By Steve Vivona
Paramount, $29.95, Widescreen
As the years go by we have fewer and fewer classic horror films. Looking at the 30s and 40s they seem to be endless with films like "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "Bride of Frankenstein" and all the rest of the Universal pantheon. In the 50s Hammer Studios started their cycle of horror classics, but the 60s gave way to a disturbing trend of gore and shock that in my estimation ruined the genre, with the exception of a few gems (I can hear Ray screaming at me already!) "Rosemary's Baby" is one of the most chilling of the latter-day classics and not one ounce of blood is spilled onscreen.
Let me also say that I've been known to enjoy some of the gore classics of the 80s and 90s, but those films (like "Evil Dead," "Dead Alive," "Nightmare on Elm Street") had something going for them other than the gore. They were either hilariously over-the-top or they had an innovative story line with true suspense laced together with the violence.
Back to the film at hand. Polish director Roman Polanski made a name for himself directing some truly terrifiying European suspense films such as "Repulsion" starring Catherine Denueve. "The Fearless Vampire Killers," a satire of classic horror films, brought him to the attention of Robert Evans, then head of Paramount, who tapped him to direct "Rosemary's Baby."
Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavettes and Mia Farrow) are happy young newlyweds moving in to their first apartment. The pair are befriended by Minnie and Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) an eccentric older couple who soon begin paying Rosemary a great deal of unwanted attention. After a young woman who lived with them commits suicide Rosemary soon becomes wary of her new neighbors.
Guy begins spending a lot of time with Minnie and Roman and Rosemary cannot understand the appeal they hold for him. Rosemary soon discovers she is pregnant and Minnie and Roman start lavishing even more attention on her, going so far as to get her a new doctor and coming up with special meal plans.
As Guy becomes more distant Rosemary begins investigating their new friends and the history of the building they live in. To her horror she learns that her building was a haven for covens that practiced devil worship. In a frenzy Rosemary tries to convince others that she is surrounded by devil worshippers but to no avail.
After an agonizing pregnancy Rosemary delivers her child and then attempts to flee. However she is caught and brought back home by her keepers who want her to be a mother to her unholy child.
"Rosemary's Baby" is a masterpiece of subtlety. There are very few blatant shocks as the film builds and builds to its staggering conclusion. The entire film is an exercise in suspense. Is Rosemary crazy? Is she imagining all this? The film doesn't show the audience all its cards until the very end, and it's worth the wait.
Polanski assembled a heavyweight cast of seasoned Hollywood veterans including Gordon (who is perfect in the role), Blackman, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy and many others. Their presence lends a certain credibility to the film it may not have had in lesser hands. At the time Mia Farrow was best known for her role in the television series "Peyton Place" and I'm sure the depth of her performance surprised many. John Cassavettes, who is remembered primarily for his directing, gives a chilling performance as Guy, a man so obsessed with success he's willing to do anything.
"Rosemary's Baby" was produced at a time when Hollywood was becoming more permissive and it could never have been made otherwise. Compared to "The Exorcist" it's tame, but there are themes here that were taboo only a few years before. Eight years later "The Omen" would delve into similar territory and while it's a great film it relies too much on violent imagery. The only truly graphic scene in "Rosemary's Baby" is the supposed "rape scene" where Rosemary is impregnated with the seed of the devil (which could all be a dream).
Paramounts DVD of "Rosemary's Baby" is a welcome release but something of a missed opportunity. The transfer is flawless with a remastered widescreen image that looks the best it ever has. Colors are strong and the image is sharp with very little grain. The original sound mix has been punched up a bit (as many of you can tell I'm more of a picture than a sound guy. I don't have the kind of sound system necessary to really put a disc through the motions!)
Paramount has certainly learned that its important to collectors that there be supplements along with the films. With "Rosemary's Baby" they've included new interviews with Robert Evans, Roman Polanski and production designer Robert Sylbert. The featurette, while engaging, is only 17 minutes long. Was Farrow even contacted for an interview? This film needs at least an hour to be dissected fully. Why not tap Polanski for a commentary? He's done several others and this is probably his most important film. They didn't even include a trailer.
The other featurette is a truly bizarre piece of 60s kitch entitled "Roman and Mia." About 20 minutes in length, the documentary is typical of the PR stuff churned out then. Both Polanski and Farrow are interviewed about the making of the film and their working relationship. Their comments are heard over behind the scenes production footage. Farrow's comments are truly off the wall and it's obvious she was immersed in the flower child/hippie subculture of the time.
As I said Paramount is learning but this is a film that cries out for more. A commentary, a longer documentary and anything else they could unearth should have been included. Still just the fact it's available on DVD in a gorgeous transfer makes it a must have, meager supplements and all.