Roman Polanski made his American debut with “Rosemary’s Baby,” a slow-burn of a thriller that started a filmmaking trend throughout the 1970s with themes about the supernatural and black magic. The director was already known throughout Europe for his exquisitely manufactured work in “Repulsion” and “Knife In The Water,” but American audiences were unprepared for the auteur’s creative and highly stylistic approach for generating suspense. A straightforward plot concerning a young woman’s suspicions of her husband and neighbours is made into an unsettling and often mind-bending trip through paranoia and terror. Part of the radical filmmaking techniques growing at the time, which we today refer to as “New Wave” and the “New Hollywood,” Polanski’s camerawork is both simplistic and wildly inventive, depending of course on the particular scene taking place, but it’s disturbingly effective because through its simplicity we see a world that’s off-kilter and full of dark secrets.
For me, “Rosemary’s Baby” is one of the first to open my eyes to the deliberateness of filmmakers and the techniques used for manipulating the frame as well as the audience. The film has us thinking on what we see versus what we hear or know, the visual information we take in, how we interpret the behaviour of others and our ability to judge those behaviours sanely.
When characters go to another room, they’re just outside of the frame and out of our field of view. We tilt our heads to the side in hopes of gaining a better perspective. We are slowly being drawn into the narrative on a bizarrely but masterfully subconscious level. The quirky, sprightly next-door neighbour Minnie (marvelously played by Ruth Gordon) goes to the Woodhouse’s bedroom to use the phone, partially obscured by doorframe. And because we already feel a bit awkward towards her, we want to get a better look at what she’s doing in there, thus increasing our suspicion of her in small increments. It’s incredibly subtle, but so beautifully delivered.
Towards the end of the dinner date with the Castevets, the conversation between Guy (John Cassavetes) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer) is interrupted by Rosemary (Mia Farrow) wanting to go home and sleep. Guy’s expression, which seems to be one of amazement and disbelief, is easy to overlook, but pay closer attention and it is clear there’s something amiss about whatever discussion the two man were having.
We also learn from that sequence that Rosemary is a very observant person, pointing out the missing picture frames inside the Castevets home — a small bit of information which we later return to in the conclusion. She pinpoints a funny, powdery aftertaste in the chocolate mousse Minnie made, and she confines in her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) that the old couple are not only odd but also nosy. Ironically, her perceptiveness and attention to detail, which can be argued as virtues of an intelligent, independent thinker, fail to save her from what’s come, a horrifying truth that was hidden and manipulated from her view much in the same way Polanski does to his audience.
Starting with the disquietingly simplistic, black-and-vomit-green poster, we are clued into this idea on our sense of sight and of the things hidden from our view. A traditional pram, almost stereotypical of motherhood and of newborns, sits atop a dangerous rocky hill that creepily resembles a woman’s pregnant belly. The image is startling and bleak to say the least, but one that not only asks in the tagline to pray for the heroine’s child but also invites us to look deeper into this macabre tale of motherhood and the dangers surrounding the expecting mother.
As portrayed so superbly by Farrow, Rosemary seems strong of mind despite seeming awkwardly weak, timid and fragile on the outside. She’s an unquestionably supportive wife to Guy, an actor growing impatient waiting for his big break and who shows sign of an unstable temper. Nevertheless, Rosemary is dutifully forgiving and loyal, attentive to his whims and outbursts, caressing his ego while she suffers in agonising pain the first few months of her pregnancy. He shows a bit concern here and there, but ultimately, the discussion always comes back to his needs. For all intents and purposes, Rosemary is the ideal wife who sadly forgoes many of her needs for the sake of her husband.
On the surface, the suspense and thrills comes largely from Rosemary slowly discovering her husband has made a pact with the devil and a coven of Satan-worshipping witches. On a deeper level, the scares and terror come from our heroine directed and subjugated into serving a defined role, even at the cost of humanity’s future. It’s a subject matter only hinted at but further explored by Ira Levin, whose novel this film is based on, in his later book “The Stepford Wives.” “Rosemary’s Baby” is a skilled and exquisitely directed film of psychological terror by one of the great masters of the genre. (My Movie Rating: 4.5/5)
THE IMAGE QUALITY
This video presentation is a significant improvement to previous DVD and Laserdisc releases, which while acceptable for their format were also pretty unsatisfying. Here, the cinematography of William A. Fraker, with its subtle soft focus effect, can be better appreciated and admired, creating a dreamy, fantasy-like atmosphere for three-quarters of the movie. Once the baby is born, the effect goes away. Nevertheless, the picture is terrifically detailed with clean, distinct lines in the hair of actors, in the threading of the costumes and the sterile interiors of the Woodhouse’s apartment. Facial complexions come with a natural, life-like hue and excellent revealing texture. When other characters tell Rosemary she looks terrible, she really does appear pale, fatigued and sickly.
Contrast doesn’t have much pop to it, but it’s well-balanced and stable with plenty of visibility and clarity in the far distance. Black levels are accurate and true with discernible shadow details. The palette leans more towards the softer pastel hues, but colours overall are cleanly-rendered and warm. A ultra-fine layer of grain washes over the image, giving the high-def presentation a splendid cinematic quality fans are sure to love. (Video Rating: 4.5/5)
THE AUDIO QUALITY
“Rosemary’s Baby” also makes its way to Blu-ray with a splendid uncompressed PCM mono track which was also remastered from the original 35mm magnetic soundtrack.
From the opening moments, we can immediately hear the difference as the music of Krzysztof Komeda fills the air with a creepy, demonic-like lullaby chant. The soundstage feels broad and all-encompassing, creating a wide imaging that’s highly engaging and also disturbingly hypnotic. Each note and timbre is distinct with superb separation. The mid-range remains cleanly dynamic as a few scenes with higher frequencies maintain their even sharpness with surprising clarity that penetrates deep into the room. Dialogue is crystal clear and precise, making every quiver, insecurity and jittery tone in Farrow’s delivery perfectly heard. There’s an appreciable low-end that adds a welcomed weight and depth to the music without seeming forced or artificial. (Audio Rating: 4.5/5)
DIGGING INTO THE SUPPLEMENTS
Unfortunately we aren’t treated to anything – absolutely nothing at all. Not even a measly trailer, which is a great shame as even the Region 4 standard definition DVD had two making-of documentaries included. The most disappointing factor is that our U.S. neighbours get 3 extensive featurettes (and a booklet) included in their release. (Special Features Rating: 0/5)
One of the great masterpieces of horror and suspense is also Roman Polanski’s American debut. It’s a macabre tale of the supernatural and black magic, started a film trend throughout the 1970s, and also made the Polish auteur into a respected name. It’s an involving and frightening story based on Ira Levin’s novel about the secret lives of neighbours and the paranoid suspicions of one young woman played terrifically by Mia Farrow. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation. This Blu-Ray is a must-own for cinephiles and horror fans alike. It’s just a damn shame none of the enticing special features from it’s counterpart Blu-ray releases were included. (Overall Blu-ray Disc Rating: 3.5/5)