Criterion Discovery: Rosemary’s Baby

Background: Rosemary’s Baby (Spine #630) is a 1968 psychological/supernatural horror film, written and directed by Roman Polanski, and is the sixth in a total of eight films by Polanski to be included in the Criterion Collection.

Story: Newly pregnant Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) begins to suspect that her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) has aligned himself with the neighbors in their new apartment building in the pursuit of sinister, occult-related plans, regarding her unborn child.

Rosemary's Baby FeatureThe Film: The true genius of Rosemary’s Baby is in the way that it turns an inherently silly premise involving bizarre neighbors and devil worship into something genuinely horrifying through the use of paranoia as a driving plot device. This isn’t an entirely unheard of mechanic, especially for director Roman Polanski who has made a career out of his clever use of paranoia in storytelling. It is a method that is often imitated, but one that we have never seen executed so flawlessly before, or since, Rosemary’s Baby. The narrative hinges on the continually unraveling mental and emotional stability of Rosemary as she pieces together the elaborate conspiracy of apparent witchcraft and the occult that have surrounded both her and her unborn child. An almost unbearable tension is held from the very beginning, thanks in part to Polanski’s understated, yet expectedly stylish, approach.

It says much about the strength of the production that throughout the almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Rosemary’s Baby never relents on the tension that it continues to build up. As Rosemary’s anxiety towards her neighbors, her doctor, and even her own husband ramp up, so does the audience’s anxiety. A lot of this is owed to Mia Farrow’s remarkably delicate and sympathetic portrayal of Rosemary. She is easily one of the most compelling heroines to ever come out of the horror genre. An imminently likable and relatable woman, when Rosemary finds herself trapped in an impossibly horrifying situation, it is difficult not to empathize with her exceedingly stressful circumstances. This is something that many modern horror films do not concern themselves with and it’s one of the many reasons why Rosemary’s Baby is a cut above the competition. Then there is Polanski’s lighting and set design, which is a character in and of itself. The gothic, gloomy and extravagant, yet confining apartment building, in which the majority of the film is set, oozes a uniquely morbid energy. The film reaches its breaking point with an absolutely nerve-wracking finale, leading up to and including one of the most fascinating, and suitably disturbing, endings in horror movie history.

Supplements: Rosemary’s Baby is maybe a bit light in terms of additional content compared to some of its Criterion brethren, but that does not mean that what is there is not substantial. Aside from a typically impressive digital restoration of the film, we are also treated to one of the better booklets I have seen from the collection. Included is an essay on the movie from film critic Ed Parks, and an afterword from Rosemary’s Baby author (Ira Levin) from the 2003 New American Library edition of the novel. Most impressive are the previously unpublished character sketches of the Woodhouse clan, and the floor plan of their apartment in Polanski’s film. On the Blu-ray, you will also find a 1997 interview with the author on his 1967 novel, as well as additional interviews from Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow, and producer Robert Evans. Perhaps most interesting is the feature-length documentary, Komeda Komeda, about the life of the film’s featured jazz musician, Krzysztof Komeda, who wrote the score for Polanski’s feature adaptation.

Overall: On its own, Rosemary’s Baby remains to this day one of the greatest and most important films for both the horror genre and cinema in general. With grade A Supplements and Bonus Material, the Criterion Collection release of the film is one that every cinephile should have in their collection.

Criterion Grade: A-

Film Grade: A

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Ryan MacLean
Born and raised in the frigid wastes of Canada, Ryan is a part-time critic and a full time movie lover. He has an embarrassing amount of knowledge on all things nerdy.