Between the late sixties and mid seventies, a trio of religious-themed horror films infiltrated American movie theaters. Decades later, these films have lingered in our collective consciousness and each one, in their own right, have become models of the genre. With the current remake in theaters, the supernatural classic "The Omen" gets a double-dip release from 20th Century Fox. Not as explicitly graphic as "The Exorcist" or as psychologically dense as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Omen" strikes a middle ground between the two extremes, carving out its own unique identity. Incorporating a "less-is-more" approach, "The Omen" relies on acting, atmosphere and an intense musical score to convey a slowly building sense of dread. All these years later, have the ravages of time diluted the original power of this film?
"The Omen" begins in Rome on June 6th, at 6:00 a.m. as future U.S. Ambassador to England Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) rushes through the city streets to be with his pregnant wife Katherine (Lee Remick). During childbirth, her baby arrives stillborn and a unique opportunity is presented before Robert. Unbeknownst to Katherine, Robert adopts a baby boy whose Mother has died (ignoring the cardinal rule to never adopt a baby through improper channels, since your new son might be the product of an unholy dalliance between the Devil and a Jackal) and soon the family takes up residence on a breathtaking estate in London. Five years of familial and professional bliss passes by when suddenly their lives are disrupted by a series of bizarre deaths and odd behavior by their little bundle of joy Damien (Harvey Stephens). An arrival by a priest from Rome gives Robert a dire warning about his son, pleading with the boy's Father to "accept the Lord Jesus," which gives Robert something to chew on as his cockney-voiced moppet makes googly-eyes at roaming Rottweilers. If this isn't enough, the family has to contend with a creepy Nanny (Billie Whitelaw) sent to watch over the equally creepy Damien and Katherine slowly begins to lose her mind (and her footing near the upstairs railing). Coinciding with this unpleasantness is a photographer named Jennings (David Warner) whose pictures have foreshadowed the numerous deaths that have occurred. With his help, Robert embarks on a fact-finding mission to figure out the mystery revolving around his adopted son and how Damien relates to a prophecy that foretells the arrival of the Anti-Christ in The Book of Revelations.
"The Omen" still holds up as an exemplary achievement in suspense and horror, with much of its power stemming from the emotional weight the actor's instill in their characters. As the patriarch of the family, Gregory Peck commands the screen with a quiet dignity and a gravitas that slowly begins to unravel as revelations get bleaker and the answers more ominous. He effortlessly communicates Robert's inner turmoil as he, bit by bit, realizes the evil residing in his adopted son. Likewise, he suffers by harboring the secret that Damien isn't his natural offspring, a guilt that hangs over his conscious even as his wife has psychological "fantasies" that make her question her son's bloodline. Speaking of his wife, Lee Remick gives a wonderful performance as a woman who reaches her breaking point and is unable to cope with her environment. Underneath her glamorous veneer lies a fragility that repeatedly gets tested by the horrors around her. Equally impressive is Billie Whitelaw as the Nanny Mrs. Baylock, who brings forth a creepy menace that emanates from her bold, cunning eyes. Every time she's onscreen there's a tangible sense of terror and the queasy anticipation that she may strike out at any given moment. Even David Warner as the photographer imbibes his character with a humanity and intelligence that makes the incredible situations all the more believable. In what could have easily been a one-note role of a selfish man trying to self-preserve; Warner infuses Jennings with interesting, multi-dimensional shades. And, of course, who could forget little Harvey Stephens as Damien, the cherubic angel with those wacky "666" numbers on the back of his head? Behind blazing eyes communicating sweet innocence and devilish chicanery, Stephens perfectly treads the line between good and evil.
While the acting certainly grounds the film in reality, Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score expertly supplies the necessary ballast. Boldly employing Gregorian chants, Goldsmith adds the right amount of tension to the various scenarios, ratcheting up the terror with each successive note. His score is the perfect example of how music can broaden the scope of a film and enrich the characters, while also infusing the scenes with heart-stopping suspense.
Perhaps even more memorable than the often-imitated score are the elaborate death scenes. Before "Final Destination" popularized filmdom with Rube Goldberg-like accidents, "The Omen" paved the way with intricate staging. Director Richard Donner repeatedly sets up the deaths as innocuously as possible and then slowly layers them with stylish restraint, until they burst to their inevitable conclusion. Try to watch the decapitation sequence without dropping your jaw or Lee Remick's famous free-fall from Damien's tricycle without gripping the edge of your seat. Donner's technically proficient directing maximizes every ounce of tension and, when the acting and score operate at this same high level, that's when the film truly succeeds in rising above its schlocky B-movie storyline. Also attributable to its success is the fact that Donner's direction never explicitly points to Damien as being Satan's child. Maybe all the incidents are just random, horrific coincidences. And maybe Peck's character represents one man's descent into madness, due to overwhelming feelings of guilt. This level of depth is rare in a genre production and "The Omen" demands repeat viewings in order to catch all the subtleties.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents "The Omen" in an anamorphic widescreen 2.85:1 aspect ratio, preserving its theatrical exhibition. Once again, Fox does an incredible job with this transfer, with only minimal instances of grain and specks apparent. Other than that, everything is close to perfect. Colors are nice and vibrant (especially the reds) and black levels are solid and deep. Compression artifacts are non-existent and skin tones appear natural looking. Not as dark and murky as the previous DVD release, the image is noticeably brighter and clearer. By far, this outdoes the former edition and is as close as the film has gotten to its original theatrical presentation.
For sound, there is a new English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix, as well as English, Spanish and French Mono tracks. While enhancing the original 2.0 Stereo track sometimes results in a jumbled presentation, this step up to 5.1 works fairly well. Directional sounds are sparingly produced, though volume levels seem a tad higher than on the 2.0 track. With that said, dialogue appears nice and clear and there were no problems with hiss or distortion. Jerry Goldsmith's score is an auditory delight and is nicely integrated here.
"The Omen" arrives as a 2-Disc Collector's Edition and has several new Extras, while also containing most of the Features from the prior release.
Disc 1 includes:
A "Commentary by Director Richard Donner and Editor Stuart Baird." This is the same commentary from the previous release of the film and it's a good one. Both men play off each other well, with Donner in a particularly jovial mood. Although there are long periods of silence, when the two get going they prove to be entertaining and informative. Donner relates various problems that plagued the production (perhaps due to the often talked about "Omen" curse?), from the mysterious accidents to his tense battle with Peck over how a pivotal scene should be played out. Donner even accuses Stanley Kubrick of lifting the tricycle scene for "The Shining." It's nice to hear the camaraderie between these collaborators and Donner's impression of Baird is especially humorous.
Also included is an all new "Commentary by Director Richard Donner and Writer/Director Brian Helgeland." Even though Helgeland had nothing to do with the production, he offers up plenty of interesting insights and interpretations of the film. More or less taking a fan's viewpoint, Helgeland prompts many of the questions and Donner jokingly obliges with answers. While Donner covers much of the same ground as in the earlier commentary, every now and again a new anecdote pops up. One odd experience was Donner's encounter with Ed Begley's ghost (Begley had died in Donner's house and his apparition appeared in a photo Donner had taken in his garden). Also interesting is Helgeland's ability to notice the smallest of details, like the inadvertent symbolism of a creepy painting in one of the bedroom scenes (the painting is of a mourning woman wearing a veil…possibly foreshadowing Lee Remick's fate?).
Held over from the former edition is the "Curse or Coincidence" featurette which runs a little over six minutes. The strange happenings that hovered over the film's production are recounted here and some of the eerie incidents include; Peck's plane getting struck by lightning, Donner being slammed between a car door, a restaurant Peck frequented getting shot up by gunmen, two lions killing a zoo worker and, most bizarre of all, special effects guru John Richardson involved in a head-on collision resulting in the decapitation of his girlfriend. How spooky is that?
Also part of the previous DVD incarnation is the "Jerry Goldsmith On The Omen Score" featurette. At twelve minutes, this examines Goldsmith's thoughts on four of his compositions. Covered are the "Love Theme," "Damien's Ride To Church," "The Dogs Attack," "Discovering 666 and Mrs. Baylock Attack." Goldsmith doesn't get too in depth with his recollections, but does provide background information on the compositions and the initial motivations behind his stylistic choices. After talking about each piece of the score, the corresponding scenes are played back.
Lastly, the "Theatrical Trailer" is included, with most of the money-shot sequences shown in their shocking glory.
Disc 2 includes:
"The Omen Introduction by Director Richard Donner" a brief Extra that doesn't shed any new light on the production, since most of what Donner says is already covered in more detail in the other extras. For the most part, Donner relates the impact that "The Omen" had on his career, which led him to getting the "Superman" job and paved the way for Fox to bankroll a little known film named "Star Wars."
"666: The Omen Revealed" is a forty-five minute talking head documentary with the main forces behind the film's production. This is an entertaining feature, delving deep into the casting and screenwriting process. Donner's contribution to the script involved taking out most of the fantastical elements in order to make the film more realistic. Also covered are the origins and shooting process of the decapitation sequence, the impaling sequence, Lee Remick's fall and the difficulties with the chaotic baboon scene, as well as the Rottweiler attack, which had some comical problems (instead of growling, they began to fornicate). Jerry Goldsmith's effective score is also given significant screen time, with Goldsmith relating his creative process and how surprised he was to finally win an Academy Award (he had lost ten times previously).
The real meat of the Extras is "The Omen Legacy," a comprehensive documentary on the different incarnations of "The Omen" franchise. Many of the same points have been covered in the other extras and it is somewhat frustrating that the highly touted "Omen" curse is consistently hinted at but never satisfactorily explored, even if it was detailed on Disc 1. Though rife with redundancies (and often contradictory accounts), this documentary is exhaustively compiled and examines "The Omen" mythos entertainingly. Each film's production is meticulously detailed and it's fascinating to see the steady decline in quality with each subsequent sequel (especially the television re-invention "The Omen IV," which I didn't even know existed…and apparently with good reason). Narrated by Jack Palance (who relishes every word, creating overly-dramatic line readings), this hour and forty minute feature is a well produced Extra that, on its own, justifies the release of this Collector's Edition.
Next is the "Deleted Scene: Dog Attack with Commentary by Director Richard Donner and Writer/Director Brian Helgeland." Running at nearly a minute and a half, this sequence features Gregory Peck trying to get Damien to the Church in order to sacrifice him. While attempting to drive off, a Rottweiler tries to get into the car by plowing through the driver's side door and smashing through the windshield. Donner's commentary is funny, with him bashing the sequence and sarcastically asking Brian if it was the right decision to excise the scene. It was.
After this is a fourteen minute featurette entitled "Screenwriter's Notebook," where writer David Seltzer communicates his thoughts on the film and relates his creative process. Seltzer originally didn't want to work in this type of genre, but relented due to monetary woes. He gives Donner credit for gutting the original script of all its fantastical elements, which ended up grounding it in reality. Seltzer also decided that he only wanted to work on projects that allowed him to learn something, so he dived into researching religion and most of the ideas and names for the film emerged from the Book of Revelations.
At twenty minutes, the last featurette "An Appreciation: Wes Craven On the Omen" has the horror film director expressing his admiration for the film. Craven gives a thorough critique on several aspects of "The Omen," from casting choices, characters, the use of space, the death scenes and Jerry Goldsmith's score. Craven is an engaging, intelligent man and his dissection of Donner's classic is fascinating.
Rounding out the disc is a generous "Still Gallery" comprised of behind the scenes photos, publicity shots and various promotional materials.
"The Omen" is a bona-fide classic that gets an amazing new transfer with some exceptional extras. Although not as lovingly adored (or hated) as the similarly themed "The Exorcist," "The Omen" nonetheless has proven itself to be a psychological masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. A first-rate, classy production where every element perfectly melds together, "The Omen: Collector's Edition" comes highly recommended.