Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy
Director:  Roman Polanski
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Interviews, Production Featurette
Length:  136 Minutes
Release Date:  October 3, 2000

Film ****

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby has been hailed by some critics as the greatest horror film of all time.  Others have called it anti-horror.  There is truth in both camps.

Based on the popular novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby proved to be material for a unique kind of horror picture:  one that took horror out of its common settings and brought it right into the most wholesome and sacred of groups, the family.  A young, loving couple just starting out in New York, Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow) and her struggling actor husband Guy (Cassavetes) move into a new apartment.  The former tenant had died, leaving behind a mess of a botanical garden and hand scrawled notes of despair.  A large secretary, for unexplained reason, had been moved to block a door that led to the next door unit.

Soon the young couple are settling in, with Rosemary even making friends with a young woman who lives next door as a guest of an elderly couple.  She wears a strange good luck charm, filled with a malodorous root.  Her attitude toward the old couple seems happy and loving, so no one can quite figure out why she kills herself by jumping from the high window.

This unfortunate circumstance leads the Woodhouses to meet the next door couple, Minnie and Ramon Castevet (Gordon and Blackmer).  They seem like the typically sweet old couple.  Minnie brings over baked goods for Rosemary, and wonders aloud about the price of her furniture.  She even gives Rosemary the odd smelling talisman to wear for luck.  Guy strikes up a friendship with them, particularly since Ramon expresses a belief that Guy’s run of no work might end soon.

Guy and Rosemary decide to try for a baby, but something strange occurs on that night…a somewhat ill Rosemary is taken to bed, where she experiences strange visions of a ship at sea, a somber gallery of onlookers, and a bed partner with inhuman eyes.  The next day, she is pregnant, and Guy has landed a dream part when a leading actor mysteriously becomes stricken blind.

The Castevets take a keen interest in Rosemary’s baby, right down to arranging for her to see one of the most reputed doctors in town, Abe Sapirstein (Bellamy).  But things don’t seem to be going well.  She’s in almost constant pain, and seems to be losing, rather than gaining, weight.  After an old friend, Hutch (Evans) becomes concerned, he does a little research and asks for a meeting with Rosemary.  He never makes it there, after slipping into a mysterious coma.

Eventually, Rosemary comes into possession of the book Hutch wanted her to have, a strange volume entitled “All of Them Witches”.  What she reads begins to fuel her imagination and her sense of horror.  Could Minnie and Ramon, the sweet elderly next door neighbors, actually be part of a coven?  Did they arrange for Guy to have success in exchange for the baby she’s carrying in order to use it in their rituals?

Part of what makes Polanski’s film anti-horror and horrific at the same time is the way he allows our imaginations run wild with Rosemary.  Everything she fears makes sense according to what both she and we, the audience, learn along the way.  But then again, it could all be mere hysteria, especially when Polanski allows us time to contemplate how insane the allegations sound.

Eventually, a terrified Rosemary tries to break away from Guy, her doctor, and the Castevets, but to no avail.  Her baby is coming, and what the end result will be we can’t guess any more than she can, although if you’ve never read the book or seen the film before, the finale will come as quite a jolt.

Like The Blair Witch Project would do many years later, Rosemary’s Baby is the kind of film that finds terror in the things it doesn’t show us, rather than the things it does.  With a taut, careful structure, Polanski guides us through his film as though it were going to be a simple film about a loving young couple expecting a baby, and then slowly lets the horror in via unraveling paranoia, well placed clues, and allowing time for our imaginations to run wild.  It’s extremely effective, particularly since, at the time, horror films always relied on setting and location, plus darkness and shadow, to achieve effect.  This is a sunny, well lit, authentic New York apartment location with no attempts to bring expressionistic effects into the visuals.  It’s a completely homey, relaxed, normal setting, which makes the horror even more unsettling, because when it appears, it seems so out of place.  The Exorcist would follow many of these same cues a decade later, with equal effectiveness.

It’s hard to know whether most modern audiences, weaned on slasher flicks, will find Rosemary’s Baby as scary as moviegoers of the time did, or whether they would even have the patience for this style of film, that relies on a slow, steady unraveling of the nerves rather than shock and sudden scares to achieve its purpose.  All I know is, as much as I love horror, Rosemary’s Baby is one I always love to come back to, and always find it effective.  It’s much more intelligent than the average entry into the genre, and becomes the kind of picture you can watch repeatedly.  Many clues are subtle and easy to miss.  The more you understand the film, the more you can pick up on the tiny instances of foreshadowing and visual cues.  I’ve seen the picture a number of times, and still find new things to discover and discuss each time I watch it.

The film has also had its share of detractors over the years, starting with the Wiccans, who, like with Blair Witch, claim a gross misrepresentation in the picture.  The Catholic Church loathed the film, not because it was a horror film, but because they felt it didn’t really address the subject of Satan and evil with any real knowledge or attempt to deal with it seriously. 

Others, in later years, expressed awe at the ugly irony of the events that took place in Roman Polanski’s life not long after the release of the film.  He made a picture about a pregnant woman tormented by an evil group, and soon after, his pregnant girlfriend Sharon Tate would fall victim to the brutal Manson family murders.  Even greater irony?  Charles Manson claimed he received the inspiration to murder from the Beatles’ White Album.  A decade later, former Beatle John Lennon would be shot to death by Mark David Chapman…right in front of the building where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed.  Is that a coincidence, or are there forces at play in our simple existence that we don’t know about, too?

Video ***

Overall, for an older film, I was impressed with Paramount’s anamorphic transfer.  The image isn’t perfect, nor could it reasonably expected to be, but still, a lot cleaner, with better coloring, and a wider image than previous VHS releases.  The picture occasionally shows its age by some bits of dirt and debris and other spots, but again, not in abundance.  Overall, I found the coloring has held up very well, particularly with Polanski’s deliberate use of natural and non-stylized lighting to keep his subject matter grounded.  I noticed no evidence of compression or undue grain throughout.  All in all, a worthwhile effort.

Audio **1/2

The 2 channel Dolby mono mix is perfectly adequate…one of the reasons the film may have earned the term “anti-horror” is because of the general lack of dynamics on the soundtrack.  This is natural and purposeful, as Polanski didn’t create a film with gimmicky effects or sudden loud noises.  Dialogue is clean and clear, as are the limited use of sound effects and music.  No complaints.

Features **

The disc contains some modern interview segments with Polanski, production executive Robert Evans and production designer Richard Sylbert, plus a making-of featurette that was made at the time of filming.


Will Rosemary’s Baby frighten you?  Possibly.  Even if it doesn’t, there’s enough at play in this Roman Polanski masterpiece to keep you involved, unnerved, and captivated for the duration.  I do consider it one of horror’s all time best, and certainly one of the most important and unique, and even if its power to terrify has diminished, its significance certainly hasn’t.