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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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10. Sherlock Holmes & The Case of the Spirits

We know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had more than a passing interest in the spirit world. But when it came to recording the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he evoked the shade of the supernatural only to tantalise his readers until Holmes could dispel such backward fancies by the power of rational thought. Thus The Hound of the Baskervilles is not actually demoniac as per legend, just a big scary dog whose eyes and mouth have been anointed with phosphorus. As Holmes puts it in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (who is, naturally, not a vampire), “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
I am, roughly speaking, a Conan Doyle fan, but I put it no more firmly than that, since in the field of Sherlock Studies there are students of inordinate zeal against whom I would be an extremely poor candidate come examination time. Still, in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest there is a small tip of the hat to the celebrated resident of 221B Baker Street during a chapter wherein Forrest’s friend Dr Grey Lochran is interviewed by a police detective in Forrest’s abandoned apartment. Gazing around his old comrade’s immaculate décor Lochran feels a certain melancholy and at one point comments:
“It was with a pang that I saw – on the low marqueterie table between the two facing chaise longues – that lovely oak-and-silver spirit case to which Robert never failed to refer as ‘the tantalus’, with its crystal decanters of malt and cognac, beside it on a tray his vintage teal-green soda siphon and quartet of heavy crystal tumblers…”
That passage alone is proof I’m no strictly observant votary of the Sherlock cult, otherwise I’d have had Grey identify said ‘soda siphon’ as a gasogene. But yes, Forrest’s little joke derives from the fact that Holmes kept just such a tantalus on his sideboard.
Or did he? [Cue dramatic musical ‘sting’…]
I won’t keep you in suspense. The Case of the Tantalus is unravelled conclusively and with loving care here, in a post by one Brad Keefauver at the ‘Holmes and Watson Report’ site.
Additional proof of my flawed credentials in the field of Holmes is that I’m not at all interested in the fidelity of any film/TV adaptation of Conan Doyle, only in the extent to which the dramatic/stylistic elements have been elegantly marshalled. So I never watched Jeremy Brett in the well-liked TV series, but I love Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – and I loved better still Rupert Everett for his one outing in the role, the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Everett is a truly brilliant and witty performer, who’s always been critically maligned to some extent for his exceptional looks and lofty, ‘angular’, vaguely enervated hauteur. But the role of Holmes fits him like the proverbial glove that he flexes and clenches according to his temper and skill. I might say he’d make a wonderful Doctor Forrest…

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