Thursday 28 October 2010

Omen Holiday

The Omen Pentology Box

666 Warning of the Beast: This article contains devilish spoilers.

Ok... It’s been literally decades since I saw the original Omen trilogy and I’d never seen Omen 4 or the remake released on the 6th day of the 6th month of 2006... and what with every horror movie blogger on twitter going nuts about Halloween I thought I might as well jump on the rickety band-hearse and have a go at a horror movie blog too. Although I do feel it a bit strange doing something for such a dubious occasion because the truth is, when I was a child growing up in the late 60s/early 70s, Halloween was never really an event over here in the UK... in fact it barely got a mention and certainly we weren’t plagued by trick or treaters or encouraged to watch various horror movies to celebrate said non-event. I wasn’t even allowed to frolic naked in the woods and plunge my dagger bloodthirstily into an undefiled virgin as a sign of my willingness to sacrifice the pure in heart for a prosperous and everlasting life... let alone dress up in a dodgy costume and threaten people for sweets in a kind of ritualistic, monster endorsed protection scam. In fact, the only real reference I saw to Halloween each year was when the Sunday edition of The Observer would drop through our door and I would turn to that “special” page near the back and read about Linus and Sally waiting in the pumpkin patch all night, looking out for The Great Pumpkin.

But as usual, I digress.

So anyway... I racked my brains with what to watch and I remembered I’d not seen all The Omen movies and figured out, as an extra special treat, I’d watch them all back to back on the weekend before Halloween so I can write some kind of long and winding and hopefully, at least, marginally entertaining review of them which I can try to complete so people can read it in time for Halloween if they so desire. But the real clincher for this deal, the real deciding factor on this was... oh, bugger it. Alright, here’s what happened. I went to the Camden Film Fair and saw a copy of the 6 disc set of the five Omen films (The Omen Pentology) going for a measly five quid... so I bought the darn things and figured they’d be good blog material for this bizarre Halloween thingy everybody seems to be making a fuss about again this year... okay? You dragged it out of me.

But just so you don’t feel irritated about my incredible cheapness at having purchased all these films for just a miserable £5, please realise that I stuck through watching all five of these movies as the quality of them deteriorated exponentially as the series progressed. Back-to-back with an overnight sleep after three of them for the pretension of preserving my own sanity. So it’s not like I didn’t do some work here! Anyone who’s seen Omen 4 will probably know what I’m talking about here and hopefully sympathise. Anyway, on with the show...

The Omen 1976 US
Directed by Richard Donner
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

I remember seeing this on TV when I was 10 or 11 and absolutely loving it. 30 or more years later... I still think this is a great movie and I can see why it had such an impact and garnered such box office success on its release. Mind you, if it hadn’t been a hit, we’d have never have had to sit through Omen 4... um... no, still glad they made the first one, regardless of the consequences of their success.

If you don’t know the story of The Omen then you probably aren’t into horror films and you should probably be reading one of my other blogposts instead of this lengthy piece. Let me just do a quick run down of major iconic elements for those of you who haven’t indulged... just the basics... killed and swapped for Jackal’s spawn born at time of baby’s death. Son of the devil goes home with new British ambassador and called Damian. He has a 666 birthmark on his head. People know son of satan is around and want him dead. People die in devilish and cunning ways. British ambassador realises truth and goes to kill son but is shot dead by police instead. Damian is adopted and rises to power to be Devil born from politics to destroy the world... yada, yada, yada.

Okay, I’ve been trying to pick apart some of the reasons why the very first Omen movie worked so well whereas the sequels... really didn’t, and I’ve come up with the fact that The Omen has a kind of mystery element to it. The great actor David Warner plays a photo-journalist and his snaps of people show distortions on the prints which predict their violent deaths. Gregory Peck plays Ambassador Thorn and when he teams up with David Warner to find out just what the heck the violently deceased priest played by Doctor Who legend Patrick Troughton has been going on about, you are really rooting for the characters and willing them to put all the supernatural jigsaw puzzle pieces together in their heads. I remember as a child being absolutely on the edge of my seat when each new photograph and clue was followed up. This is a dimension the sequels are sadly lacking but, to be fair to them, you already know all the answers by the end of the first movie so you really can’t introduce much of a mystery element into the material after that point.

It’s a really well written (by David Seltzer) little horror movie and the performances are, quite frankly, all superb and you’ve got a brilliant cast so it’s really not surprising. In addition to the three acting legends I mentioned in my last paragraph, you also have Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw and Leo McKern added to the mix. Seriously folks, on an acting level this film cannot fail.

So good script, good acting. What else?

Well, something I never noticed the last time I watched it (probably because in the late 70s they would have been showing it in ‘orrible pan and scan on TV) is the composition of the shots in this first one. Donner’s a great director but I don’t know much about his key visual signatures... but what I did notice in this one is that nearly all the shot compositions in this film (apart from one where Damian runs into Lee Remick on his bike and terminates her pregnancy by knocking her to a long fall from a flight or two up) are pitched to the right of the screen. Almost everything runs in perspective to the right of the shot... an effect which works consistently and well throughout the running time. I’d be really interested, time permitting, in going back to some other Donner films to see if they’re put together in the same way. Because this one just works so well.

And then of course there’s the music! The late, great Jerry Goldsmith composed a lot of movie scores in his long career and received his fair share of Oscar nominations over the years... and rightly so. His score for The Omen is phenomenal and influential (in the worst way) and it’s the one time in his entire career that he actually won that Oscar. There’s a great and sweeping Hollywood love theme but the most remembered sequences are those where he’s got a choir chanting latin lyrics, often set to a jaunty rhythm which maybe shouldn’t quite work... but actually does work really well. It’s unsettling and breeds anxiety in the viewer and really serves the film well. It’s not non-stop like scores these days... in fact it’s quite a short score. Jerry Goldsmith was a master of spotting soundtracks (spotting is the art of choosing which sequences of a film to write a musical cue for and which to leave unscored) and it really shows in this film with great, long sequences left unscored, allowing for the dread filled sequences to carry a greater impact on the viewer.

I said Jerry’s score was influential in the worst way and that’s because, every time now somebody want’s to do a parody of The Omen they use Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana... and the reason they do this is, for some reason, people think this is the music used in The Omen. No... it’s not even close in structure, melody or tempo and I’m always left wondering who it is that thinks Jerry’s score is even remotely similar to Orff’s signature piece. I’ve even seen Classics meet the Movies style albums include the Orff piece and claim it’s from The Omen on the track listings... madness!

Goldsmith’s score would exert a very long reaching influence on all of the subsequent movies in the series, even the ones he didn’t score, as you will see later.

Okay... so if you’re a fan of horror movies, The Omen is a great movie to sink your Halloween fangs into. Which brings us to...

Damien: Omen 2 1978 US
Directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

The one really good thing about Damien: Omen 2 hits you like a ton of bricks as soon as the movie starts... and that is Mr. Goldsmiths follow up score. If The Omen score got him the Oscar, this movie should have got him a knighthood. It’s even better than the score to the first movie... it’s like The Omen on viagra. Fast syncopated rhythms mixed with haunting and often aggressive vocal chanting... it pounds your musical soul like a strong tide pounds away at a cliffs edge. Truly beautiful and sometimes disturbing music. The vocal motif for the “crow” which is one of Damian’s familiars, is true genius.

That being said... there’s a lot not to like about this movie. As that pounding masterpiece seduces it’s way into your eardrums, we join Leo McKern as he races to join Ian Hendry to get the seven daggers which will kill Damien. These are the daggers that he gave good ol’ Gregory Peck to do the deed with and it was established in the first film that you need all seven to kill off Damian... the first to extinguish the life and then the other six radiating out from the first piercing to destroy the soul... take note of that because they really screw that up in the next movie. My whole problem with this opening sequence where McKern and Hendry get buried alive in sand is that this little prologue to the main narrative is supposed to take place only about 8 weeks after the end of the first movie... but Leo McKerns hair and make up look very little like they did in the first one. Seriously, the continuity between how he looked in the first one and how he looks in the second one is seriously screwed.

After this sequence the film jumps several years in time... Damian is in Military Academy and is now living with Gregory Peck's brother as his new father figure, played by William Hurt. This film is all about Damian discovering his demonic inheritance and killing all those who get in the way of his family fortune of wealth and political power. Where he had Billie Whitelaw playing his “devil’s protector” figure Mrs. Blaylock in the first one... and a really big dog, here we have a young Lance Henricksen (Yay! Frank Black’s in an Omen movie) playing a similar role along with a crow and... you know... a really big dog. Unfortunately, having Lance Henrickson in this movie really does nothing to save it.

The first film is notable for it’s violent deaths presented as gory set pieces... but they were well paced and made sense and held interest in the context of the growing mystery of the photographs. Unfortunately, this film seems to be trying to give you even gorier or nasty deaths (woman with eyes pecked out and run over by truck, guy cut in half by lift cable etc.) without really having any need or emotional context to them. It really does seem to be a few set pieces hung together for the sake of having them in there and this really doesn’t serve the film very well... which is appropriate because there is no real story, the shot set-ups are fairly run of the mill (to these tired old eyes anyway) and it’s just, plainly speaking, an uninteresting watch.

Which is a shame but, seriously, other than the music it’s a dull watch... just not as dull as...

The Final Conflict: Omen 3 1981 US
Directed by Graham Baker
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

Yeah this one’s terrible. Damian is all grown up now and, like his pseudo-father, becomes the British Ambassador based in London. He manages this by using his demonic ways to influence the death of the current Brit Ambassador who sets a press conference so that when the door to his office is opened, a shotgun blows his head off. I was quite surprised to see that his secretary was played by a young, uncredited Ruby Wax and it is she, herself, who inadvertently pulls the trigger on her boss.

Actually this movie could have done with a few more sequences like this in it. You remember I said the last film seemed like gory set pieces written in and glued together for the sake of having them? Well this film has hardly any of those kinds of scenes and you really do miss them. The Final Conflict: Omen 3 is a dull plod of a movie which deals with Damien’s King Herrod-like reaction to stop the son of God being born into the world... but the pay off to that... the scene where you want to see the Devil and God battling in evil confrontation... a final conflict, if you will, just doesn’t happen. At the end of the movie Damien just gets stabbed with one of those knives and dies. Good triumphs over evil and the credits roll.

And about those daggers people. A sect of good guys (one played by Tony Vogel of Dick Barton fame) who are there to make sure the son of God is born and Damian fails are each given one of the daggers so each can make their own assassination attempt on Damien... but we know from the previous two films that this just isn’t going to work, right? You need all seven to get the job done, remember? This just best serves to demonstrate just how poor the writing has gotten by the time of the third movie... which is a shame because that very first movie was really something special.

By this time, the familiar trap of recurring horror films with lengthy character arcs has happened and a lesson could be learned from watching Universal’s old Mummy series in regards to this. If these first three films are supposed to take place over the space of, say, 20 years... how come they are always set in the time contemporary to their release? What’s up with that?

And I’ll bet you can guess what the one good thing about this movie was now. Yep! Goldsmith’s score is a far cry from his scores to the previous two pictures in tone and style but it’s still a corker of a score. I think it’s on a level with some of his work on Poltergeist and maybe the Vger music from his Star Trek: The Motion Picture score. Whatever the style is though... it’s another winner and I think the differences occur because there is a sense of hope and lightness all the way through this one which wasn’t really prevalent in the first two movies. This was the last Omen film Goldsmith specifically scored but... well hold on, let’s not get ahead of myself...

The Omen 4: Awakenings 1991 US
Directed by Jorge Montesi, Dominique Othenin-Girard
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

Omen 4: Awakenings is a made-for-TV movie which had limited success and was, I believe, released theatrically in some countries... although I don’t remember it ever getting any kind of broadcast or screening over here in this country.

Or, to put it another way...

Omen 4 is a preposterous movie which really tries hard in places and attempts to establish a bond with the audience through some of the characters but ultimately fails on many levels.

The Devil’s son is replaced in this one with the Devil’s daughter and the main female protagonist who plays the mother who adopts this child at birth, is played by none other than Faye Grant, who older readers may remember played the charismatic resistance leader in the original miniseries and follow up series of V on TV. But even she cannot save this awful excuse for an entry into the Omen series.

And the one thing which totally does more to kill it than anything else is Jonathan Sheffer’s unbelievably inappropriate score. Seriously... it needs to be heard in the context of the movie to be believed but I bet it makes a great stand alone listen for fans of Carl Stalling’s work. Almost the entire show is Mickey Mousing it (Mickey Mousing is the term for music which is designed to catch and highlight on-screen action) and the net effect is that you have this seriously comic score playing all over the damned thing and making it sound like a Tom and Jerry cartoon (and I have nothing against Tom and Jerry music, have a CD soundtrack of that stuff myself). It’s like the studio executives just said to the composer, “This stuff is too dark for us. Can you lighten the mood somewhat so we can sell more Hallmark moments during the commercial breaks please?”

And when they’re not playing Mr. Sheffer’s score, they track in a bunch of cues “needledrop” style from Jerry Goldsmith’s first and third Omen scores... sometimes with a little overdub of electronics by Sheffer on top. This method of scoring reaches it’s laugh out loud funniest moment when a private detective is about to be demonically killed and he’s having hallucinations in the street. He looks up to see a group of hooded pseudo monks lip synching the latin chants from Goldsmith’s Omen score and, quite frankly, I was bouncing with laughter at this point. What the f---? Is this supposed to be a comedy?

At the end of this shambling, comic zombie of a movie, Faye Grant is demonically influenced to shoot herself through the head and the devil’s spawn is waiting in the wings to return in a further sequel which, thankfully, the studios never bothered to inflict on us. Good for them... but that wasn’t the end of the Omen’s diabolical grasp for the cinema box office...

The Omen 2006 US
Directed by John Moore
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

On the sixth day of the sixth month of 2006, Fox released their re-make of the original film. Now I almost went to the cinema to see this because, although I mostly tend to steer away from modern remakes, the initial teaser trailer for this one showing a young Damian playing on the swings who then turns slightly to look dead into camera was quite eerily done and shows a certain cinematic competence (it’s a shame in a way that this little sequence isn’t in the final movie). I can’t quite remember why I never got to get to the last showing before it left my local cinema but I suspect sex was involved somewhere along the line. I could either go to the last screening of The Omen or travel many miles to my (then) girlfriends house and have a weekend full of bizarre, demonic sex... as usual in these things, sex won out on that particular occasion.

Thing is though... it’s not a bad remake now I come to look at it... it’s just completely unnecessary. Here’s the stats on it...

1. David Seltzer, who wrote the original movie back in 1976, is once again credited as being the writer on this one. That’s because the script on this one is almost, word for word with the odd exception here and there (possibly improvised or changed around by an actor) identical to the original one from the first movie. It’s framed from different angles and some of the locales are changed but, ultimately, it’s like watching a new movie run off from the exact same template. One or two differences like a zoo replacing Windsor Safari Park (from the first one) and a slightly different, but no less grim decapitation scene are changes but other than that it’s pretty much a total rerun.

2. The actors in this are major talents and all do a great job except... they are not as great or legendary as the original cast who you are always going to compare them to. You have Liev Schreiber playing Gregory Peck, Julia Stiles playing Lee Remick, Peter Postlethwaite playing Patrick Troughton, David Thewliss (one of my favourite actors) playing David Warner, Mia Farrow playing Billie Whitelaw and Michael Gambon playing Leo McKern. They’re all seriously good too... just not as serious as the originals.

3. Marco Beltrami’s score is excellent but is typical of modern horror scoring. He’s favoured leaving any choral chanting behind and going for sinister and atonal with the odd bit of rhythm and melody... and it works really well. However... why go to that effort when you are going to have six piano notes in one scene, where Liev Shreiber sees the news story of the skewered priest, lifted directly from the sinister lead into Goldsmith’s original main theme, which was a piano rendition of the love theme The Piper Dreams? No other musical reference in there except during the end credits where the original, latin chanting Ave Santani theme is briefly rearranged about halfway through. Why? Do you really want people to compare one of the greatest scores ever written for an American horror movie with a piece of 21st century horror scoring. Jerry always wins... he has the devil on his side.

OK, so it was worth it for me to see this remake to just see what kind of spin David Thewlis was going to give to the David Warner character but ultimately... it really didn’t need to be redone. But I can see why they did it. Releasing it on 6/6/06 was a bit of a marketing opportunity that you can only waste once!

All in all, I quite enjoyed rewatching, in my own perverse way, these movies for my Halloween “celebration”. The first film will get a spin again in a year or two. And the second and third are tolerable for their tap-your-feet-along-video-jukebox-style appeal with Jerry’s golden scores. But ultimately I can’t recommend any of these movies bar that first one... but it’s a strong recommend for that first one if you’ve never scene it before. The way Richard Donner builds up tension and suspense is riveting.

Take a look... but keep one eye out for sharp, spiky, falling objects!

1 comment:

  1. Ya, I thought the 2006 remake wasn't bad either, but definitely unnecessary. Just something to do at the cinema when you had nothing better to do with your afternoon.

    2 questions:

    When is Disney going to do a remake starring Mickey Mouse as Damien?

    Do you keep your brains that you rack in separate jars? Or in a heap in the corner of your bedroom?