Rosemary's Baby Emerges on DVD

Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Roman Polanski. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital mono. 136 minutes. 1968. Paramount Home Video 06831. R. $29.99.

Rosemary's Baby is one of those classic films that lingers in the collective memory longer than they deserve. Perhaps the story of a woman impregnated with Satan's child gave audiences chills in the late '60s (Ira Levin's novel was a bestseller at the time), but Polanski's reliance on exposition and suggestion rather than real action makes the movie rather tame by today's standards.

The director's stubborn faithfulness to the novel is no doubt at the root of the movie's problems. What works in print, where the imagination can conjure any number of creepy images, sometimes just doesn't translate to film, which is, above all, a visual medium. If you consider Scrabble tiles and black-veiled cribs scary, this movie is right up your alley.

Maybe the most frightening thing about Rosemary's Baby is Mia Farrow. While her physical appearance is appropriately waif-like and pasty-skinned, her performance is shallow and forced. John Cassavetes, who took the role of her actor husband after Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson turned it down, is mildly interesting, but his character is ultimately a cardboard cutout of a domineering spouse. Only Ruth Gordon displays her acting chops as the busybody next-door neighbor, a role for which she won an Oscar.

The DVD picture is acceptable, particularly for a 32-year-old film. Black levels are a bit gray, but that's not a real distraction. The anamorphic widescreen transfer does a good job of reproducing picture details, even in the many dimly lit scenes. And pleasantly surprising is the minimal amount of print dirt and grain, two annoyances one would normally expect in a film from this era. The digital monaural sound is more than sufficient, and can be downright forceful when the music and the wailing sound effects rise to a crescendo, signaling the audience that it's time to be scared.

The extras, though few, are of good quality. The highlight is a 17-minute retrospective of the film featuring recent interviews with Polanski, executive producer Robert Evans, and production designer Richard Sylbert. They spend much of the time talking about casting decisions, including the use of Tony Curtis for a voice on the telephone, and they acknowledge their skill at making effective movies on shoestring budgets.

The only other supplement is a 23-minute "making of" featurette produced concurrently with the film and boasting all the hallmarks of home movies of the day, including jumpy footage and washed-out colors. It's sometimes bizarre, with clips of Farrow dancing on the set and voiceover narration by the actress and Polanski about their love of animals and fast cars, respectively. What those hobbies have to do with Rosemary's Baby is anyone's guess.

If you're a horror fan, you might feel compelled to add this "classic" to your collection. If not, you might want to rent it simply for nostalgia's sake.