10/29/11

The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It #3 - The Omen (1976)

Sometimes you have to take things as a sign, a harbinger of what is to come. Such as when I walked into a store while in the planning stages of this list, and looked on the rack only to see all three of the original theatrical adventures of Damien Thorne. I knew it meant something. It had to be a portent.  I knew right off the bat it meant that I would own all three films. What I didn't know was that the three films would mirror the #3 position on The Halloween Top 13 like the strange vague foretelling of a gypsy's tea leaves, and that was not all to this prognostication. Yet I couldn't figure it out. So I called up my friend Richard Donner to ask him what he thought these signs, portents,and harbingers might mean. After complaining once more about the cut of Superman 2, Mr. Donner told me it must be an omen, the omen, or more specifically his Omen. Then he made me promise never to call again. Well, he was exactly right, and I'm pleased to say that #3 on the Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It is none other than that tale of the Devil in diapers a.k.a Rosemary's Baby's playdate, The Omen (1976).

When Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) was told that his child came out stillborn, he knew his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) would be crushed. Desperate for a solution, the ambassador is convinced by an Italian priest substitute his own child for another, an orphan born just as his own died. For the first four years of young Damien's life, he seemed like a normal child. After the events of his fifth birthday party, where his nanny hung herself, everything changed. A sinister nanny (Billie Whitelaw) arrives suddenly and a priest keeps hounding Robert warning him of danger and impending doom, but who wants to think that their son is Antichrist. As people begin to die and be hurt around Damien, including Katherine, Robert can no longer deny his suspicion. With the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), the distraught father pieces together the puzzle of his spuriously aquired son's origins and discovers that without Damien's death there will be no future for anyone. The signs are too clear, and there is only one choice Robert can make.

Legendary actor Gregory Peck took a paycut to star in The Omen in exchange for a percentage of the back-end. It turned out to be the highest grossing film of the star's career, and it featured some of his best acting since his Oscar winning To Kill a Mockingbird. The character arc of Robert and Katherine Thorne, from parents who desire nothing more than a child to believing their son is the spawn of Satan's loins, is intensely compelling. In the early portions of the film, up until Katherine's accident, much of the film's tension is conveyed through the tension building between the parents over their son. Peck and Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder, The Detective) are pitch perfect, and while Harvey Stephens' Damien in his schoolboy outfit might be the iconic image, the film belongs to the adults. I think it's to director Richard Donner's credit that he so judiciously used Stephens and didn't rely on the creepy kid factor too heavily which would not be the case in the lesser sequels.

While I know that no parent would want to think or suspect that the kid they received in the middle of the night from a priest you had not previously ever met was the devil, I'm really not sure what took Robert Thorne so long to come around. First, Damien's nanny hangs herself from an outside window in the midst of his fifth birthday party. Then the priest that warns your wife is in danger is impaled. (By a really easily dodged hazard.) Then your wife is almost killed. Yet it still takes Robert a couple more deaths and a sloppily applied haircut before he starts to believe. I would have thought David Warner's experience with concentrated evil, even in a kid form, but sadly this was before he made Time Bandits. Billy Whitelaw, who would go on to appear as one of the villainous townsfolk in Hot Fuzz, adds an essential layer of creepy to the proceedings as Damien's Satanic nanny, and Harvey Stephens, who would not return in 1978's Damien: Omen 2 earns his paycheck and his place in horror icon history with just a small smile in the closing seconds of the film. It was a scene that wouldn't have existed if not for studio head Alan Ladd, Jr. who insisted the original ending be reshot. And who is going to argue with a studio head that says that you can't kill Satan? He would know.

While The Omen was deserving of many acting award nominations, it won composer Jerry Goldsmith his only Oscar for best original score. The demonic theme he penned, "Ave Satani" was also nominated for original song, but lost out to Paul "Phantom of the Paradise" Williams composition "Evergreen" from A Star is Born. Director Richard Donner, best known for Superman II and The Goonies, was just coming out of several years of television work, but it doesn't show here. Donner seemed to think on a bigger scope from the beginning of his film career, and that including enlisting Goldsmith, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy) and film editor Stuart Baird (Tommy, Lisztomania), all seasoned veterans who had proved their abilities to rise above their contemporaries. Together with the cast, they came together to tell a story that is chilling, compelling, and all too full of real emotions.

These last three picks on The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It are all films that I feel inform the mass public opinion of who the devil and his minions are. The Omen has become so ubiquitous in pop culture that I can't count the number of times I've heard of a tantrum throwing child referred to as a little Damien. The film also deals in the prophetic language of Revelations. Some of the interpretations of the Biblical text talked about in the film have been thoroughly debunked by scholars over the years, but interestingly I was able to find several instances on the internet where the quotes were repeated verbatim an theological sites with nary a mention of David Seltzer (Punchline, Lucas) or his script. The Omen is a film people who have never seen it, who will never see it, who've never even heard of it unknowingly reference. While the devil may not have actually brought his son to Earth, he surely entrenched him firmly in our pop culture.

That brings us to the end of yet another entry into the Halloween Top 13, and that means there's only two more films left to go. Think you can guess what devilish delights I have waiting for you? Well maybe some of them appear on today's reader list submitted by the Deadly Doll herself Emily Intravia of The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense, scroll down under the trailer to check it out.

Bugg Rating


Emily, that Deadliest of Dolls, is one of my favorite people. Not only do we have fun doing the occasional (semi-regular) film swap, we always have a good time getting together and shooting the bull at Horrorhound weekend. I'll be seeing Emily in person to thank her for her list soon, but until then, I have to say that some of your picks surprised the hell out of me!


13. Night Train to Terror (1985)  God and Satan making bets is a pretty super starting point for any story (see: Book of Job) but when executed with the competence of a banana peel, it's absolutely awesome. This 1985 anthology is a cut and paste job composed of three messes originally intended to be full-length films but wisely stopped mid-filming and thrown inside a box that somehow became...this. The most important things to know about Night Train to Terror are that God is played by a Colonel Sanders impersonator, Richard Moll pulls double duty, a paper mache flying ant kills pornographers, and the most 1985 band of 1985 sings a colorful ditty about having something to do. Also note that Richard Moll is wisely credited as Charles Moll and that more hilariously, Satan is (in the original credits) played by Lu Sifer and God is played by...himself. We live in a wonderful world. 

12. Jigoku (1960) Allow me to teach you some Japanese: Jigoku means hell, and that should tell you a thing or two about this 1960 surreal horror film by Nobuo Nakagawa that follows a guilty driver into eternal torment and a gorily bizarre finale. Now part of the classy Criterion Collection, Jigoku is gross, violent, weird, mind-boggling, and now considered to be one of the true founding fathers of gore cinema. Most importantly is the fact that it presents a hell that will scare you straight into heavenly behavior. 

11. I Don't Want to Be Born! (aka the more porn-ready The Devil Within Her) (1975) Joan Collins plays a retired stripper who spurned the advances of an angry cabaret dwarf named Hercules who in turn cursed her baby to be possessed and now it kills people while wearing a bonnet. I have nothing more to say. 

10. Sheitan (2006) Truthfully, this is one of those rather unlikable films busting with awful awful people and goat milk. What makes it list-worthy, however, is the fact that it stars Vincent Cassell in one of the most bonkers (bonkerest?) performances ever given by a man, woman, or extraterrestrial. As a farmhand/pregnant woman/devil worshipper (?), Cassell takes the idea of 'acting' and runs it over with a mack truck on steroids. It's joyous, weird, and wonderful a sight to behold, even if everything else about this Christmas set film is ugly. 

9. Demonic Toys (1992) When planning a stakeout with your pregnant partner, really the worst thing you could do is end up dying in a warehouse filled with excessively ugly playthings. Because naturally, logic would dictate that your surviving girlfriend will spend the rest of her evening defending her fetus from being replanted (by "doing the nasty," of course) with the seen of a big ugly demon whose minions include a wise-cracking baby doll, sharp-toothed jack-in-the-box, and bicycling blonds in gas masks. Thankfully, the way to survive the eternal torment of being Satan's mom is to just win a card game of war. So there's hope. 

8. Frailty (2001) What I really love about this underrated Gothic chiller--aside from my intense crush on Bill Paxton--is that the demon aspect is actually far less horrifying than what Frailty (SPOILER ALERT) ultimately says about God. If you take the reality of this film, then yes, there are demons in the world and good men are called upon to slay them. Good men who are single fathers trying their best to raise their children, much less teach them the art of murder and maybe even murder them themselves. Who IS the villain of Frailty? Is it Paxton's maniacally devout but surprisingly caring dad? His rebellious son who proves to be an ACTUAL demon? Or a god so cruel as to put what could be good people in such a dilemma? 

7. Lo (2009) This quirky but melancholy indie is practically custom made for any fan of Joss Whedon, particularly those who cite Once More With Feeling as proof of his godlike powers or consider Xander and Anya the cutest television couple to ever try to make sexual innuendos while on roller skates or wearing eyepatches. Lo tells the story of a young man who summons the titular demon to help him find his mysterious girlfriend, whom it seems has been captured and dragged to hell. Musical interludes abound (performed by hellish Nazis, no less) and the theater-like film unfolds with a wonderful balance of weird humor, dark and cruel dialogue, and a sad and sweet romance. 

6. House of the Devil (2010) The indie darling of 2010 has divided some fans, but its retro style, slow buildup, and batch of funny to terrifying performances makes it must-include on this list. 

5. Fear No Evil (1981) "My son's the DEVIL! My son's THE DEVIL!" shouts a grumpy old man in this hilarious hodgepodge of 1980s horror tropes. High school student Stefan Arngrim (who would later terrorize classmates in a different style in Class of 1984) is, quite simply, the Antichrist. In the 1980s, being an Antichrist was awesome. Like, raise a bunch of zombies during a passion play Easter performance awesome. Like, dress like Frank 'n Furter awesome. Like, give the school bully BREASTS awesome. Or, perhaps even more memorably, DEATH BY DODGEBALL awesome. I have nothing more to say. 

4. Rosemary's Baby (1968) Perhaps an obvious pick, but come on: Mia Farrow gives one of the genre's all-time best performances as a weak, willowy soon-to-be-mother of a baby born during a satanic orgy headed by neighbor from hell (and Oscar winner) Ruth Gordon. Though it has its detractors, I consider Roman Polanski's film one of the genre's true classics, a true slow burn that makes its audience want nothing more than to protect the helpless Rosemary straight to the inevitable end. 

3. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999) Has there ever been a more lovable, huggable, and hummable devil?  

2. Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995) Billy Zane by no means has a spotless track record when it comes to acting (being the worst thing in Titanic isn't something to be proud of when you're competing with a flirtation scene involving spit) but when he's on, the man is charismatic, sexy, dangerous, and gloriously hairless. Demon Knight is one of the sadly unheralded box office genre duds of the '90s, but dangit if it isn't a joyous good time. Between the diverse and interesting cast (Thomas Hayden Church! William Sadler! CCH Pounder! Jade Pinkett Non Smith!), cheeky HBO elevated humor and most surprisingly, neatly dark backstory explaining vampires, Judas, and the apocalypse, it's a strong movie on its own. Add Billy Zane's cowboy demon going haywire and golly is it a fun time! 

1. The Exorcist III (1990) The second sequel to one of cinema's true horror classics, a film practically raped by its studio and saddled with the wrong ending and title has no right to be good, much less the hands-down scariest film of the 90s. Adapting his own novel Legion, author William Peter Blatty brings his tale to the screen with wise eyes AND ears. The dialogue is perfectly written and delivered by the likes of thespian gods George C. Scott, Brad Dourif, and Jason Miller with pure brilliance. The nature of the kills is so horrific that just HEARING about their aftermaths sends chills up your spine, while the visual scares--among them senior citizen ceiling crawlers and a well-known nurse kill that is, I exaggerate not, the most frightening 2 second shot in the history of cinema--are equally brilliant. Yes, the story only makes sense after you read the book and revisit the movie more than ocne and the final exorcism proves fairly meaningless, but flaws included, The Exorcist III remains one of the most tragically underrated genre films of all time. 

2 comments:

  1. Yeah man, this is THE devil film for me.

    GOLDSMITH FOREVER! AVE SATANI!

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Omen is always way better than I think it'll be I don't know what that says about my memory....

    ReplyDelete

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