A new column examines the influences of horror movies & what has influenced them via side-by-side film frame comparisons.
The Omen. 1976. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay by David Seltzer.
Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson, Robert Rietty, and Tommy Duggan.
Twentieth Century Fox/Mace Neufeld Productions.
Rated R. 111 minutes.
When it comes to supernatural horror I tend to be at a crossroads most of the time. There are good and bad films in any sub-genre of any major genre, that’s simply a no-brainer. My problem is that anything with ghosts, spirits, demons (et cetera) can some times get lost in itself. It’s hard to tell where the line begins and ends with this sort of stuff. For me, anyways. That being said, there are plenty of supernatural horrors I think are great. I just feel I may have a bias against them, who knows.
None of that matters where The Omen is concerned. Ever since the first time I remember seeing the movie, on television late at night when I was but a young lad, it always stuck in my mind. Several of the scenes have never left me (think: Damien does not feel good about going to church). Then the older I get – writing this the day after my 30th birthday – the more frequently I come back to it, the trilogy in general. It’s solid horror filmmaking, classic really. From the fine acting of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to the masterfully suspenseful screenplay by David Seltzer. Every last portion of The Omen is a horrific treat. There’s a true existential dread in this movie, wrapped up in religion and the belief in God/Satan. Richard Donner has made a couple excellent films, this certainly one of them, and here he proves his weight in tension with one of the best supernatural horror movies ever made.
After Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick) loses a son during birth, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) accepts another boy born at the same time whose mother perished. Arranged by a priest at the hospital, Katherine is none the wiser.
However, a few years down the road once the boy – Damien (Harvey Stephens) – begins to grow up, strange events start to happen. After Robert is appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, a young woman employed at their new home kills herself in front of Damien and guests at his birthday. More and more everything gets worse. Damien becomes ill and angry when approaching a church, animals at the zoo go mad and start to attack when he comes near. Alone with the secret of where Damien came from, he soon begins to wonder if his wife is in danger. Even worse he questions who – or what – exactly Damien is, and if there is any way to stop what comes next.
Is Damien the Antichrist? Unfortunately for the Thorns this realization may have come far too late.
Rarely are there scenes as creepy as some in The Omen. The first majorly unsettling moment comes after a young housekeeper locks eyes with a hulking Rottweiler, after which she proceeds to commit suicide by hanging herself from a window in the house – all during Damien’s birthday party, a ton of kids looking on.
“Look at me Damien – it’s all for you!”
Everybody is horrified, and rightfully so. There’s a moment of absolute silence directly afterwards, then finally people start to scatter. Even creepier is how little Damien and the aforementioned Rottweiler then see one another, as the kid waves strangely to the dog. You know, so quickly there’s something absolutely weird happening.
But it’s the more subtle, down played scenes – such as the first meeting between Robert Thorn (Peck) and Roman Catholic priest Father Brennan (Troughton) – where some truly unnerving horror is at play. This scene in particular, the way Brennan blurts out “His mother was a jackal” right as the security guards enter, likely only the audience actually hearing him… I find it all very spooky. The screenplay peppers in more subtle pieces with the outright scary moments to make it an even feel. Best of all, Donner works incredibly well with the suspense and tension of the story in order to make almost every single scene drip with fear. There are rarely any moments of rest between all the tense sections, which sets us up for a tragic existential horror movie.
The big horror moments are intense. From the early suicide of the young woman hanging herself, to the priest being impaled with a falling rod off the church, to Katherine’s nail biting fall. This film could’ve easily gone with all very low key stuff, focusing wholly on the mysterious aspects of the screenplay. Instead, Donner opts to give us lots of that style, as well as piling on enough creepy horror for any fan of the genre.
Possibly my favourite part of The Omen is all its fine acting. Can you really ask for a better actor than Gregory Peck to put in a mid-1970s horror film? I love the fact he’s in this because there is a sort of class which comes along with him. He plays the role of Robert Thorn well, a calm and cool sort of fellow who ends up in the most gut wrenching type of situation with the Antichrist for a child. Watching him slowly push on through the mad journey of discovery that is his search for Damien’s true identity, it is a sigh, a real experience.
Furthermore, there’s also Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw and David Warner. They’re each pretty damn great respectively. Remick has a tough role to play because it’s hard, even knowing Damien is at least slightly evil, to make us care about a mother who hates her child; she does it greatly and I think her chemistry with Peck is good, as well. Warner doesn’t have a lot to do, but pulls his weight with a minor performance. Whitelaw, though, she is one creepy customer! I thought her performance was also bang on. Even from the initial moments we see her character onscreen, the unsettling fog surrounding her is always there. So then as the scenes pass she becomes more terrifying. Without her the role might have came out hollow, instead she instills lots of fear every time she shows up.
The Omen is easily a 5 star horror film. There is a lot of human drama within such a supernatural story, yet still all its horror is so much of the strength this film has in lasting power. With acting talents such as Gregory Peck and Lee Remick at the helm, there’s no way such a creepy and utterly terrifying story could go wrong. You’ll find a good few moments of terror (think: decapitation with plate glass), plus a ton of quality filmmaking and performances.
This is perfect for any time of year, but no doubt it’s a juggernaut in the Halloween season horror movie marathon list of choices.
Whatever you do: DON'T FEED THEM AFTER MIDNIGHT! Always listen to Chinese vendors.
One of the greatest slashers of all time, and the most deliciously bloody Christmas movie you'll find.
A classic zombie flick if there ever were one! All hail Fulci!
The Exorcist. 1973. Dir. William Friedkin. Written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair.
Rated 18A. 132 minutes.
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)
By now, everyone has either seen The Exorcist or knows all about it. Simply put, it is the story of a young girl who is possessed by some type of demon; her non-believer mother eventually gives in and realises what she needs is not modern medicine, not psychology, but a Catholic exorcism. This is the plot of the film. From there, the wild bits begin.What I’d like to talk about instead of the plot itself are the effects because on the Blu ray release from Warner Brothers there are tons of amazing special features. The best, and my most favourite, is one called “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist.” This basically features tons of shots from behind-the-scenes, filmed originally without sound – explained to be because they wanted the extra filming to be inconspicuous to Friedkin who might’ve gotten annoyed had they been dragging more crew around the set than was needed – and over top we get interviews with everyone from Friedkin to Blatty to Blair, to people working on the crew. It’s amazing.
One of the moments I absolutely just died for was when they show two things. First, is a moment where Reagan (Blair) attacks a man. Friedkin wanted a shot following the man all the way down as he fell to the floor, shot tight looking right at his face, as if from Reagan’s POV. This is brilliance right here. Friedkin clearly has an innovative spirit. We watch as they show the contraption they’d built to do just that one shot— it’s the best thing ever. Second, they show a bunch of shots detailing the house set for the film. I should’ve known, from how some of the camerawork goes, the house was a set, open at the top and such, but just to see them doing actual shots going up the stairs with the rig they’d built to get the camera operators up and down in smooth ways. Beautiful, really, to see all the effort that went into making this film so god damn great.Another aspect worthy of note in regards to The Exorcist is the lighting. At one point on the “Raising Hell” documentary, they talk about the use of wires in the bedroom— for pulling people, as well as objects, around the room in certain shots. It looks perfect on film, but to hear Owen Roizman (D.P.) talk about how he had the wires painted in broken formations of black and white so it would make the wire less visible on camera, it’s an absolute treat! These tiny tricks of the trade are really cool to hear from the mouths of those involved in the production.
Later, we get to watch as Roizman talks about all the wire work, including how they dragged all the furniture around in Reagan’s room during those frenetic scenes. Wild. I knew it had to be practical the way they’d accomplished such shots, to actually see it and watch the process is something special. Roizman has a very nostalgic memory of the production, and a lot of his comments, especially concerning a young Linda Blair and her performance/attitude on set, which seems to be remarkable for such a young actress at the time, are great to hear. These features really help give The Exorcist even more appreciation amongst its fans, and genre fans in general.One of my favourite things about DVD and Blu ray is the fact we get commentary on a film while watching it. Probably one of the best things to come along with the advent of these new technologies. William Friedkin’s commentary on The Exorcist is fascinating and pretty damn informative. Even in the first few moments, Friedkin puts to bed any notions people have about the opening scenes not belonging in the film. He explains why it is there, what it means, and I love it, I understood anyways, though it helps to actually have a director of a film say “this is the reason,” and having it match up with what you thought. Just delightful to hear Friedkin talk about his experience filming the opening of the film in Iraq, how he was there without the protection of the U.S government, and telling us about how he enjoyed the Iraqi people and their hospitality. Hearing the director talk over beautifully framed and perfect looking images on a high quality picture of the film is sublime.
The story works on its own, but Friedkin really hammers it home. The acting from both Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn is on point. Burstyn’s one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the screen. Here, she really excels, as a mother who doesn’t believe in religion or any of that stuff yet soon comes to understand the devil has taken hold of her daughter, seeking out the help of priests. Not many could pull of such a horror role. Burstyn’s so wonderfully natural here.
Blair did a fabulous job as a young girl. Incredible to think she was able to do such a role and give the performance she did. On the Blu ray documentary, she talks about how Friedkin would often shelter her from the reality of what she’d be doing onscreen by joking with her. Friedkin himself talks about it, and it seems they really had a cool relationship, a lot like an uncle and niece sort of thing where he coaxed her into some of the scenes by tickling and teasing. You can tell Friedkin works well with actors and actresses just by how Blair, at such a young age then, was able to work with him and give it her all in a tough role. Combined with the effects and the pure intensity of Blatty’s writing, the performances lift The Exorcist above a lot of trashy horror that was coming out in the 1970s and makes it an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking.The Blu ray release is far beyond the state of perfect. So many special features are available here, you’ll take days and days to get through it. “Raising Hell” is absolutely the best of them all, but there is more than just that. You get a real in-depth look behind the making of The Exorcist. I couldn’t believe how much bang for my buck I got when purchasing this, especially seeing as how HMV recently had it there for less than $10 (the ultimate steal of a lifetime if there ever was one!). It is really worth it if you enjoy the film. You get some great inside looks at the make-up effects Dick Smith pulled off; a master of the trade. Those alone are worth the price of the Blu ray, just to see him work at the craft.
Anyone who has yet to see this, go buy a copy now. If you’re a horror fan especially, don’t sleep on this. When I first saw The Exorcist I was about 15 years old. It didn’t really affect me at the time. However, I still enjoyed it a lot. Years later, I revisited the film, and I couldn’t get over it. For days, the story lingered on me like cigarette smoke. I couldn’t shake it. Burstyn and Von Sydow really pulled me in and rocked my world. The performances and the effects, it all got to me. It’s now one of my most treasured Blu rays, as well as one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Once again, this is a film that has no hype – the hype is very real, in fact.
And if you don’t get a chill running up your spinal fluid into your brain when you hear the repeated line from early in the film, “Father – could ya help an old altar boy?” then you know what? Check your pulse. Because the rest of us are absolutely terrified.
Psycho. 1960. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Joseph Stefano; based on the novel by Robert Bloch.
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and John McIntire. Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Rated PG. 109 minutes.
★★★★★ (Blu ray release)
For those who don’t know, Psycho tells the tale of Marion Crane who decides to take off on a whim with $40,000 trusted to her by her boss. While tired on the road, Maron stops off at the Bates Motel to get a room for the night. There, she meets a young man named Norman Bates; he lives up on the hill in the big house next to the motel. Norman seems fine, albeit a bit quirky, so Marion even has a low key supper with him at the motel.
However, Norman isn’t quite fine. See, Norman lives with his mother, just the two of them, and their relationship is, well – a bit odd to say the least. Once Marion goes missing, her sister, lover, and the police start sniffing around, and Norman starts to see a little more traffic at the Bates Motel – much to his dismay.
This was my first introduction to Alfred Hitchcock. It’s funny – the movie is rated PG, directed by one of the most famous (arguably the most famous) filmmakers of all-time, contains definitely the most famous murder scene ever filmed if not the most famous scene period, and it’s classified as a horror.
In fact, a lot of people would say Psycho is the most influential horror film of all time, giving rise to the modern slasher in some respects (you can’t totally give this film all the credit because other films like Peeping Tom, and much later John Carpenter’s Halloween, really were a large part of that as well).
I just find it amazing how Hitchcock was able to put such a disturbing story on film, including the infamous shower scene (though the scene itself really isn’t graphic especially in terms of modern audiences and how desensitized we all are from not only film but the barrage of insane videos we now see on everything from CNN to YouTube), and yet still keep the rating PG. Of course, the ratings system has changed a little between now and then. It’s still rather amazing.
The story of Psycho itself is incredible. I continually find it exciting even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, I know how things will play out, and yet viewing after viewing it holds up. I still feel a rush of panic for Norman (even though I clearly shouldn’t – a testament to both Bloch’s novel and Hitchcock’s filmmaking) as he tries to clean up Marion Crane’s room after Mother has had her fun. Just the way Perkins rushes around and frantically tries to cover things up. Just thinking about the time it was written, the time it was set, I love to imagine what it must’ve been like for serial killers pre-media frenzy surrounding people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, et cetera. Poor Norman was ahead of his time. He didn’t know how these things were supposed to go. Watching him try to navigate the rough terrain of being a killer while still obviously being a fragile boy, almost a man-child, is really good stuff. It’s a disturbing tale, but Norman really does elicit both fear in us, as well as some form of pity; even on the most base of levels. And just the way in which Marion and Norman end up meeting, a real chance moment in time, is brilliant. The first time I saw the film, I was really surprised at how their two storylines converged, and suddenly it all became about Norman. Wonderful storytelling. No wonder Hitchcock was drawn to Bloch’s novel. Stefano really took the novel and turned into something his own, which Hitchcock in turn worked very well with; their picture of Norman Bates, as opposed to Bloch’s, turned the character into a much more sympathetic type person, and this really worked for the film’s plot quite well.
The entire film is one of those truly beautiful collaborative efforts. Everything here comes together to make a perfect movie. The cinematography, the sound, the script – I love it. Hitchcock weaved an intricate film here out of what could’ve been a simple effort from another lesser filmmaker.
For instance, on the Blu ray release from Universal there is a feature which looks at the infamous shower scene how it is presented in the finished film, and also a look at the scene without its music. Right there, it is so perfectly evident Psycho could not have been what it was if it hadn’t used all of its elements together to create the fear, shock, and tension. While the shower scene is still very disturbing without the score over top, there’s something extra that comes along with the score. In the quiet, you can hear Janet Leigh breathing, you hear the water falling from the shower head, all of it. With the score, you watch everything happen while the orchestral score behind the scene pounds out, creepy and loud, reinforcing all the stabs, the gasps, everything. Works so god damn well it’s fiendish.
As a film, Psycho is a perfect, flawless work of art. It isn’t hype. This is not a film you hear about all the time, being raved about and drooled over, just because it’s by Alfred Hitchcock, or just because it is considered classic. This is a magnificent piece of work, all around. There is no hype – what you see is what you get. Hitchcock was a master, no doubt. This film, while influential and all that, is just a cracking good piece of movie history. Full stop.
The Blu ray release from Universal Studios Home Entertainment is one of the better titles sitting on my shelf. It is packed to the brim with extras. Though I don’t care for the Truffaut interview (I think his films are wonderful but his opinions are often divisive in a negative way and, in my humble opinion, sort of bullshit at least when it comes to the original novel Psycho by Bloch), the rest of the features here are just so sweet.
There are the typical Making Of featurettes, however, the major one here goes through everything from the story, how it was adapted and found, et cetera, to pre-production, production, and post – the whole nine yards; it’s a 90-minutes documentary that is totally worth the time to watch. There’s a nice feature about the sound of the film, including how they restored everything for the Blu ray. My favourite, though, is the Shower Scene breakdown I mentioned before – you get to see the scene back-to-back in its finished form with the scene having the score taken out, as well as great little storyboards by Saul Bass. These are absolutely brilliant pieces of extras to include. Fascinating stuff. The commentary is done by Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’.
All in all, this release deserves every single bit of 5 out of 5 stars. There’s no way it deserves any less; it needs more. There are enough features here to keep you long busy after purchasing Psycho. On top of that, the transfer is pristine, and you’ll marvel at how beautiful it looks in glorious black and white.
I recommend every fan of this movie, every Hitchcock fan, go get this Blu ray now, sit down, and love every last single solitary, picturesque moment of it. There is nothing like this film, even today, even when so many other great films are made. Psycho itself is a classic, and always will be. It deserves to be remembered until the end of human existence – it’s one of those films.
Read my review for the second sequel to the original, the underrated Psycho III.