You'll be saying, in disbelief, "This is real! This is really happening!" the whole time.
You know who should never be allowed anywhere near a Rosemary's Baby revision? Anyone who's involved with American Horror Story, the unapologetically over-the-top FX series that's the polar opposite of Roman Polanski's 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby. Polanski's film, one of the best horror movies ever made, is a master's class in restrained terror, generating clench-your-armrest tension and overwhelming paranoia without showing much at all. American Horror Story, on the other hand, is as scary as a knowingly hammy old Gravediggaz music video, playing all of its genre elements tongue-in-cheek and ramming its supercharged imagery down viewers' throats like Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal Lecter does with severed human ears.
The two properties couldn't be any more different from one another, yet here they are, disastrously of the same mind. NBC's four-hour Rosemary's Baby miniseries' (the first half of which premieres tomorrow night at 9 p.m. EST; part two will then air next Thursday at the same time) was co-written by James Wong, an AHS co-executive producer and occasional episode writer. The miniseries hews closer to the quality of Wong's producer-only 2006 misfire Black Christmas (an idiotic and silly remake of writer-director Bob Clark's brilliant and underplayed 1974 slasher movie classic) than anything AHS-related. It's as utterly pointless as anyone with half a discerning, horror-loving brain could have suspected and totally devoid of nuance—which, yes, Polanski's masterful film has in bulk. Hence why it's still so damn effective today, 46 years after its initial release. NBC's Rosemary's Baby, meanwhile, will be a "Did that really happen?" footnote within the Peacock Network's archives by June 2014.
In some cases, it's not fair to judge a remake or a re-imagining against its universally revered predecessor—judge each work on its own merits, some would say, and they'd be correct. Taking that approach with Zack Snyder's action-heavy Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) or Rob Zombie's polarizing but ambitious and occasionally fascinating Halloween reboot (2007) serves those films quite well; they're only like George Romero and John Carpenter's original movies, respectively, in basic plot terms—everything else about those films reinvents their source materials in bold, admirably forward-thinking manners.
This new Rosemary's Baby, though, is essentially the same as Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Once again, Rosemary Woodhouse (played gamely here by Zoe Saldana) and her husband, Guy (Patrick J. Adams, of USA Network's Suits fame) move into a fancy new building and befriend the older and more refined Roman (Jason Isaacs) and Margaux (Carole Bouquet) Castevet. Instead of a struggling actor (like the character John Cassavettes played in Polanski's film), Guy Woodhouse is now a struggling novelist, and rather than going through domestic hell in New York City, he and Rosemary meet the Devil himself in Paris. She gets pregnant, begins suspecting everyone around her is a Satanist conspiring against her and the unborn baby, and eventually says those immortal words, "What have you done to its eyes?"
Because there's zero subtlety in this debacle, you see the baby's inhuman eyes. It's (hopefully the first) time you will, sans regret, hate a newborn child.
Had the new Rosemary's Baby simply been an inept rehash of Polanski's work, it would still be reprehensible, but at least it would be easily forgettable. But Wong, co-writer Scott Abbott, and director Agnieszka Holland (whose previous credits include episodes of The Wire and The Killing), unfortunately, aren't that pedestrian. Everything that Polanski did right back in '68, Rosemary's Baby 2014's creative team does wrong.
Those aforementioned American Horror Story and '06 Black Christmas inclinations terribly come into play throughout Rosemary's Baby. Just to increase the body-count and try to give this version its own grisly identity, they've introduced new characters whom all meet blood-drenched yet scare-free ends. Necks get stabbed, skulls get cracked open, and bodies get rammed by speeding trucks. An unnecessary flashback sequence depicts the Satanist mastermind character Steven Marcato cutting a prostitute's heart out and eating it. Much like how Rosemary, for no logical reason other than lazy "shock value," gnaws on the freshly removed heart of a chicken she's prepping for dinner in one scene.
In Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, the occultism, witchcraft, and supernaturally caused homicides all happen off-screen, and are made terrifically creepy by how the great Mia Farrow plays Rosmary's increasingly unnerved reactions. Polanski was confident enough to let viewers formulate the disturbing money-shots themselves, and in the film's lone moment of stylized horror, he presents Rosemary's dreamlike rape at the hands (or claws) of Satan as a surrealistic, masterfully edited piece of visual disorientation. His "conception" sequence is extremely potent because every other scene surrounding it is its antithesis.
One of the '68 film's best moments features Farrow's Rosemary in a tightly framed, claustrophobic phone booth, in broad daylight—she's trying to call her doctor, but you, the viewer, can't stop looking over Rosemary's shoulder and into the street, keeping your eyes peeled for any menacing antagonists. And when someone does curiously stand with his back against the glass, it's a jolting payoff that doesn't need any bloodshed to leave its mark. Polanski scares the figurative excrement out of you by showing nothing more than a woman in a phone booth making a call.
There's none of that downplayed menace in NBC's Rosemary's Baby. It's all on-the-nose with the forcefulness of a Floyd Mayweather right hook to the face. Tomorrow night's installment opens with a woman's suicide via falling out of an apartment building window—something that's never shown in the '68 film, with the Woodhouse couple returning home and seeing the cops around a sheet-covered body, after the fact. Kicking things off in the miniseries, the suicide is an immediate signal that Wong, Abbott, and Holland don't have the storytelling stones needed to properly adapt Ira Levin's excellently discrete novel. They're all "show" and no "tell."
They'd rather take focus away from Saldana's altogether solid performance and devote time to Guy's behind-Rosemary's-back dealings with the Castevets. By doing so, they overtly and hastily depict Rosemary's one should-be ally as a soul-selling turncoat. Whether you're a Rosemary's Baby first-timer or a fan of Polanski's film, there's no mystery or anxiety to Rosemary's situation here whatsoever. There's just heavy-handed storytelling, distracting outbursts of violence, and a useless black cat dubbed No-Name. As in, "Come here, No-Name!"
Nope, the folks behind NBC's Rosemary's Baby have no shame—just as there's no reason for their miniseries to exist.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who recommends you buy the Criterion Collection's loaded Rosemary's Baby edition, watch it, and pretend like this miniseries never happened. He tweets here.