The Omen (30th Anniversary Special Edition) Review
The hour of Satan is at hand. On the night of the 6th June, US diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) rushes to be by the side of his wife Katherine, whose pregnancy has ended with a stillbirth. But as he arrives, Thorn learns that Katherine doesn't know the fate of the child that she had been carrying as she is safe but asleep in a hospital room nearby. Sitting alone and feeling helpless, Thorn is approached by a priest with, in the midst of this hopeless situation, something that might pass as good news. On the same night and in this same hospital, a baby boy was born but his mother died in childbirth. Could Thorn accept this child as his own and bring him up as he would his flesh and blood? No one would know...
Five years pass and Damien Thorn (Harvey Stephens) is celebrating his birthday at a lavish party thrown by his father at his estate in England, where he has been posted as ambassador. As the camera of photographer Jennings (David Warner) clicks nearby and priest Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) scowls at the celebration, Damien's nanny (Holly Palance) leaves the party and goes inside. Minutes later, there is the calling of, "Damien...Damien...this is all for you!" and as heads turn, she throws herself off a balcony in the mansion, where she hangs from a rope as the shocked children look on. Later, Fr. Brennan will return to tell Thorn that his child is the Antichrist and that he must be slaughtered before the Earth turns red with the blood of his victims. Incredulous, Thorn orders Brennan to leave but as the bodies mount up, the US ambassador soon begins to doubt his own son. But, as he reminds himself, Damien was never actually his own.
The memories that we have of horror during childhood are particularly potent. As we get older, we realise the secrets behind the effects, that vampirism is a psychological condition and not one that persists through death and that zombies, if they exist at all, are confined to a small Caribbean island and have difficulty just moving never mind ingesting the flesh of the living. However, in childhood, none of these things are part of one's thinking, which makes the horrors more real, more visceral and a lot more terrifying. When the broadcast television stations - BBC 1 and 2 and ITV - took Hallowe'en a good deal more seriously than they do now, the nation was doubtless littered with small children lying petrified in their beds with the memory of Hammer's finest still lingering in their minds, now bearing as blood-red a hue as Christopher Lee's lips. The long hours passed but sleep refused to come and one's mind would dwell all the more on the horrors of that night.
Amongst the most memorable films that a young child might have seen those Hallowe'ens was The Omen, which, to the parents of the under-tens, had much going for it. There was, put simply, no smut in it, no uncomfortable sexual innuendo and nothing, at least on its surface, to complicate the telling of a simple story of Satanism. Looked at through the eyes of a child, which is an apt manner with which to approach the film given Harvey Stephens' age when The Omen was made, The Omen is a terrifying experience in which a world that begins with a birthday party soon falls apart with a hanging, an impaling, a beheading, dog attacks and the death of one's mother, all accompanied by an extraordinary soundtrack of bells, chiming and deeply Satanic chanting. Rather than placing its horrors somewhere distant, The Omen, like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, made its location ordinary, presenting the notion that the Devil is not to be found amongst the rarefied sex magick of Alister Crowley but in everyday families, of a family pet that becomes a devil dog and of a child, assisted by his nanny's provocation, who appears ready to fulfil his role as the Antichrist.
Of course, later in life comes the realisation that the deaths in the film may simply have been no more than a string of coincidences, albeit a particularly gruesome one. The look worn by Gregory Peck as he bears down on Damien with the seven daggers given to him by Bugenhagen (Leo McKern) is one of a man who, in spite of being prepared to kill his own son, can't quite believe what is being asked of him. However, with his life in ruins, his wife, who may have simply been suffering with a willful five-year-old alongside feelings of depression during another pregnancy, in hospital and horrified at seeing a birthmark of the figure 666 on his son's head, Thorn believes that the death of his son, stabbed multiple times within the walls of a church is the only option left open to him. You can marvel at his reasoning but over its near-two-hours The Omen presents this being, to the more rational mind, the only explanation worth considering. After all, a series of unfortunate deaths is coincidence might be unlikely but any more so than one's son being the Antichrist? Peck clearly doesn't think so and whilst his readiness to murder Damien might simply be his acknowledgement of his guilt at accepting the child five years earlier, its to his credit that we believe him and are, though we're not bearing the daggers, beside him in spirit.
Yet in spite of this realisation, I can't quite bear to think of The Omen in terms of it being less a horror film and more a psychological thriller. Perhaps it comes from preferring Damien: Omen II, where it's made clear that Damien Thorn is the child of Satan, but The Omen works best when one puts aside any thought of reason and breathes in the distinctly sulphurous air that lingers about it. Or there may be an even more simple reason than that, one in which our first memory of The Omen is the one that we prefer, much like our favourite Dr Who being the one that we grew up with. For anyone with a head full of religion, which is largely unavoidable for one who grows up in a Catholic family and school, The Omen is a remarkable horror film. To this reviewer, it isn't quite as effective as The Exorcist, which is really better suited to an older audience, nor even its first sequel but it is enormous fun and will be, on a Hallowe'en some years from now, the film that my children and I will watch as I make to them the promise of an unforgettable experience and of a sleepless night ahead.
For The Omen's 30th Anniversary, it's obvious that Fox have cleaned up the print and gave it a natural, unshowy colour tint but there are moments when it looks too bright. The main title sequence, for example, shows a lot of bleeding from the onscreen text to the right hand side of the picture and though this might have been deliberate - I don't have another release of The Omen to compare it to - it doesn't look quite right. However, once past the titles, The Omen looks good throughout with it capturing the chill of an English autumn and the horror of the situation the Thorns find themselves in. Best of all, it gets the sequence with Thorn and Jennings searching for Damien's birth mother in the graveyard just right, with a good balance between brightness and contrast such that the picture is dark but never oppressively so and, similarly, light enough to see the action but clearly setting it at night and to during the hours of dusk. As one who has sat during this sequence on showings of The Omen on television looking at a completely black screen and wondering what was up with all the barking of the dogs, it was worth seeing as the director originally intended.
The audio - there's a choice of the original mono track and a DD5.1 remix - also sounds very good, with very little noise, lots of detail in the background of the mix and an obvious separation between the audio effects and dialogue. However, I couldn't help but feel that the surround remix rather overegged the pudding at times, being a touch too obvious in its use of the rear channels particularly at such times as the Jerry Goldsmith score roused itself but I can't see many complaining about that given how much it adds to the experience of watching the film. Finally, English subtitles are included and look to be accurate.
Audio Commentaries: The long run of extras on this 30th Anniversary release begins with two commentaries, one featuring director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird and the other with Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland. Taken in turn, the Donner/Baird track is a good one with plenty of memories of the times, lots of good-natured jokes directed at Baird from Donner and an impressive amount of behind-the-scenes detail. Donner and Baird are both likeable - Donner, in particular, makes you like him with his obvious fondness for Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, who he greets with a, "Poor Lee Remick...she went too young" - and there's an obvious bond between them built up over years of knowing one another, not just from being together on this film. However, it is a patchy track with a fair few silences in the film's quieter stretches but Donner and Baird talk when it counts, in particular during the memorable set pieces.
The second track puts Donner together with Helgeland, writer of LA Confidential, and it's just as obvious that once again the director is with an old friend. The difference this time is that with Helgeland not being there at the time, many of his contributions are there to prompt Richard Donner into talking about the making of the film, both through direct questions and his own thoughts on the film. A typical effort by a co-contributor it may be but Helgeland wisely holds his tongue and simply lets the entertaining Donner get on with describing the production and how the reputation of the film has hardly been diminished in the years since then. Both of these commentary tracks are subtitled.
Curse Or Coincidence (6m21s): The Omen, like The Exorcist, is a film said to be cursed but then so too is a Ford Capri with 666 in the number plate. And all that these things have in common is some connection with the Devil, which is apparently quite enough for people to read much into what would otherwise be considered coincidences. Although, having owned a few Capris, it's safe to say that there is something so unpredictable as to be demonic about them, particularly when exiting a roundabout in the wet or trying to drive in any amount of snow, even little more than a smattering. Otherwise, this short feature describes the various accidents and mishaps that occurred behind the scenes that, when brought together like this, even has the cynics speaking of the Devil.
Jerry Goldsmith On...: These four featurettes (4m02s, 3m30s, 4m41s and 5m30s) interview the composer about his work on the film and, in particular, four pieces of music that are used on the score. Goldsmith is a fine subject for these features with a good memory and an honesty over how director Richard Donner and fellow composer John Williams influenced the writing of it.
Finally, on Disc One, there is an Inside Look (1m15) and a Trailer (1m34s) for the 2006 remake of The Omen as well as the Theatrical Trailer (2m20s) for the original film.
Introduction (1m57s): Once again, Richard Donner talks The Omen, briefly introducing the special features on this second disc in the set.
666 - The Omen Revealed (46m16s): It stands to reason, given its age and how well known the film is, that The Omen would have supported a decent documentary but what is surprising is that there's two of them, of which this is the first. Interviewing all of the principal members of the crew, including director Richard Donner, producer Harvey Bernhard, composer Jerry Goldsmith, writer David Seltzer and Religous Advisor Robert Munger, this sets up a background for the film with the original writing of the film, the difficulties there were in getting it made and how well it was received by an audience ripe for much more post-Exorcist devilry. What stays with the viewer through this documentary is how vital director Donner was to the project, which might seem like an obvious statement but ought to be understood better when one realises how it was Donner who excised the covens, witches and gargoyles through the production and how he structured the film to be left more open to question than it was originally.
The Omen Legacy, Part 1 (47m43s): Briefly, I looked for a third disc in this set that might have contained Part 2 but to no avail, leaving this two-disc set one part of The Omen Legacy short. So instead of the 102-minute documentary on the Region 1, we have a 47-minute first-half of it, which may, on its own, be reason enough to send UK consumers to the Internet in search of an importer. However, to this documentary, we have Jack Palance contributing a breathless narration that turns up the devilry of the film to a fever pitch, even to including footage of Satanist Anton LaVey wearing horns and a cloak and waving a sword at a pair of less-than-convinced disciples. Eventually and somewhat disappointingly, the feature moves on from this to talk about the writing and making of The Omen at which point it begins to repeat some of what was in 666 - The Omen Revealed. After that, there are some decent moments but the lack of a concluding part does leave it looking rather pointless, particularly as it ends just as The Omen is released and with mere mention of the sequels that were then due to go into production.
Extended/Deleted Dog Attack (1m24s): Without any audio but with a commentary by Brian Helgeland and Richard Donner, this extended scene shows an attack by the dog between Gregory Peck leaving his house and before arriving at the church where he intends to kill Damian. Apart from the sight of Peck killing the dog, something that, as one who dislikes dogs, we don't see anywhere near enough of in the movies, this wouldn't have been a welcome addition to the film and both Donner and Helgeland agree that The Omen is a better film without it.
Screenwriter's Notebook (14m54s): David Seltzer is back for this extended interview, in which he talks about his reasons for taking the job of writing the film - being financial, he's honest enough to admit - and what influenced him. Given the success of the films, it's no surprise that both The Exorcist and Jaws are mentioned but what's more interesting is how Seltzer talks about how the film was received and how little involvement he had with the sequels.
An Appreciation - Wes Craven on The Omen (20m18s): As one who doesn't think Craven's done anything of note since The Hills Have Eyes, I could do without his thoughts on The Omen but clearly I'm in a minority and so the producers of this DVD have asked him to contribute. After two commentaries and one-and-a-half features, Craven doesn't add very much, jumping from scene to scene in some kind of chronological order but without ever really developing any kind of theme.
Finally, there is a Still Gallery, which includes a fair number of colour and black and white stills, poster art and behind-the-scenes shots.
Interestingly, my son, like Damian, was born on the 6th June some years back but has yet to show any particularly evil tendencies and has not yet demonstrated any inclination to divide nations, declare war on Heaven and set man against man. At least he didn't say so when I asked but due to his young age, I neglected to mention anything concerned with the Whore of Babylon. Perhaps in ten years or so...
Actually, I suspect that in ten years from now, we'll still be happily discussing The Omen in whatever format exists and that a new generation will be enjoying its straightfaced Satanism. That said, there probably won't be very much added to later releases that's not included on this 30th Anniversary release so complete is this version. Indeed, when, once again, television schedulers will ignore horror fans this Hallowe'en, it will be to DVD that we will turn. One could choose much more poorly than to pick this release of The Omen out of the racks.