Nearly 50 years after its 1968 release, Roman Polanski’s big-screen adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 bestselling horror novel Rosemary’s Baby still stands as a brilliantly constructed milestone in film horror. The director scored an Academy Award nomination for his taut screenplay, which leavened the suspense with Polanski’s typically mordant wit, and supporting actress Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for her unforgettable performance as Minnie Castevet, the sweet little old neighbor who was harboring a big secret.
In contrast, NBC’s two-part remake, which begins tonight and concludes this coming Thursday, feels more like the work of international corporate deal-makers, not artists, with a cast and production that seems to be designed primarily to appeal to as wide a global audience as possible. In fact, arguably the most audacious thing NBC has done with its Rosemary’s Baby is programming it to start on Mother’s Day.
That’s not to say that it’s a train wreck, though. Although this new version incorporates most of the broad tropes of Levin’s book, it transplants the main action from New York to Paris, where American couple Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Zoe Saldana of Avatar and Patrick J. Adams of Suits) are currently living, following her recent miscarriage. Guy’s an aspiring novelist who is teaching at the Sorbonne for a puny salary while struggling with massive writer’s block. Their lifestyle is changed dramatically one day when Rosemary comes to the rescue of chic Parisienne Margaux Castevet (Carole Bouquet, For Your Eyes Only) during a “chance” encounter.
Warm and effusively maternal, Margaux and her handsome husband, Roman (British actor Jason Isaacs from the Harry Potter films), almost immediately adopt the Woodhouses as their latest project, insisting that the couple move into a newly vacant apartment in their impossibly grand building. What Guy and Rosemary don’t know is that their flat is vacant because the previous tenant, a young pregnant woman, leapt to her death from its balcony.
At a party hosted by Roman and Margaux, Rosemary witnesses, or hallucinates, a handsome stranger having sex with some of the other guests. The man begins to turn up elsewhere in Rosemary’s life, chiefly in her dreams, which carry a new erotic charge.
You know what’s coming, at least in broad strokes. Rosemary becomes pregnant following a hallucinatory dream/nightmare in which the mystery man appears to take Guy’s place in her bed. Not long after that, Guy’s fortunes mysteriously begin to improve. As Rosemary feels a mounting sense that something is terribly wrong, she begins to fret that Guy has made some sort of Faustian bargain with occultists who want to use her baby in their obscene rites.
Close, but no cigar, Rosemary.
The four main performances (you won’t recognize most of the rest of the cast) are all quite good. Saldana, often cast in films as an action babe, gives Rosemary a strength and a quiet resolve that’s a marked contrast to Mia Farrow’s most aggressively neurotic performance in Polanski’s original, and Adams’ Guy very clearly loves his wife, which was somewhat in doubt while watching the more feral John Cassavetes on the big screen.
Making the Castevets younger and sexier also makes dramatic sense. After all, if you’re going to be two of Satan’s most powerful earthly minions, you’re going to want to look the part.
Under the direction of Agnieska Holland (Europa, Europa), the TV movie looks very expensive and captures the feel of a very old and jaded city in which Rosemary and Guy are natural-born outsiders. Unfortunately, the pacing is seriously off, mainly because of the very uneven screenplay by Scott Abbott and James Wong. While some scenes still carry a jolt, others seem to drag on forever, undercutting the tension. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby clocked in at a fairly efficient two hours and 15 minutes. The NBC remake, if you subtract commercial breaks, comes in at about three hours. I watched the two parts back to back, and still my attention began to wander in several spots. I can’t imagine how much worse it will be for most viewers, who have a four-day intermission inserted due to NBC’s scheduling.
Ultimately, the scariest thing about this new Rosemary’s Baby is that it’s just not all that scary.