Just in time for Halloween, Michael Mackenzie has dipped into the R1 special edition release of The Omen, a renowned 1976 horror movie directed by Richard Donner and featuring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner.
Read Gary Couzens’ review of Damien: Omen II here.
Read Mike Sutton’s review of Omen III: The Final Conflict here.
As a small child, I remember gleefully lapping up the last hour or so of The Omen on TV, and then salivating for more. My parents thought it wise to introduce me to such wholesome family entertainment as this film about a child who is discovered to be the Devil, and I certainly had no desire to refuse such education. And in all honesty, what better way to begin a child’s appreciation of cinema than with such a timeless and compelling film as this?
Politician Robert Thorn is summoned to the hospital at 6 AM on June 6 with the news that his wife has just given birth, but the child is dead. The local priest, a kindly (or devious?) soul, offers Thorn a swap: another mother recently gave birth to a child, but died in labour. Sensing a simple solution, Thorn accepts, and for all intents and purposes becomes father to this mysterious child, with his wife none the wiser.
Appointed the American ambassador to Britain, Thorn, his wife and “their” child, charmingly named Damien, settle in a rather grand house, and all seems to be fine. Until, that is, all sorts of ghastly goings-on start occurring. Crazy priests telling him he must kill the child, for example. Big Rottweilers prowling around the garden. And a nanny who hangs herself claiming to Damien, “It’s all for you!” Gradually, Thorn begins to catch on to the fact that all is not quite right with young Damien, and he comes to realise that his child is a little sinister, to say the least…
The Omen arrived in the aftermath of the success and popularity of The Exorcist, but what distinguishes it from the hordes of imitators and cash-ins is not its script or any real sense of originality but its direction. Although the photography and production design are hardly groundbreaking, the film is competently made and almost always feels legitimate. Rather than going all-out with demons, sorcery and other such hocus-pocus usually associated with films about the Anti-christ, The Omen keeps it simple and delivers its horror in such a way that you can never quite be sure whether or not it’s all just coincidence. In the various death scenes, we can see the origins of the convoluted “Rube Goldberg-esque” chain-reaction situations that can be found in modern horror movies such as Final Destination. The infamous decapitation scene is by now a piece of filmic lore, but it really is as memorable as people say it is. Although primitive and dated by today’s standards, it remains what is possibly one of the single greatest moments in screen horror history. The Omen‘s death scenes, while not exactly bloody, are so effective and withstand the test of time because of the way in which they were edited, carefully designed in order to milk the shock value to the fullest.
What makes The Omen so much more enjoyable than its sequels is the approach director Richard Donner brought to the source material. Whereas the later films used the subject matter in an extremely literal sense, Donner basically assumed that all the events in the film could have been coincidence. The result is that The Omen is far less of a brow-beater than its sequels, especially the sanctimonious drivel that is Omen III: The Final Conflict.
The acting talent on parade is extremely impressive, with Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner taking the leads. Peck’s wooden yet authoritative presence gives an air of legitimacy to the proceedings, and David Warner is excellent and sympathetic in his role as photographer Keith Jennings. Billie Whitelaw and Patrick Troughton are suitably creepy as Damien’s Satanist nanny Mrs. Baylock and the doomed priest Father Brennan, respectively. Young Harvey Stephens also turns in a good performance as Damien, although in reality he is given little to do in this film.
It would be impossible to review this film without discussing Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Using a combination of strings and Gregorian chants, Goldsmith’s music adds a considerable amount of atmosphere and tension to the film. Although at times a little heavy-handed, the music works well, and Goldsmith’s Oscar for Best Score (his first) was well-deserved.
For the longest time I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was wrong with The Omen. I found it very difficult to point to any real flaws in the film, yet it never struck me as being deserving of the highest rating. Then, when reading a user review on IMDB, it hit me: The Omen, when all said and done, is trashy entertainment. It’s extremely well-made and engaging, but it’s trash nonetheless. There are a number of moments that are just so unbelievably silly it’s a wonder the film can be taken seriously. The characters in the film are incredibly slow to catch on to what is staring us in the face right from the opening titles: the structure of the script is fundamentally flawed in that we know Damien is the Devil right from the outset, yet most of the characters spend the first hour or so plodding around, completely oblivious to the chicanery that’s going on. No matter how many bizarre things happen, Robert Thorn seems oblivious to the fact that his son is not natural. This is not helped by Peck’s bewildered all-round “nice guy” delivery. This fellow really is incredibly slow off the mark. Then, when he finally does begin to realize what is actually going on, the conclusions he leaps to are extremely tenuous.
I should also point out that the whole Christian angle doesn’t really do much for me, since I don’t subscribe to that (or any) religion myself. The presentation of the Biblical element is a little laboured, trying just slightly too hard to legitimise it and provide textual references. A comment by David Warner’s character that the “eternal sea” described in the Bible can be interpreted as the world of modern-day politics is just slightly too comedic to sit well with skeptics like myself. Your mileage with this aspect of the film may vary depending on what the Bible means to you as an individual.
At the end of the day, The Omen is an enjoyable flick if taken in good humour. It doesn’t take itself anything like as seriously as The Exorcist, and its lack of pretentiousness makes its somewhat weighty Biblical connections easier to palate. Although not particularly scary, it has a number of very tense sequences, and the music works wonders for the atmosphere. While not a classic through-and-through by any means it is inoffensive and extremely engaging, and as good a way as any to spend a chilly Halloween night. Sing along with me now: Ave Satani, Ave Satani…
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the anamorphic transfer is not very good. It generally seems a little too dark, although the contrast levels are mostly fine. Time has not been kind to print used, and many of the colours have faded to the point that the predominant hue is red. It looks most unnatural. There is also quite a bit of colour bleed, particularly on the reds.
I’m not sure of the source for this transfer, but it looks to me like laserdisc. The image is slightly unstable, suggesting an analogue source. The level of detail is also not good: it looks suspiciously like the image was heavily filtered to hide a high amount of grain. None of this is helped by the edge enhancement that plagues the transfer from beginning to end.
Overall, this is not what I would have expected for a special edition release. I wish Fox had taken more care with this transfer because the film certainly deserves better than this.
Having compared this with the Region 2 UK release, both transfers seem to be more or less the same.
Three audio tracks are included: the original mono audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0; a 2.0 Surround remix; and a French 2.0 mono track. Being something of a purist, I selected the original mono. The Surround track seems a bit pointless, since although I am generally against remixes, it would have made much more sense to do a full 5.1 track if it was going to be remixed anyway.
The audio is barely adequate. The sound is quite thin and prone to distortion. The audio levels also fluctuate quite a bit, to the extent that some characters (especially Gregory Peck’s character) are much more quiet than others. This is almost certainly a fault of the original audio recording rather than the encoding. The surround track fares little better, with only the music score benefiting in any way from the additional audio channels.
Overall, the sound gets by, but only just. If you’re looking for the perfect disc to demonstrate your new 6.1 surround setup, look elsewhere.
The menus are nicely designed with animation and music from the film. (Interestingly, the music is of a much better quality than the audio presented in the film itself, giving something of a suggestion of just how good it could have sounded if the film had been properly remastered.) One criticism, however, is that the menu text is presented in a dark shade of red against a black background. I imagine that this could cause some problems for people with poor eyesight, as it is remarkably difficult to make out.
The packaging for the US release is acceptable but not very good. The artwork used for the UK release is much better.
Fox have put together a decent collection of extras for this special edition, far more extensive than the DVD releases of either of the film’s two theatrical sequels (or indeed the abysmal made-for-TV “cheapquel”).
Commentary – Director Richard Donner is joined by editor Stuart Baird, and together they 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. Donner implies that the original script was pretty appalling to say the least, and that he personally rewrote much of it uncredited. He also seems to regard it very much as a one-off, barely even acknowledging the existence of the sequels. He strikes me as being a man of very sound mind.
Whether intentionally or not, the commentary is very amusing. The two speakers take very little of it seriously, with Donner even improvising his own dialogue on occasions. At one point, when Gregory Peck’s character is telling Billie Whitelaw that they do not need a dog, and to “call the RSPCA, have them collect the dog…” “…and kill it!” Donner chimes in.
Overall, this is one of all-time my favourite audio commentaries. Despite being something of a comedy piece, it imparts a great deal of information about the film: it’s just a matter of sifting through the jokes and picking out the serious information.
666: The Omen Revealed – This excellent 45-minute documentary, produced and directed by J.M. Kenny (who has been responsible for some of the best supplemental material out there), is a remarkably exhaustive account of the making of The Omen, from its inception to its release. Director Richard Donner, producer Harvey Bernhard, writer David Seltzer, executive producer Mace Neufeld, editor Stuart Baird and religious adviser Robert Munger all provide plenty of informative information, although Munger is at times a little preachy, and tends to take the subject matter a little too seriously.
Curse or Coincidence – Various members of the cast discuss the bizarre things that happened on set during the production of The Omen. 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.
Jerry Goldsmith on the Omen score – Composer 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. I feel that it would have been far more effective to play the music in isolation.
Each piece can be played separately, or all at once.
Theatrical trailer – The trailer is unintentionally very funny. It starts out looking like an advertisement for a romantic drama, and then turns into what looks like a slapstick comedy. Whoever wrote this trailer was clearly trying to avoid any suggestion of the demonic aspect of the storyline, so as it progresses it looks more and more like one of those marital dramas you see on Channel 5 on weekday afternoons. The way audio clips from the movie are cut in makes it sound like the biggest scandal present in this film is the fact that Damien is not really the Thorns’ own son. None of this is helped by the fact that the on-screen text is pink! Only in Jerry Goldsmith’s score is there any indication of the true theme of the film.
The trailer is of very poor quality, presented in non-anamorphic 1.33:1. The audio, however, is of much better quality than that which appears in the film itself.
The Omen is a decent enough flick provided you don’t look for anything groundbreaking or expect to take it too seriously. Although the audio/visual presentation is disappointing, the supplemental material is of a high standard. Take my advice: the sequels are not worth your time and money, so buy The Omen on its own instead of purchasing the more expensive Trilogy box set. The film works perfectly well on its own and seems to have been viewed as a one-off by its director anyway.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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