One of my pet peeves is the degradation of one of my favorite genres in film, horror. Having been treated at an early age to such traditional masterpieces of the genre defining Universal monster movies of the thirties and forties which were subsequently reinforced by the cult classic creature features of the fifties it is quite disheartening to see what has become of this once proud type of movie. The current state of the scary movies is for the filmmaker to surround himself with gallons of corn syrup colored deep red, several pounds of animal entrails from a local butcher and at least one willing young actress wannabe with a severe lack of modesty and a strong predilection for exhibitionism. This degradation of a classic genre was bad enough but rubbing salt in the wound for diehard fans horror flicks have descended even further to what has aptly been called ‘torture porn,' movies that focus of devising sadistically inventive methods to inflict pain and suffering on hapless victims. What has unfortunately become exceedingly rare are the movies that abjure this purely visceral means to frighten the audience for the psychological thriller approach. The reason is rather obvious; the majority of horror-oriented filmmakers have not cultivated the talent and dedication necessary to accurately achieve the necessary elements to gain access to those dark recesses of the audience’s mind to build the terror slowly. The good news in all of this is DVDs and Blu-rays provided a reason for the studios to release some of the best in traditional horror ever created. One of the definitive psychological horror movies made has not only been given an upgrade to the high-resolution remastering, but it accomplished by the best distributor of culturally significant examples of cinematic arts available; ‘The Criterion Collection.' Among the most recent to earn a place on their exalted list is the 1968 film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. This is a textbook example of what a horror film should be and the approach a filmmaker should strive to accomplish. This piece has earned its place in our collective cultural consciousness and is rightfully ranked both among the best representative of its genre and the craft of cinema in general.
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), was a bright, attractive young woman married to Guy (John Cassavetes). The guy had come to New York City in hopes of pursuing his dream, a career as an actor. While Guy is more at ease in the big city environment, Rosemary remained somewhat naïve in her nature. As the story opens they are looking for a new apartment, one potentially larger enough to start a family. By sure good fortune the find one amazingly spacious and in their price range at the venerable Bramford, a historic Gothic apartment building on the upper east side. The actual building used for exterior shots was the New York City landmark, the ‘The Dakota,' built in the early 1880’s on 72nd Street off Central Park West. In many ways, this location was as much a cast member as any of the actors present in the film. No sooner than they move in then, they meet their overly friendly elderly neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). Rosemary meets another young woman in residence at the Bradford, Terry. Performing this role was by Playboy Playmate, Angela Dorian the nom de voyage of Victoria Vetri, a name used in the dialogue. Terry has nothing but praise for the Castevets relating to Rosemary how they scooped her up from the streets. Around her neck is a strange amulet with a pungent odor derived from the tennis root within it. The filmmaker expertly laid the foundation that would set up a way to lull the audience into a sense of familiar complacency before the director, Roman Polanski. Guy quickly becomes close with the elderly couple as Rosemary continues to settle in. She discovers a large piece of furniture blocking a mysterious doorway. Guy announces they should start a family right away, news well received. Minnie makes a special chocolate mousse in separate portions which the happy couple consumes before going to bed. That night Rosemary has a bizarre dream of being ravaged on while her neighbors, totally naked, look on. Rosemary screams out "This is no dream."
Unless you have been in a vegetative state for the last forty years, you know that sweet little Rosemary tricked into bearing the spawn of the devil, the anti-Christ. Although this was made clearly evident from early on a significant portion of the psychological impact derived here was not so much the destination but the journey that matters. At the time of the original release everyone already knew the ending since the novel the film was based on by Ira Levin, was a New York Times bestseller, hailed as the most popular novel of the sixties. Although his personal life was marred by horrible tragedy and scandalous legal troubles he remains one of the best filmmakers of his generation. His screenplay perfectly captured the intensity and suspense of Levin’s novel to a degree rarely achieved in a screen adaptation. Polanski exhibited a finesse and craftsmanship that places him as a giant of the genre. There is no explosion of horror or splashes of blood filling the screen; Polanski is far more expert for such contrivances. He starts the story off slowly, placing it precisely increasing the terror one degree at a time. The audience is pulled in, not so much to the story but more intimately into the mind of Rosemary. The audience, drawn into the horror through an intimate perspective, is provided a first-person experience of Rosemary’s plight. We share her confusion as Rosemary is forced to face the realization that either she is losing her sanity or she is a pawn in the evil schemes of a satanic coven.
In a fashion made famous by the laudable Criterion collection, this Blu-ray release is reference quality in both the video and audio. Faithful to the mandate of the Collection, the movie is presented with its theatrical technical specifications. This means not only is the convention of retaining the director’s chosen aspect ratio, but the audio track is the original monaural mix is used. Many younger fans might find this inadequate, but for those of us that watch this movie in its initial release, this is purism. Movie collectors waged war against pan and scan techniques; I was in that vocal group. The same should apply to the audio. If you demand the theatrical aspect ratio, you should exhibit the same artistic respect for the soundtrack. After all modern AV receivers contain the capability to process the audio to emulate a wide variety of venues and optimize the presentation of some sound stages. This movie was made in Mono and Criterion respects its historical value by retaining it. This is certainly one of the best psychological thrillers ever made and a must have.
Revisiting this classic represented a substantial alteration in my appreciation for understanding on the themes contained in the narrative. Most notably are the way that Mr. Polanski dehumanizes Rosemary as she is pulled deeper into the sinister machinations of the coven. When we first see Rosemary, she is in a bright yellow dress that, along with her hair, gives the impression of a young girl personifying innocence. As the pregnancy progresses, Rosemary crops off her hair, a traditional symbol of femininity, and changes too drab clothing. She is losing not just her identity as a woman but has become little more than an incubator whose sole function is the gestation of Satan’s unholy spawn. After watching the incredible added contentment you should return again to the film. the genius od its filmmaker is every viewing is a freshly defined experience.