Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Omen (1976)

"When the Jews return to Zion,

and a comet rips the sky,

and the Holy Roman Empire rises,
then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea He rises,
turning armies against either shore,
turning Man against his brother.

Till Man exists no more."

Complete poppycock of course, but with a hint of the Book of Revelation about it, and delivered in such a way to make it feel compelling and chillingly predictive. The one actual quote from the Bible does appear at the end of the film:

"Here is Wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666."

The theme of the three sixes forms the basis for David Seltzer's slightly overrated but highly commercial script, which thanks to the careful direction of Richard Donner made The Omen a compelling premise for the rise of the Antichrist in the late 20th century, and a big hit for a 1970's American audiences still trying to come to terms with a society crumbling and the Vietnam war being lost, and needing some sort of spiritual solace or affirmation in a similar vein to The Exorcist.

Opening apocalyptically enough, on the 6th June at 6am, we see the dignified figure of Gregory Peck, no less, as American diplomat Robert Thorn (changed from "Jeremy" Thorn because of the similarity to the controversial British MP Jeremy Thorpe) urgently on his way to a Rome hospital where his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) is in labour, but the news - dare one say the omens - are not good. A mysterious priest (Martin Benson) reveals in voiceover that their baby son died soon after leaving the womb. But deliverance is at hand. For fear that the loss of another baby (there'd been an earlier miscarriage) would destroy Kathy, Thorn apprehensively agrees to secretly take on another little sprog as substitute, that happened be born the same time as the Thorns' beloved, with "its mother" dying in childbirth.

"On this night Mr. Thorn, God has given you a son.", the priest declares, and so Thorn walks in with little Damien in his arms to the delight of the innocently unaware Mrs. Thorn, who is told that this is her child. Little though Thorn realises it, he has made a fateful decision which will herald the beginning of the apocalypse....

...though there's little sign of it at this early stage in proceedings. Interestingly, Donner's approach was to treat the story as a gradual mental deterioration of the principal characters rather than as a definite charting of the rise of the Antichrist. It is this straightforwardness, combined with suspenseful elements of the potentially supernatural that make The Omen so effective. The truth of the matter is never in doubt as far as the audience is concerned however, thanks to the ominous opening credits and Jerry Goldsmith's screechingly Gothic theme music.

But indeed, for the next reel or two, all seems to proceed smoothly and happily for the Thorns, and unusually for a horror film, it even briefly takes on the pretence of being a love story. There's some more good news just round the corner for the Thorns too: Robert has been promoted (prophetically perhaps) to the Court of St. James, ie. US Ambassador to London (in those days the most senior role outside the White House), thanks to a little helpful influence from an old college roommate: the President of the United States.

One particular reason for my enthusiasm for The Omen was its choice of location. Back in the 1970's Star Wars was the thing, but that was set in a galaxy far, far away, and shot in distant faraway countries (with the exception of Elstree Studios). Here on the other hand, was a film which contained similar elements of the fantastic, but in recognisable places, and right in one's back yard so to speak. I've since visited some of these locations, including the actual US Embassy in Grosvenor Square (left), and also Pyrford Court in Woking, which becomes Thorn Manor, and where the first signs of untoward happenings begin to occur. It is Damien's 5th birthday, and he's now grown into the cherubic but slightly mischievous looking form of Harvey Stephens - it amused me how, being born myself in 1971, this 1976 film therefore had the Antichrist born at a similar time!

At the sight of an unidentified stray bloodhound, Damien's nanny (Holly Palance) inexplicably decides to hang herself, in full view of all the partygoers, including the horrified Thorns, and a seedy looking photographer, Keith Jennings (David Warner), who's been on the look-out for any dirt to dish out - and may bitten off much more than he can chew.

Pursuing the story further, Jennings decides to stick around the US Embassy, where an odd little priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) turns up, not to spread the good tidings of the Lord, as Thorn expects, but to tell him that he is the father of Satan. Thorn naturally decides to thrown the old codger out, but Brennan has a chilling coda: he has seen Thorn's "son" being born (overlooking how a mad Irish priest would be anywhere near a hospital in Rome.) As Brennan is escorted out of Grosvenor House, Jennings takes a photo, and then things start to get a bit odd, as the photograph of Brennan has a strange mark on the negative, the same as for the dead nanny.

The seemingly normal but slightly odd developments continue when a replacement nanny arrives from nowhere, a Mrs. Baylock, played with deceitful relish by Billie Whitelaw as a sort of Machiavellian Mary Poppins. Soon the real mother and son relationship is not between Kathy and Damien, but Damien and Mrs. Baylock.

Damien himself then starts behaving strangely - common for a five-year old you might think - at a high society wedding for one of Thorn's friends, because of the sanctity of a very Gothic looking church - Guildford Cathedral in fact (left), and is prepared to go to the length of pulling Mummy Thorn's hair out to prevent himself entering holy ground. Loving Kathy deduces that the little brat's just had a bad moment, as there's nothing else wrong with him - at all. He's never even had a cold, Thorn notices, as well as noticing that mangy mutt from the birthday party is still hanging around the house.

At Windsor, things fare no better for the Thorns: Kathy takes Damien on a mother-and-son bonding trip to the Safari Park, but this time instead of the little beast not liking the place, it's the little beasts that don't like Him. Ambassador Thorn meanwhile is on official business at a rugby match near Windsor Castle, with Jennings ever on the look-out, when that pesky priest turns up again, and demands a showdown with Thorn, as his wife is in danger this time - not to mention the whole world.

The grounds of Shepperton Studios, where Father Brennan confronts Thorn after the rugby match.

At Bishop's Park in Fulham (right) seated by the Thames, with a grave, martyr-like tone in his voice, Brennan recites the apocalyptic verse about Jews returning to Zion, etc., which proves to haunt Thorn in his subsequent travails, but at the time he dismisses it as nonsense.

Brennan's time is up however, and as Thorn departs, some unnatural winds begin to stir up in the trees....

The nervous priest rushes through Bishop's Park towards All Saints Church next door (left), which alas is locked, and a bolt of lightning just happens to strike a weather vane on the church tower, which flies off and impales Brennan right through the heart. Serves him right for delivering the Antichrist.

The weird deaths continue: the already plastercasted Kathy (who's had another miscarriage thanks to naughty Damien) is thrown out of a hospital window (filmed at Northwick Park) by the evil Mrs. Baylock, but the piece de resistance comes much later in the film with the demise of Jennings - who by now has decided to get in on the act with Thorn to find out the truth - decapitated by a sheet of glass, a suitable send-off for perhaps the most interesting character in the film.

Thorn realises that enough is enough, and sets out with the daggers that will destroy the son of Satan given to him by an old exorcist named Bugenhagen (an uncredited Leo McKern) who, though German-named, lives for some reason underground in Jerusalem - even odder than an Irish priest from Rome.

Thorn outwits Damien's demonic guard dog, and then defeats the even more demonic Mrs. Baylock (aka. "Balaack" the beast) in the film's one moment of genuine silliness - before we come to the main event of Damien himself, who is hurled out of Pyrford Court and driven at breakneck speed down the road to St. Peter's Church in Staines, but not before a police escort is on the trail of the irrational American ambassador.

Damien makes his first - and potentially last - visit to hallowed ground, and Thorn looks to God for assistance on the altar, as he raises the first dagger to do the ghastly deed. But a police marksman is on hand to intervene...

At the film's end, at a funeral at Brookwood Cemetery in Woking (standing in for Arlington), guess who's holding the hand of the President of the United States, with not a scratch on his impish little face....

The policeman's intervention at the climax of The Omen suggested the theme of a possible corporate conspiracy to protect Satan, in order to appoint Him to the pinnacle of power, a theme that was continued in DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978), which was also unfortunately a basic rehash of the original, with William Holden (who turned down the Gregory Peck role) as Damien's uncle, and for me, the bad idea of shifting the setting away from Europe into rather less Gothic corporate America. The sequel's lack of success led to the apocalypse being downscaled from four films to three, with Damien grown into sinister adult Aryan-looking Sam Neill by the time of THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981), although at least this rather low-budget rendering of the apocalypse did have the good sense to return the setting to Europe, with Damien Thorn following in his father's footsteps to Grosvenor Square, and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is his best of the entire Omen trilogy. A half-hearted TV sequel came along in 1991, but by then the story had pretty much been told.

My own initial reaction to The Omen on first viewing, I must admit, was one of silliness, but it's grown on me since. The best and worst thing about it is the score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is overbearing at times, with its use of Satanic Latin chanting that make the outlandish deaths even more ridiculous. At other times however the music is much creepier and unsettling, in keeping with the tone of most of Donner's film. My favourite musical moment is the scene in Father Brennan's house, where Jennings and Thorn enter the dead priest's room wallpapered with pages from the Bible (the masterwork of art director Carmen Dillon), and Jennings unfurls the build-up of information leading to the unthinkable - at the end of which, he reveals the photograph foretelling himself being decapitated. Goldsmith builds up the atmosphere and then right at the end of the scene there's even a minor cadence of the decapitation music which will be reprised in much louder fashion later on. Goldsmith's Oscar for The Omen was at least deserved recognition for his lifetime's work in many different film genres.

The Omen
was one of a breed of films in the 1970s that dared to take chances (its twist ending was suggested late into production by Fox studio head Alan Ladd Jnr.), and did so in much subtler fashion than its many imitations or follow-ups. Its Biblical overtones and the use of various locations around the world helped to give it an epic feel (yet the film was actually made on a very restrained budget), and with the participation of a veteran Hollywood star at its centre, it hit the box office jackpot. The less said about the cut 'n' paste remake of 2006 (released on - aha! - 06/06/06), the better. That was truly the work of the devil.

See also The Omen Filming Locations


Carla said...

Hey, man, that was no bloodhound, that was a rottweiler!!

Derek said...

"The Omen" is a tremendous film, I absolutely love it! The Jerry Goldsmith score is brilliant and serves the story very well. Creepy stuff. He got an Oscar for it, you know. :)

"Damien: Omen II" was one of the first video tapes I ever owned - an ex-rental Betamax version in an early 80's style cardboard case!

I have to say I actually liked the 2006 re-make. It had some effective scenes and looked generally well put together.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films