R.I.P. Richard Donner (Long Live “The Omen”)

Hollywood director and producer Richard Donner (Richard Donald Schwartzberg) has passed away at age 91. I’ve written about a few of Donner’s films, as it happens: Salt and Pepper (1968), Superman (1978), Scrooged (1988), and the 1994 Maverick reboot. In every case, my take was pretty disparaging, I’m afraid. Donner is also known for The Toy (1982) with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason, the popular The Goonies (1985), the fantasy film Ladyhawke (1985), and the Lethal Weapon series, none of which I’m likely to write about. What a eulogy, right? But I have many good things to say about my favorite Richard Donner film. First, though, a little background.

Born in the Bronx, Donner started out in television as Martin Ritt’s assistant, although dramas were not to be his bailiwick. Comic book stuff was more to his liking: action, superheroes, horror, and, initially westerns. Among the earliest shows he directed for were Zane Grey Theatre, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel and The Wild Wild West. He also directed several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone (including the one where a nervous William Shatner keeps seeing a gremlin outside his plane window), The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gilligan’s Island, The Banana Splits, Cannon, Kojak, and numerous others. Quite a diverse resume!

As early as 1961, Donner directed his first film, the low-budget X-15, a kind of early take on The Right Stuff, with Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore. His second film wasn’t until 1968, the swinging sixties comedy Salt and Pepper, which we wrote about here. The following year he reunited with Bronson for the highly objectionable sounding AIP film Twinky a.k.a. Lola a.k.a. A London Affair, about a 38 year old pornographic writer and his 16 year old girlfriend (Susan George). Then, in 1975 he directed the landmark made-for-tv movie Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975), which was Linda Blair’s first breakout post-Exorcist role. Which gives us a nice segue to Donner’s next film, which also has the devil at its center.

The Omen (1976) is of course the picture in question. It’s often considered part of mini-genre with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Exorcist (1973) and their sequels, as well as the later The Sentinel (1977) — Satanic horror movies with Roman Catholicism front and center. I might also include the original The Amityville Horror (1979), with Rod Steiger’s flip-out shenanigans as a local priest. Penned by David Seltzer, The Omen purports to tell no less than the beginning of the end of the world as foretold by the Book of Revelations: ” Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.” Basically, it’s about an adopted child who just happens to be the anti-Christ.

I am nonplussed when I read all the bad notices the film got when it came out. Many of the critical takes are contradictory: some calling it dull, others calling it too violent and over-the-top. Sometimes you’ll find both criticisms in the same review. I suppose I am less critical than I might otherwise be because I first engaged with the film as an impressionable tween, much as many of my younger friends regard The Goonies as a classic, whereas I, who was 20 when it was released, have no time for it. So I love The Omen, and will watch it any time it’s on television. When I learned of its backstory, I began to appreciate it even more. It was made on the cheap, forcing many creative solutions, I believe, to telling a pretty epic story inexpensively. It is also the explanation for the fact that the film’s star is the distinctly long-in-the-tooth Gregory Peck, who at 60, made for a pretty grizzled newlywed and first time dad. (A bigger budget might have meant a younger and more bankable star). The premise is that Peck is the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. When his wife (Lee Remick) loses her baby in childbirth, a scary nun gives him another one, who just turns out to be You Know Who.

The film I suspect came together through a combination of luck, and a fortuitous confluence of talent. In other words, unlike, say, Spielberg’s Jaws or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, it’s not one guy’s vision, but the coming together of the contributions of many. A HUGE element of the film’s emotional success is Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning pseudo-Medieval sounding musical score, I had a friend in high school who played the soundtrack album just because it was cool. Also…. I tend to be scared of dogs, and this movie is full to the rafters with scary devil dogs! And then there’s the haunting face of that kid who got cast as Damien, Harvey Spencer Stephens. His visage lingers in the mind — unsmiling, dark, malevolent. I would place the performance of Billie Whitelaw, as the villainous nanny Mrs. Blaylock, as a close second. And there is this terrific tension between the vision of screenwriter Seltzer, who wanted the film to be much more literal, and Donner, who wanted the events to be ambiguous. I, for one, find it powerful that Peck’s character, a skeptic, remains uncertain throughout the movie about whether supernatural events are occuring, or whether a series of coincidences just make it look that way. And when he learns the truth, he is about one second too late in taking the action that will save the world. And there are some great character actors in it, like David Warner and Leo McKern. I find it interesting that Jack Palance’s daughter Holly Palance, plays Damien’s first Nanny (the one who memorably hangs herself in front of a yard full of people). Just prior to The Omen, Donner had directed two episodes of Jack’s TV show Bronk.

Now, I would never for an instant defend this movie’s two terrible sequels or the forgettable 2006 remake. But this one? Is the opposite of forgettable. Although I will say the arc of The Omen trilogy holds up, as it turns out. After all, the anti-Christ did become President in 2016 and went on to sow chaos throughout the world, just as predicted!