20. ‘The Omen’, and the dubious benefit in being of the Devil’s party

At one point in an interesting documentary study of horror films he presented for the BBC last year the actor/writer Mark Gatiss sat down with David Seltzer, author of The Omen (hit novel + movie), and put to him the big question: does he believe in the Devil? Seltzer replied wryly to the effect that if he had then he would never have dared to mess around in the writing of books that presumed to speak of Him and His powers.
That’s funny, and fair enough. As Gatiss noted, Satan was a hot thing in 1970s Hollywood after the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. And Seltzer had a good nose for how to do something new and commercial with the threat of the Evil One. Of course there have been repeated and not wholly unfounded attempts to argue that various cast/crew members on The Exorcist were afflicted by a sort of curse in subsequent years. But it doesn’t seem that David Seltzer’s had to worry – has suffered no freak impalements or decapitations – rather, has enjoyed the fruits of his labour, of his vivid imagination.
That said, Richard Donner’s 1976 film The Omen is a thoroughly professional, expertly-managed, big-budget piece of dispiriting nastiness. (Seltzer was quick to tell Gatiss he felt Gregory Peck loaned a weight to the project that Charles Bronson – the original casting as the US Ambassador to the Court of St James – couldn’t have.) Actually I remember the film’s network premiere on ITV at some point in the very early 1980s. I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to watch it all but I saw enough to be feel a kind of outrage over a picture in which the Baddest of all Baddies was so clearly being allowed to ‘win’.
Still, I must admire the film’s gruesome effectiveness in places, and the force of the imaginative conceit. I remember talking to a filmmaker friend last year about the gothic-supernatural-steampunk trends in film, and apropos Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes (which we both admired hugely) he mentioned how much he prefers the sort of ‘mystery & imagination’ movie wherein, a la Conan Doyle, events of a seemingly supernatural origin are later revealed to be in fact the cunning/fiendish works of man. With The Omen, you could actually choose to look at the narrative from a remote vantage and say that all those killings are just a chain of freak accidents and fatal misunderstandings, vaguely connected to a fat-cheeked piggy-eyed little 5-year-old boy… (That said, in the yet more laboriously nasty sequels Damian and The Final Conflict the maturing Anti-Christ took an active hand in murder, using sorcery to do so, so the game was up by then.) Still, such room for ambiguity may explain why the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once put his name to a paper entitled ‘The Exorcist and The Omen, or Modern and Postmodern Limits to Knowledge.’
Movies speak of their times and The Omen is unmistakeably the drear England of the mid-1970s, the sort of place where Satan might well seek influence over the affairs of men. Having stage-trained Brits such as Billie Whitelaw and David Warner and Patrick Troughton in the cast gives The Omen the faint air of a BBC ‘Play for Today’ or some gritty Royal Court production, though here the smart actors are employed only in order to be killed off in horrible ways. In fairness to The Omen, it bravely makes no effort to endow Satan and Satanism with any sort of perverse allure – any suggestion of luxurious darkness or forbidden pleasure in the act of pledging one’s soul to the Devil. You just have to take in on trust that Billie Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is committed to the Anti-Christ just as are some people to Labour or the Tories. She wants a strong leader in charge… and she’s grimly prepared to roll up her sleeves and do the dirty job of getting him there, shoving people out of windows if needs be, though it’s hard to see what will be her personal reward for same. In Damian, sequel #1, Lee Grant is burned to death shortly after murdering her husband in a misguided show of loyalty to Satan’s son. In The Final Conflict, as I recall, a whole network/cabal of suburban English salarymen and housewives were revealed to be in joyless thrall to the Deceiver. And that’s a powerful dramatic idea: one that allows a dramatist to reveal any character as being, quite suddenly and without apparent motivation, capable of the most appalling/malevolent act. Nasty, as I say…

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