Shadowvision: “ROSEMARY’S BABY”
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
For the latest venture into Shadowvision, I decided to revisit a bonafide classic of atmospheric terror and intense restraint: ROSEMARY’S BABY. A beautiful and affecting venture into paranoid madness and relentless dread, this iconic story from Ira Levin about witches and the antichrist seemed perfect for a monochromatic transfer, especially through the unique lens of William Fraker and the unrivaled vision of Roman Polanski. Thankfully, Criterion’s definitive high-def transfer was readily available as I decided to take the plunge.
Once again, a higher contrast is better for this film, and unfortunately, some spots will be darker than you’d prefer based on some night-set scenes. Luckily, these moments are brief and excessive contrast will just soften the image considerably. However, from the opening credits forward, the film absolutely carves out an atmospheric groove in black-and-white that feels much more recognizable as a William Castle Production. Furthermore, Polanski’s era-appropriate pacing of the film leans closer to the classic years of Universal Horror, and you may find yourself entranced into the story as if viewing it through fresh eyes once more.
Narratively speaking, ROSEMARY’S BABY benefits from the black-and-white changeover by offering a palpable sense of fear through the increased shadowing and color-stripped imagery. The Castevets and their co-conspirators seem much more imposing in black-and-white, and their sinister presence feels much more intrusive once Rosemary’s paranoia begins to mount. In the conception scene alone, the intricacies of the art direction by Joel Schiller are lost but in turn, the surrealist dream elements are much more frightening and the black-and-white helps accentuate the portrayal of demonic evil. Furthermore, Rosemary’s apartment feels much more architecturally ancient and confining when removed of color, which allows the audience to gain even more empathy for the pregnant protagonist.
In addition, the film’s dialogue now feels even more at home in black-and-white, with Guy and Rosemary’s marital quibbles feeling more European in execution, akin to the work of Bergman and Godard. In fact, it’s that realism to the proceedings which may even intensify the elements of terror throughout the film, and when Rosemary’s allies grow smaller and smaller in number, the comparisons to the bleak Godard feel even more justified. Likewise, as Rosemary’s health begins to deteriorate towards the beginning of her pregnancy, the effects feel much more noticeable when exaggerated through the increased contrast of black-and-white. And when the film finally reaches its notorious climax, the monochrome presentation makes every askew frame and blasphemous declaration feel as if ripped from an golden age horror double feature; a perfect tonal compliment to a Mario Bava or James Whale film.
In fact, there is much in ROSEMARY’S BABY outside Fraker’s brilliant and dually-proficient cinematography that one can savor here. From Mia Farrow to John Cassavetes to Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, the performances all around have a stronger impact, making their power struggle over Rosemary’s unborn child even more allegorical to a battle between good and evil. Christopher Komeda’s score is also more befitting, playing closer to its inspirations of past horror and science fiction productions than one might catch when viewing the film in color. And Polanski’s penchant for atmosphere-based frights, fueled by plot progression and nuances in the performances over exposition and gore, keep the film’s presentation organic and never out of its element when viewed monochromatically.
Since the film is so beloved and celebrated as a classic of the genre, fans of the film will likely appreciate the film without color, yet the in-color version will always be the preferred method. The aesthetics and art-direction will always lean in favor of the natural color version, while fans of the story itself may find themselves revisiting Polanski’s tale in black-and-white more frequently. If anything, this version is an excellent alternative viewing experience of an already chilling macabre masterpiece, and by that measure, it’s definitely worthy of a look.
Recommended for Black & White Consumption?: Yes.