The Omen Review
Note: This portion of the review is largely the same as what I wrote for the 2006 Collector's Edition DVD release.
And a comet fills the sky
And the Holy Roman Empire rises
Then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises
Creating armies on either shore
Turning man against his brother
'Til man exists no more."
- Father Brennan
Of the "big three" Satanic possession horror movies produced in the United States around the late 1960s to mid 1970s, The Omen is generally regarded as the least ostentatious, possessing considerably less ambitious goals than either Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby or William Friedkin's The Exorcist. It is, however, for my money, the most enjoyable of the trio in the purest sense - an unabashedly entertaining romp in which the supernatural elements play second fiddle to the characters' psychological breakdown.
It's the quintessential setup: two parents come to believe that their young child is in fact the spawn of Satan himself. The actual specifics, while not hugely important, add flavour to the events: Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), an American politician living in Rome, receives news at 6 AM on June 6th that his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), has given birth to a stillborn child. To shield his wife from the horror, he accepts a priest's offer to replace their dead child with a baby born the same night whose mother died in childbirth. Shortly afterwards, Thorn is appointed Ambassador to Great Britain, for which he departs, taking with him Katherine and their young child, ominously christened Damien (Harvey Stephens). Life is peaceful until, on Damien's sixth birthday, his nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself before a crowd of horrified onlookers, with a cry to Damien of "It's all you for you!" The nanny's death is just the first of a series of sinister happenings and, as Thorn investigates further, he becomes convinced that the child he is raising is the son of the Devil...
With its dark-eyed, sinister nannies, raving priests, glowering Rottweilers and a soundtrack comprised of Gregorian chants, The Omen could easily have ended up as a hokey B-movie. That it turned out to be one of the finest horror films ever made is due to two things: the emphasis on reality rather than the supernatural, and the overall quality of the production. I'll discuss the latter first, because it's the most straightforward. With a cast comprised of Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner and Billie Whitelaw, the film practically announces its prestige from the rooftops. Peck is such a commanding screen presence and respected Hollywood actor that, as director Richard Donner has pointed out on numerous occasions, if he believes is child is the spawn of Satan, it's hard for the audience not to go along with him.
The casting of Peck was virtually unprecedented for what was, ultimately a low budget production (and a horror movie at that - a genre consistently given short shrift by mainstream actors and critics alike), and it is thanks to his presence and the overall level of professionalism with which the entire enterprise is put together that the film doesn't fall flat on its face. Donner may have been, at the time, primarily a television director, but he shows a level of skill with the camera that belies his relatively modest origins, although much of the credit must surely go to cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Brought out of retirement to work on the production, Taylor's lush photography is consistently eye-catching without ever being outlandish (and the fact that this was the only one of the Big Three to be shot in Scope helps distinguish it from its brethren). Finally, not mentioning Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning (and rightly so) score: it is often remarked that a full 50% of the moviegoing experience is auditory, and in this particular case, I can well believe it. Like Peck, securing Goldsmith was a major coup for the production, and the end result is rightfully remembered as one of the finest scores in the history of horror cinema.
The second reason for The Omen's success, as alluded to earlier, is that, although it is generally remembered as a film about demonic possession, this aspect is merely window dressing to what is actually going on. One of Donner's first orders to screenwriter David Seltzer was to excise every instance of mystical goings-on - cloven-hoofed demons, witches' covens and the like - from the script. The golden rule became that nothing that could not happen in real life could be in the movie, and so writer and director, neither of whom believed in the Devil, structured the film as a psychological drama in which demonic possession was not a foregone conclusion. Even during the climax, when Thorn is willing to literally kill to prevent the evil that he perceives in his son manifesting itself in the world, we're still not sure whether Damien really is Satan or Thorn, already in an impressionable state as a result of a series of unfortunate accidents in his life, has simply been driven mad by the power of suggestion. As an atheist myself, I know which explanation I find easier to swallow, and I think that this is above all why I like this film so much more than The Exorcist, which left the audience in no doubt as to whether or not we were expected to believe that Reagan MacNeil was possessed.
For all its focus on reality and human emotion, however, it is arguably its brilliantly staged death sequences that have ensured its place in history for horror fans. Essentially, what makes the various stunts so effective is that they are incredibly simplistic and yet immaculately executed. The obvious precursors to the Rube Goldberg-esque "accidents" of the recent Final Destination series of films, Donner wisely avoids doing anything too convoluted and, in doing so, prevents the film from straying too far from the bounds of reality. Had he, for instance, attempted something along the lines of the dental surgery sequence of Final Destination 2 (elements of which actually crop up in one sequence of The Omen's otherwise shot for shot 2006 remake), the whole thing would have simply descended into farce. Once or twice he comes dangerously close to overstepping the mark, but the seriousness with which the events are treated ensures that the audience's response is shock rather than laughter. (And, incidentally, if you want an example of what made the original Omen work so much more successfully than its sequels, look no further than the series of baffling child murders in The Final Conflict, which, whether intentionally or not, are more funny than horrifying.)
When I first reviewed The Omen for DVD Times, back in Halloween of 2003, I said that it was "not a classic [...] by any means". Several years later, I feel obliged to retract that statement. While I would have a hard time arguing in favour of it being considered a more important example of the genre than The Exorcist (I'm not even going to try), I think that this review makes it clear which film I like watching more. A sublime horror film on every level and a rare example of a Hollywood production in the genre that actually gets everything right, The Omen beyond any doubt has a place on my Top 20 list of favourite films. Ave Satani and all that rot - forget the sequels, the dreadful remake and the imitators, and just enjoy this, the original and best.
I guess the fact that my hopes for the image quality of this film on Blu-ray were not exactly high says a great deal about what a pessimist I've become. Now, before anyone asks, I'm not one of those people who believes that older films can't benefit from the HD treatment: nothing could be further from the truth. It's simply that, in my experience, older films are not always treated with the care and attention they deserve. Imagine my surprise, therefore, upon popping The Omen in and being greeted with a rich, sumptuous, film-like transfer exhibiting few of the artefacts one tends to associate with catalogue titles that haven't been treated appropriately (and 20th Century Fox, it has to be said, have been prime offenders in the past).
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, this 1080p, AVC encode looks excellent, with what flaws do exist primarily being due to the source materials themselves rather than anything untoward done in the digital realm. For the most part, the image has a remarkably "untreated" appearance, crisp and detailed with an appropriate amount of grain left intact. Given that, like so many films of this vintage, The Omen was shot with extensive use of lens filters, it doesn't "pop" in the way that a more recent title might, but rest assured that it's a pleasant kind of diffuseness rather than the ugly sort you get when the detail has been sucked out digitally. There is some mild ringing around high contrast edges at times, but I think this is the result of the optical printing process rather than deliberate edge enhancement. There is also a small amount of what appears to be light grain reduction in some of the lower lit scenes, which introduces a modicum of smearing if you're looking for it, but, given what some catalogue titles have looked like once the technicians finished abusing them, this is really only splitting hairs. Considering how appalling the Blu-ray disc of Patton (also released by Fox and an absolute train-wreck of noise reduction artefacts) looked, I'd say fans of The Omen are very, very lucky indeed.
Audio-wise, we get a bells-and-whistles 5.1 remix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, and, more importantly, a 2-channel presentation of the original mono mix. Normally I am fundamentally opposed to the process of remixing and always choose the original mix when it is available, but in this case I consider the DTS-HD track to be a most welcome bonus thanks to the improvement it affords to the score, which has been converted to 5.1 using the original stereo recordings as a source. By and large it is a careful and respectful remix, with a few distracting split channel effects but nothing overly distressing. The original mono track, which is exactly the same as its counterpart on the 2006 DVD, is a considerable improvement over its variant in the 2001 release, with the dialogue no longer sounding quite so thin and reedy. Kudos to Fox for including this, given that some high definition content providers have a thoroughly disagreeable habit of neglecting to provide original, non-remixed versions of their films on Blu-ray (Warner, I'm looking at you in particular).
French and Spanish mono dubs are also provided, as well as English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean subtitles for the film. They are clear, legible and well-placed within the picture frame, above the letterboxing. Unfortunately, as with the DVD releases, none of the extras are subtitled.
Generously spread across two discs in the 2006 Collector's Edition DVD version, all the bonus content from that release has been replicated here - a most pleasant surprise, given that Fox have a tendency to omit certain materials from their Blu-ray releases.
First up are a pair of audio commentaries, the first of which features director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird, who laugh and joke their way through the film. Their good-natured and self-deprecating view of the film helps me to affirm my belief that The Omen was all intended as good fun. The two speakers take very little of it seriously, with Donner even improvising his own dialogue on occasions, and while some listeners might be looking for something a bit more strait-laced, it remains a firm favourite of mine.
The second commentary sees Donner teaming up with Brian Helgeland, writer of such films as LA Confidential and the dire The Sin Eater. Helgeland wrote a number of films for Donner in the 1990s, and the two are clearly old friends, bouncing off each other and providing laughs and information in equal measure. It's not as good as the track track, but it's a fine commentary nonetheless, and at no point did I feel tempted to skip through any of it.
This is followed by an introduction to the film by Donner, in which the jovial director welcomes us to this new edition of the film and briefly reminisces about the fun he had making it. It's not a particularly meaty extra, but it's certainly pretty harmless as these things go, and even quite amusing in its own way.
An extended version of drive to the church near the end of the film is next. It runs for just under one and a half minutes and has no audio of its own, so is presented with commentary from Donner and Helgeland. Donner explains why it was cut from the final version ("gilding the lily" is the phrase used), and asks Helgeland to confirm whether removing it was the right decision. The quality is pretty poor, and the sequence is severely incomplete, but that was to be expected.
What follows is 666: The Omen Revealed, a solid 45-minute documentary. Produced and directed by J.M. Kenny, who has been responsible for some of the best supplemental material out there, it provides an exhaustive account of the making of The Omen, from its inception to its release. Richard Donner, producer Harvey Bernhard, David Seltzer, executive producer Mace Neufeld, Stuart Baird and religious adviser Robert Munger all provide plenty of informative information. On the downside, the input of the latter, who takes the material far too seriously and comes across as rather preachy, can wear a little thin at times.
A featurette entitled Screenwriter's Notebook, which runs for 15 minutes, is also included. Essentially an extended interview with Seltzer, the writer discusses his reasons for scripting The Omen and explains what he did to differentiate it from the various other similarly themed films of the period. He also discusses his lack of involvement with the various sequels, interesting revealing that his offer to provide guidelines for a number of sequels was turned down.
An appreciation: Wes Craven features the director of Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street offering his praise for the film, and analysing, over the course of 20 minutes, why he considers it to be so successful. At times it's difficult to shake the impression that he's pontificating for lack of anything particularly worthwhile to say, but his enthusiasm for the film goes a long way towards ensuring that the featurette remains engaging throughout.
This is followed by The Omen Legacy, a 102-minute documentary made for American television. Previously available on a separate DVD from Image Entertainment, it charts the history of the three theatrical films, one TV movie and the pilot for an aborted TV series based supposedly around the concept of the original film (I've seen the former, which is absolutely dreadful, albeit quite hilarious in an unintentional way; I imagine the latter constitutes more of the same). Given the length, it has a tendency to be a bit stodgy at times, thanks to an overabundance of clips and an annoying habit of summarising every plot in intricate detail, as well as an overly pompous voice-over by Jack Palance (father of Holly, who played the nanny who hanged herself at the start of the film!), but it's quite an enjoyable production overall, and it provides as good a way as any to get a flavour for the various sequels without having to actually watch them in full.
Curse or Coincidence, a 6-minute piece in which various members of the cast discuss the bizarre things that happened on set during the film's production, is next. The incidents described range from tenuous to downright absurd, and I can only assume that what is presented here is a combination of fabrication and embellishment.
Finally, the late, great Jerry Goldsmith introduces four of his favourite themes from the film's score: the love theme, the music that plays when Damien is being taken to the church, the dog attack, and the 666/Mrs. Baylock theme. Clips from the film are played to highlight the music, although unfortunately the dialogue and sound effects are still present, and the quality is not very good. Given that the Blu-ray release features an isolated score anyway (see below), this feature is actually now somewhat redundant, but it's nice to be able to hear Goldsmith's thoughts.
Also included are the film's theatrical trailer, a delightful example of pure 70s marketing cheese, and a stills gallery, which features a generous array of colour and black and white images. These range from posters designs to promotional stills to behind the scenes snapshots, and are all of a higher quality than usual for this sort of material. Better still, they are presented in high definition (the rest of the extras are 480i).
Blu-ray Exclusive Extras
In yet another surprise, Fox have opted to throw in a number of bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray release. The first of these is a commentary by critics Lem Dobbs, Nick Redman and Jeff Bond, who provide an affectionate but not overly sycophantic retrospective look at the film. They end up spending a good two-thirds of the time waxing lyrical about Jerry Goldsmith and his justly exalted score, but they also take time to discuss the intricacies of the casting decisions and what the key players on either side of the camera brought to the production. It does slide towards being slightly repetitive at times (there's only so many times you can praise the music before you start to get a sense of déjà vu), and it can't compete with the critical commentaries found on, say, the better Criterion DVDs, but it's great to hear the film getting the attention and respect it deserves, and it makes for an engaging listen overall.
Up next, and my favourite of the new additions, is a 448 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track showcasing the score in isolation. It's a real treat to hear the Oscar-winning composition on its own in such an immersive form, and watching the film in this manner only seems to emphasise how much of the mood comes from the music.
This is followed by Richard Donner on The Omen, a 15-minute interview with the director. Presented in 1980p HD, it's a nice, affectionate exercise in reminiscing about the film itself and the people he worked with on it. Donner does have a tendency to ramble at times, and he retreads on a lot of the ground covered elsewhere in the other extras (that said, the is the first time I'd heard the anecdote about him getting into a fist-fight over the initial marketing concepts), but this feature still manages to be still highly watchable because the director's love for the film he created shines through at all times.
Finally, we have The Omen Revelations, which Fox describes as a BonusView feature. It requires a Profile 1.1-compliant player in order to work, and primarily takes the form of a trivia track in which various text-based snippets pop up throughout the film, albeit on an extremely sporadic basis. Equally infrequent are a series of picture-in-picture interviews with key crew members, most of which have been re-appropriated from the various featurettes that have been doing the rounds since the initial 2001 DVD release. In other words, different configuration, same basic content. You can also watch the picture-in-picture clips individually in fullscreen form. I'm not averse to the concept of these picture-in-picture features, but there are an awful lot of rather pointless ones out there, which achieve nothing more than to repackage existing material in a somewhat less user-friendly manner. This is definitely a prime example of this issue, and it's the only black mark in what is otherwise a stellar package of extras.
It's hard to imagine a substantially better package for the high definition debut of one of the horror genre's all-time greatest titles. So often, catalogue titles are mistreated or given short shrift, but the superb audio-visual presentation and all-encompassing package of extras, one of the best ever assembled for a film of this type, cause me to give this my highest recommendation. Simply put, The Omen on Blu-ray is a must-have.
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