of Komeda, this will feel about an hour too long. It's almost entirely in Polish with optional English subtitles (a few English interviewers are translated with burned-in Polish subs).

Two extras from Paramount's one and only 2000 DVD release of the film do not appear here: the 23-minute making-of featurette "Mia and Roman" and a 17-minute retrospective with filmmaker interviews. Without having seen them, I can only guess that the new documentary would render them slightly superfluous.

This release does feel a bit rushed for such a high-profile Criterion debut, from the lack of an audio commentary and even the typically included trailer to the use of plain old poster art for the cover and menu.

That menu simply plays Rosemary's opening and closing song once over a portion of the green and black one-sheet's design. As always, Criterion equips the disc with bookmarks and resume capabilities.

At least we can count on Criterion to provide not only an insert but the kind with something to say. In addition to the usual film, disc, and transfer information, the tastefully illustrated 30-page booklet provides "It's Alive!", a brand new essay from Ed Park that contextualizes and analyzes the film. It also shares "Stuck with Satan", the afterword that author Ira Levin attached to the book's 2003 printing which explains the story's origins and how Levin worked out the dates using real events from 1965-66. Finally, Levin's estate shares previously unpublished items from the late author: a floor plan for Apartment 7-E and two typewritten pages describing each of the Woodhouses: their histories, religious and political affiliations at most hinted in the film. It's a terrific companion.

An anxious Rosemary (Mia Farrow) tries to get in touch with her original obstetrician.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of one of the greatest horror movies ever made prompts celebration and sky-high expectations. In light of that, Rosemary's Baby feels a little light on extras given Criterion's reputation and high list price. Still, on the basis of the outstanding feature presentation, enduring film, and the studio's always appreciated standard touches, this disc is easy to recommend buying and easy to recommend for a Halloween night viewing.

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Related Reviews:
New: The Raven • The Hole • Mad Monster Party • DreamWorks Spooky Stories • Dark Shadows
Directed by Roman Polanski: Chinatown | Mia Farrow: The Muppets Valentine Show • New York Stories • The Last Unicorn
The Films of 1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey • Planet of the Apes • The Odd Couple • Barbarella • Once Upon a Time in the West
The Cabin in the Woods • The Ring • Orphan • Pet Sematary • Insidious • Paranormal Activity 3 • The Last Exorcism
The Shining • Jaws • Rebecca • North by Northwest • Cujo • Poltergeist • Arachnophobia
Criterion Thrills: Island of Lost Souls • The Game • La Jetée • Shallow Grave
Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winners: The Help • The Fighter • Chicago • Ghost • Dreamgirls

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Reviewed October 24, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1968 Paramount Pictures and 2012 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.