There have been countless movies that were either so shocking, or just captured the zeitgeist of the culture so well that they became “must see” events. After a few years have passed, we may go back to them and wonder just what all the fuss was about in the first place. This is definitely not the case with Rosemary’s Baby (1968). It was the American debut of Roman Polanski, who was chosen to direct based on the high quality of his previous works, especially Repulsion (1965). He certainly lived up to his reputation, as the new two-DVD Criterion Collection edition of Rosemary’s Baby makes very clear.
One of the most important decisions Polanski made was to bring Ira Levin’s novel to the screen with almost no changes to the story at all. In fact, there are entire pages of dialogue from the book that were incorporated verbatim into the script. This is almost unheard of, as almost every film adaptation of a popular novel is altered in some way or another.
The central event of the story comes with what is presented as either a dream, or a horrifying rape for young wife Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). She and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) have just moved into a highly coveted apartment in the historic Bramford building in Manhattan. Their neighbors are the eccentric, but seemingly harmless Castevets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon).
Shortly after meeting the Castevets, Guy lands a role in a play when the actor who was originally cast suddenly and inexplicably goes blind.
Thanks to this uptick in their fortunes, the Woodhouses decide it is time to have a child. During a party, Rosemary passes out, and has vague memories of some sort of a ritual, and of being violated. The scene is so hazy though, she is unsure, although as it is happening she cries out “This is no dream; this is real!” When she wakes up, she finds scratches on her body. Guy explains that he had intercourse with her while she was unconscious because he did not want to pass up the moment for her to conceive.
Both the book and film have always been categorized in the horror genre. I will not argue with this, but the nods to classic suspense movies, especially those of Alfred Hitchcock, cannot be denied. Rosemary's strange behavior after the rape is where I first noticed this. When she is alone, she engages in strange behavior, such as eating raw meat, and does not even seem to realize what she is doing. With the camera perched just over her shoulder, Polanski achieves a truly creepy sense of voyeurism, recalling that of Rear Window (1954).
Even more pronounced is the claustrophobic nature of so many scenes. With the majority of the action taking place in the building, this feeling of being in an enclosed space is a major factor. But with the unease one already feels about what happened to Rosemary during the party, the tightness of the rooms becomes even more pronounced. Whether intentional or not, I could not help but to be reminded of Hitchcock’s brilliant Rope (1948). The music in many of the scenes (by Krysztof Komeda as Christopher Komeda) uncannily recalls that of Bernard Hermann’s for Psycho (1960). Finally, even though it came directly from Levin’s book, the couple’s friend’s name Hutch (Maurice Evans) is certainly an interesting coincidence, as one of Hitchcock‘s nicknames was “Hitch.”
Coincidence is what has lifted Rosemary’s Baby from “merely” a great book and film into the realm of legend. There are just too many to be ignored. None of them had anything directly to do with Polanski or anyone else involved, yet they are undeniable. Number one is the tragedy that befell Polanski’s young bride Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson’s “Family” the following year.
In the booklet accompanying the DVD set, there is a reprint of comments Ira Levin made in the afterword to the 2003 New American Library edition of Rosemary’s Baby: “The success of Rosemary’s Baby inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?”
An intriguing question, to be sure. There are also plenty of unanswered, and unanswerable questions posed in the bonus-packed second DVD. Having watched a number of Criterion Collection features, I must say that the Rosemary’s Baby extras are among the company’s finest efforts.
There are two full-length documentaries included, plus a lengthy audio interview. The first feature is “Remembering Rosemary’s Baby” (46:00), which contains interviews conducted in the spring of 2012 with Polanski, Farrow, and producer Robert Evans. There are some fantastic recollections and stories in this piece, and it really is a “must see” for fans of the film.
Komeda, Komeda (70:00) is a documentary produced in 2012 for Polish television, which tells the fascinating story of the film’s composer. The life of Komeda (1931-1969) makes for an intoxicating tale, and it is one I would never have known about had it not been for this sub-titled bonus feature. The third piece is an audio-only recording of Leopold Lopate interviewing Ira Levin on radio station WNYC in September 1997.
Rosemary’s Baby remains an excellent piece of work, with some wonderful stylistic flourishes brought to it by Roman Polanski. Accolades included a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Ruth Gordon, and it also launched the very successful producing career for Robert Evans.
It is no stretch to say that the picture took on a life of its own (no pun intended) as well. One of these is the urban legend that the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, was not only a consultant, but actaully played "the devil" who impregnated Rosemary. For anyone who ever wondered what all the fuss has been about, this release should set the record straight. Rosemary’s Baby is a masterful film, and the new Criterion Collection edition presents it in an outstanding package.