“The Omen, 1976”

“Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666.”

The Omen, 1976 (Gregory Peck), 20th Century Fox

I remember a funny story Richard Donner told while being interviewed by The Movie Channel upon the broadcast of The Omen. He said he planned for the final shot of Damien at his father’s funeral to have a simple fade-out on the boy observing all the powerful politicians in attendance and then the credits would roll. Instead, the kid (Harvey Stephens) turns and looks at the camera and smiles. The moment sent a chill up the director’s spine so he kept it in the movie. It was just one of those happy accidents film directors are sometimes gifted. On it’s own merits, The Omen is more often than not, schlocky. The embarrassing and unnecessary 2006 remake starring Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, and Mia Farrow is even more so; substituting this version’s beautiful photography and deliberate pacing for over-saturation, jump scares, and terrible performances.

Please don’t smile!

Gregory Peck (who allegedly turned down a salary in exchange for box office percentage points) plays American diplomat Robert Thorn. His wife (Lee Remick) gives birth but the baby dies (or so he is told) so he arranges to adopt a child in it’s place rather than upset his wife. Soon after he is transferred to the United Kingdom and Damien grows. On the occasion of Damien’s birthday, his nanny kills herself after locking eyes with an evil-looking dog. Well, that’s peculiar. Thorn is visited by a creepy priest who insists Damien is the son of Satan, the Antichrist. This freaks out Peck, as it would freak out me, my wife, and everyone around us if we were given this information. If I were the priest, I would’ve started off with a series of urgent letters, each becoming more and more ridiculous until I had to finally meet the guy. Peck, being a rotten cheat politician assumes he’s being blackmailed. I think God would look poorly on blackmail.

Meanwhile groovy photographer David Warner has been tailing Peck and Damien. He snaps a photo of the priest as he is escorted off the ground and sees a strange “photoshop” in the picture after he develops it. Apparently, the priest is going to be impaled shortly. His camera must be evil! The Thorns hire creepy new governess Billie Whitelaw to replace the lady who killed herself. Billie has unearthly powers over the evil devil-dog and wields an amazing amount of control over young Damien. The Thorns want to take Damien to church, but Billie advises against it. On the way to church, Damien flips out and suddenly gets a temperature. That’s not a good sign, is it? Nor is the evil devil-dog who constantly guards Damien’s bedroom door and growls at everyone but Billie, who defies the Thorns at every turn. Mom takes Damien to the zoo and he scares the giraffes and makes the baboons go nuts. The movie goes along like this as a series of episodes until Warner enters the picture with his Twilight Zone camera.

Damnit! Stop smiling!

Poor Lee Remick! Already on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she becomes pregnant, falls from a high ceiling (with Damien’s help), miscarries, and is then pushed out of a hospital window, where she mercifully dies. It’s interesting how much ill fortune can befall a family who just wanted to have a kid! I mean, good Lord! This big budget spectacle is over-the-top in it’s depictions of violence. Warner isn’t spared either. You might say he loses his head! Thank you! I’m here all week! Donner directs Dvaid Seltzer’s original script with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In fact, you could re-cut this movie as a comedy and lose nary a narrative beat. Even scenes of tragedy are somewhat raucous and could be played for laughs. Still, The Omen is a lot of fun. Due to his experience as a television director, and with only three feature films to his credit, Donner (beginning with The Omen) would become a premier director-producer for Hollywood in ’80s and ’90s with films such as Superman, The Goonies, Ladyhawke, and the Lethal Weapon franchise.

Next up – more wolf stuff!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Something Wicked This Way Comes

“I won’t always be younger than you.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983 (Jason Robards), Buena Vista

There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she realizes his parents are not gods, not super-heroes; sources of steady nurturing and strength, but flawed, weak old analogs, begging for better days. Young Will Halloway sees this failing in his old dad (a heartbreaking Jason Robards) on the day Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival arrives in his small Illinois town. Will and his friend, Jim Nightshade, snoop and investigate. Easily spooked by an oddly porcelain Pam Grier’s tarantula, they run off. The next day, the carnival opens. Good-natured, one-legged, one-armed Ed takes a trip through the wacky Mirror Maze, where he sees a reflection of himself with missing appendages intact. Elderly and bitter Miss Foley sees a beautiful world in the Maze only she can imagine. Lonely men are seduced by gorgeous belly dancers, and given money and cigars.

Obviously, we have a carnival that promises and delivers on thrills and excitement, but of course there is a price to be paid for all that is given. Will and Jim are busted for trespassing in an out-of-order carousel, and they are confronted by Mr. Dark (freaky Jonathan Pryce). The boys stow away until after sunset so they can see what goes on here when everybody leaves. They see one of the townies, barber Mr. Cooger riding the carousel backwards, and being transformed into a child. His shop is closed down due to “illness.” The child takes up residence with Miss Foley, who believes him to be her nephew. Jim returns home to find his mother dancing with a man who is not his father. Will discovers Jim’s father rescued him from drowning during a picnic by a lake several years before. Robards regrets not having saved the boy himself, which stirs up feelings of inadequacy. Miss Foley looks into a mirror and sees a beautiful young woman staring back at her. She becomes this woman, but then is almost immediately struck blind.

Meanwhile a storm is brewing. Will and Jim smell lightning in the air, and a plague of spiders falls on Jim’s house. This is a truly frightening scene, even by today’s standards. Mr. Dark is aware of what the boys know about his crazy carnival, so he sets about looking for them. Dark confronts Robards (who hides the boys) and sees right through him. Robards holds his own, and begins to realize Dark’s awesome powers. The carnival seems to be consuming the town, devouring the hearts of it’s most promising people. In a way, the town was the prison of these people’s failures, and freedom from that prison equals death. Robards joins Will and Jim in their investigation of the carnival and it’s evil proprietor. Pryce’s Dark (as the Devil’s own stand-in) attempts to seduce the boys (particularly fatherless Jim) to join him in the carnival. Robards must fight Dark for possession of his son’s soul.

The film is truly marvelous to behold.  Ray Bradbury adapts his own short story (the story and an early spec-script becoming the basis for a full-length novel), “Black Ferns”, and Jack Clayton imbues his film with horrifying visuals that provide a grotesque counterpoint to initial scenes of small town beauty and Bradbury’s requisite hunger for nostalgia.  You can almost feel the dried leaves of October crackle under your feet.  A lot of the action is strangely intense for a film produced by Disney.  James Horner’s score is delightful.  Owing to problems in editing, the ending feels rushed in comparison to the build-up of everything that’s come before.  Richly drawn characters disappear three-quarters of the way through the film, and Pam Grier’s powers are never adequately explained.  These are minor flaws.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is a gem of a movie.

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks.

Happy New Year!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.