The Omen: Collector's Edition Review
"When the Jews return to Zion
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 apparently 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 previously reviewed The Omen for DVD Times, back in Halloween of 2003, I said that it was "not a classic [...] by any means". Nearly three 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, its remake and its imitators, and just enjoy this, the original and best.
DVD Presentation and Version Comparison
If ever there was a reason to be thankful for the existence of this year's remake, it's that it encouraged 20th Century Fox to haul the original out of the archives and give is a new, spruced-up release to cash in. Previously released in 2001, The Omen didn't exactly fare well on DVD, with some nice extras but a rather disappointing transfer that suffered from a distracting red tint and had an overly harsh, processed appearance. The good news is that the new transfer is an improvement in every way. Simply put, it blows the old one clean away, with more accurate colours, superior detail and a much more film-like appearance. The black level doesn't exactly look spot-on, but then again neither did the earlier DVD, and in any event this may be age-related rather than a defect in the transfer itself. I know that some people have expressed concern about this version possibly being overly brightened, based on DVD Beaver's image comparison of the old and new transfers, but to my eyes this version looks about right. And, for what it's worth, director Richard Donner appears for an introduction to the second disc, in which be praises the new transfer, saying that it looks "as it did originally". Take from that what you will.
Below is a bitesized comparison that, hopefully, gives a reasonable overview of the differences between the two transfers. Although the new version may superficially look softer, it actually features more detail thanks to the reduction in edge enhancement and filtering. (Like so many 1970s films, The Omen was shot using extensive filters, so is never going to look razor-sharp, but all the same this new version shows considerably more definition than its predecessor.) If the comparison below is too superficial for your liking, I invite you to take a look at the in-depth comparison on my web site.
Audio, too, benefits from some major improvements. The 2001 release featured the film's original mono track and a 2.0 Dolby Surround remix, both of which were understandably constrained by the age of the source materials. The Surround remix also missed an excellent opportunity to make use of the original stereo recordings of Goldsmith's score, opting instead to use the standard mono variant (interestingly, the LaserDisc release did go to the stereo recordings). Thankfully, this has been rectified with the new 5.1 mix on this release. Normally I am against remixing, but in this case I consider it to be a most welcome bonus thanks to the improvement it affords to the score. 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, thankfully included here (kudos to Fox), also sounds considerably better than its variant in the 2001 release, with the dialogue no longer sounding quite so thin and reedy.
French and Spanish mono dubs are also provided, as well as English and Spanish subtitles for the film. They are clear, legible and well-placed within the frame. Unfortunately, none of the extras are subtitled.
The bonus materials are generously spread across two discs (both of them dual layer and using most of their available space). Impressively, every single extra from the previous release has been replicated here, and those who are interested in reading about them are directed to my review of the 2001 release. For this review, I will be focusing solely on the new content.
First up is a new audio commentary, which teams director Richard Donner 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 other, earlier track, featuring Donner and editor Stuart Baird, but it's a fine track nonetheless, and at no point did I feel tempted to skip through any of it.
The other new extras are found on the second disc. First up is an Introduction by Richard 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, and it's a little surprising to find it on the second disc rather than the first, but it's certainly pretty harmless as these things go, and even quite amusing in its own way.
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 TVseries based supposedly around the concept of the original film (I have not seen either TV project, and have no desire to do so either). 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.
An extended version of drive to the church near the end of the film follows. 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.
A featurette entitled Screenwriter's Notebook, which runs for 15 minutes, is also included. Essentially an extended interview with David 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 ti be so successful.
The final new addition is a still 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.
Whether or not you already own a copy of The Omen, this new release is an essential purchase. An improvement upon the previous DVD in every way, the 2-disc set certainly does this horror classic full justice and should satisfy even the most ardent aficionados.