5/30/06 Special Edition

    Flashback: THE OMEN on dvd
Andy Reviews The Horror Trilogy and More on Disc

With the remake of “The Omen” due out next week (and it is a straight remake, with only David Seltzer receiving a screenplay credit!), there’s likely to be renewed interest in the original “Omen” trilogy -- produced between 1976 and 1981 -- and especially the DVDs that are currently available for the Harvey Bernhard-produced horror series (if you’re wondering, I don’t consider the abomination that is the Fox TV movie “Omen IV” as part of the series proper, and you shouldn’t, either!).

Fans should note that Fox has a new, 2-disc Special Edition of “The Omen” due out on June 20th. While I haven’t received a review copy just yet, chances are good that the DVD will offer some new supplements and the possibility of a new transfer.

With that disclaimer out of the way, Fox’s previous -- and now out-of-print -- single disc edition of THE OMEN (1976, *** movie, *** 1/2 supplements) should still be of interest for buffs, since it contains a superlative interview with Jerry Goldsmith, who copped his first Oscar for the slickly-made 1976 supernatural thriller.

The movie that introduced us to Damien, the Anti-Christ, it's still hard to believe Gregory Peck and Lee Remick attached themselves to such a piece of pulp-horror nonsense, but the picture is so well-made -- directed by Richard Donner, atmospherically shot by Gilbert Taylor -- that it remains something of a genre favorite, if not a classic. The widescreen images and use of music are quite unsettling, even if the film's satanic-oriented plot has been copied so often by now that the picture has lost some of its original punch.

Goldsmith's soundtrack, which certainly established itself as a bona-fide masterpiece of genre music, does wonders for the film, which moves at a steady pace, accentuating psychological horror almost as much as it does the outright apocalyptic elements in David Seltzer's screenplay.

The line between the psychological and the explicit form the most interesting part of the supplemental extras contained on the original Fox DVD, which include a rough-looking trailer, a 46-minute documentary on the making of the film, and an extended conversation with Goldsmith where he talks about his themes and working on the picture.

Appearing just a tad uncomfortable on-camera, Jerry talks about how Donner wanted the sequence where Damien panics outside the church to echo the throbbing, primal sound of John Williams's "Jaws" theme; about winning his Oscar (calling himself "familiar with losing"); how his wife Carol came to sang "The Piper Dreams," and about working within the confines of the film's stringent budget. In fact, the producers coughed up an additional $25,000 to hire Goldsmith at the time, since he was initially outside the realm of the picture’s then-miniscule studio budget! (The film cost $2-million without the composer's services).

A commentary track with Donner and editor Stuart Baird is included, and while the documentary is interesting (even if it's limited to interviews with behind-the-scenes personnel like Donner, Seltzer, Goldsmith, and the producers), it's the engaging discussion between director and editor that's of the most interest here.

Donner stripped a good deal of the overtly horrific elements out of the picture (he and Baird talk about how they cut out Billie Whitelaw's extended fight with Gregory Peck from the final cut because it was too excessive), and one of the biggest revelations comes when they talk about the movie's original ending -- where Peck, Remick, and Damien are dead, ending the film on an ambiguous note and asking the audience to question if Peck wasn't simply insane.

Alan Ladd, Jr. (who seemed to put a good deal of his own input into now-classic '70s films like this and a little movie that followed called "Star Wars"), then-bigwig at Fox, asked Donner if Damien couldn't be alive at the end of the movie, and the filmmakers agreed to shoot the now-famous final sequence, where the demonic little tyke smiles at the camera while holding the President's hand at his adopted parents' funeral. The disparity between Donner wanting the film to be a psychological thriller and Seltzer’s original intent of creating a supernatural horror movie comes through quite clearly here, both in the finished product and the extras contained on the DVD release.

Visually, the DVD’s 2.35 transfer was certainly good for its time -- clearer and superior to all preceding laserdisc releases -- and you have your choice of the original mono soundtrack or a modest, 2.0 stereo remix that adds a bit of ambiance and some dimensionality to the music score.

It's a great package that's missing only the isolated stereo score from the 20th Anniversary laserdisc release -- something that, given Goldsmith's reported aversion to isolated score tracks, may have well been done at the composer's request. Hopefully Fox’s upcoming June re-issue will offer all the supplements from the single-disc DVD, and particularly the Goldsmith interview segments (and perhaps the unseen original ending for the first time, too).

Fox doesn’t have new editions of DAMIEN OMEN II (**½, 1978, R) and THE FINAL CONFLICT (**½, 1981, R) on the docket, so their previous DVD releases will have to suffice for “Omen” fans.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the two discs contain strong 16:9 transfers of the two “Omen” sequels with 2.0 Dolby Digital surround, the original trailers, and commentary tracks, though neither of the latter are as insightful as you might expect.

Harvey Bernhard’s commentary on “Damien: Omen II” does go into some early detail about the sequel’s woes, including the early firing of Mike Hodges -- whom the producer blames for taking too much time filming establishing shots -- and the general problems involving the rather pedestrian screenplay of the first “Omen” follow-up.

“Damien” isn’t a bad movie by any means, but it is a disappointing one considering the potential of the project. Damien’s growth and understanding of his demonic background could have made for a richly dramatic and eerie tale, but the resulting film is rather simplistic and by-the-numbers, playing out like a rehash of its predecessor. There are still many elements about the movie that are worth recommending: Goldsmith’s score, Gil Taylor and Bill Butler’s cinematography, and several crackerjack death sequences (gotta love Lew Ayres’ demise!) make the movie entertaining in spite of its near constant predictability.

Though “The Omen” was initially slated to chart Damien’s life in four installments (note Leo McKern’s line about the four faces of the Anti-Christ early in “Omen II”), declining box-office revenues on “Damien: Omen II” cut the series down to a trilogy, which was concluded in 1981's “The Final Conflict.”

Regarded by most viewers as the weakest entry of the three films, “The Final Conflict” is a problematic movie still worthy of re-evaluation: Sam Neill’s performance as the adult Thorn, the vivid photography of Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, and another outstanding Jerry Goldsmith score -- for many his finest of the series and one of his strongest of the 1980s -- make the finale an interesting variant on its predecessors. There’s more of a mature, apocalyptic tone to the film, and several marvelous moments (the terrific, dialogue-less opening, underscored only with Goldsmith’s accompaniment along with the hunting scene) help to compensate for the tepid, anti-climactic finale, which works only because of the music...and for Damien meeting his demise at long last.

Director Graham Baker’s DVD commentary is, at best, weak -- Baker has little to say about the movie and the result is one of the least satisfying and sporadic commentaries I’ve ever heard on DVD. The transfer and sound, though, are at least top-notch, and again worth a view for “Omen” fans.

If you’re looking for more substantial supplements on the sequels, you can find them in the excellent AMC documentary “The Omen Legacy.”

Still available on DVD from Image Entertainment, THE OMEN LEGACY (***, 101 mins., 2001) was produced for American Movie Classics (back when it actually showed American movie classics!) and offers an engaging overview of everybody's favorite Anti-Christ and how the 1976 Richard Donner thriller -- plus its sequels -- came to be.

Narrated with an appropriate "Believe It...Or Not!" inflection by Jack Palance, there are moments that are decidedly over-the-top in this documentary, especially early on when Satanic "experts" are interviewed along with the movie's religious adviser, who basically tell us that "The Omen" is as significant a text as The Bible itself. I don't know exactly how the film played back in the mid '70s, but I severely doubt one would begin to question their religious convictions simply because David Warner loses his head on a sheet of glass that falls off the back of a truck.

The heavy-handed dissertation on the film's religious element aside, "The Omen Legacy" is full of behind-the-scenes stories from Donner, writer David Seltzer, producers Harvey Bernhard and Mace Neufeld, plus David Warner, Lee Grant, Lisa Harrow, and Michael Lerner. There's an overview of how the number of "Omen" installments decreased after "Damien: Omen II" opened, a few words from Bernhard about how Mike Hodges was fired on II, comments from Harrow about working with Sam Neill on "The Final Conflict," and even a brief mention of the failed NBC "Omen" anthology TV series from a few years back.

There's more of a reliance on clips in this program, but Omen fans should enjoy the special just the same (the Goldsmith interview excepted, it's more in-depth and entertaining than the special features on Fox's original "Omen" DVD), and to sweeten the package, Image has included a few extra features: trailers from all three films (plus the international trailer for "Omen IV"), and a vintage featurette on the making of "Damien: Omen II”...all of which should tide fans over until Damien returns to the screen in next week’s remake.

NEXT TIME: DAZED AND CONFUSED, Criterion style, and more in a huge June round-up! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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