Friday, September 26, 2014


Do kids really like watching other kids in movies and on TV? I certainly know I didn't. At least not what passed for kids in the TV shows and movies of my youth. My inability to relate to that hyperactive genus of freckle-faced precocity known as the child actor contributed to my childhood aversion to Disney, so-called "family entertainment," and basically any film or TV program which trained its spotlight on adorable, towheaded moppets. Hence, I was nearly in my 30s before I got around to seeing Mary Poppins, Pollyanna, The Sound of Music, or The Parent Trap; all movies I've come to adore as an adult (ultimately the demographic most invested in the sentimentalized idealization of that trauma-filled age-span known as childhood), but which held little interest for me as a kid because I simply saw no connection between myself and those miniature adult-impersonators I saw onscreen. 

Take, for example, the TV sitcoms I grew up watching: Even as a child, Beaver Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver came across to me as a pathological liar with virtually no common sense and a wobbly moral compass that could be effectively redirected by the feeble taunt of "Chicken!" Those ginger twins, Buffy & Jody of Family Affair, were like these too-good-to-be-true, animatronic wind-up dolls; Dennis the Menace was a well-intentioned but nevertheless misogynist, passive-aggressive sociopath; and don't even get me started on that mayonnaise-on-white-bread-with-Velveeta-slices Brady Bunch clan.
Either absurdly goody-goody or possessed of an annoyingly thickheaded inability to ascribe consequence to action, these characters may have warmed the hearts of nostalgia-prone adults clinging to a revisionist reverie of childhood. A time of mischievous scamps getting into adorable "scrapes" and wide-eyed cherubs spreading sunshine and rainbows wherever they went. But for all their resemblance to the pint-sized Gila monsters I went to school with in real life, these sitcom kiddies might as well have been creatures from The Twilight Zone.

Of course, there were a few rare exceptions. Given my own dark disposition, I had no problem with the refreshingly odd Pugsly and Wednesday Addams on The Addams Family. And I took considerable pleasure in Jane Withers as the hilariously bratty antithesis to the sugary Shirley Temple in 1934's Bright Eyes ("My psychoanalyst told me there ain't any Santa Clause or fairies or giants or anything like that!"). On the other hand, I was most impressed by Patty McCormack's Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, who was basically James Cagney in a pinafore. And, of course, one of my all-time favorites was the 1968 musical Oliver! with its ragtag cast of underage pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers.
If anything is to be gleaned from this, it's that, as a child, I longed for an alternative to these antiseptic images of childhood just as my parents yearned for something beyond the Father Knows Best/The Donna Reed Show model of family. Sure, kids can be sugar and spice and all that, but kids are also self-centered, very sharp, and crueler than most adults would like to admit. And childhood, while certainly a (perceived) joyous and carefree time when viewed from the perspective of adult responsibility and stress, is nonetheless a very scary period of life, fraught with anxieties and insecurities.

Redeemed by resilience, curiosity, and a limitless capacity for hope and dreams, I've long held that children, in essence, aren't really that different from adults. And if authentically rendered, they're infinitely more interesting than the fantasy concept of children fed to us in most entertainments intended for the young set. Author Roald Dahl understood this, and that is why the ofttimes frightening, marvelously witty and acerbic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (adapted from his 1964 book, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory) stands out as one of the few children's movies from my childhood I recall with a great deal of fondness. Finally, here was a terribly sweet children's movie that didn't need the artificial sugar-coating.
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket
Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a straightforward fairy tale - complete with a moral and a happy ending - that takes place in a world where the fantastic and magical exist side by side with the prosaic and practical; in other words, the world as kids see it until we adults start to stick our noses in.
One day Willy Wonka, an eccentric, reclusive candy manufacturer around whose identity swarms mysterious, Gatsby-like legends, decides to open the doors of his wondrous candy factory to five lucky winners of  Golden Tickets he's hidden in Wonka Bars shipped all over the globe. The winners and one guest receive a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. The winners:
The gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) and his mother
 (Ursula Reit, who always reminds me of an off-diet Elke Sommer)
Spoiled Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) and her salted peanut
magnate father, Henry (the wonderful Roy Kinnear)
Ill-mannered Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson) and her
pushy, used-car salesman dad, Sam (Leonard Stone)
Rambunctious TV addict Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) 
and his schoolteacher mom (Nora Denney)
...and most deserving, poor-as-a-church-mouse Charlie Bucket, who takes his beloved
 Grandpa Joe with him (and not his hardworking mom, but more about that later)

The four initial winners of the Golden Ticket are all comfortably well-off children (save for Veruca, who's loaded) whose want for the prize stems mainly from a kind of entitled greed indigenous to comfortably well-off children. Only poverty-stricken Charlie (who has to attend school AND help his mother support four bedridden grandparents by delivering newspapers) harbors a dream of winning the ticket to improve his family's lot. Thus, with sweet-natured Charlie tagged as the parable's obvious hero; rival candy manufacturer Arthur Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) assigned the role of villain; and the four "naughty, nasty little children" standing as emissaries of the film's moral (our behavior and our hearts are the architects of our fate), only their unpredictable and mischievous host, Mr. Willy Wonka remains, as the fairy tale's element of surprise (and chaos).

I love the setup and structure of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The film's first half is rooted in reality...well, a charming kind of storybook reality. After all, we're asked to accept that Charlie's four grandparents have not set foot out of the bed they all share for twenty years. The second half of the film is a pure flight of fantasy wherein a common childhood dream comes to life: a visit to a magical Candyland that's part Disneyland, part amusement park funhouse, and part house of horrors (adults tend to forget how much kids enjoy being frightened and gleefully grossed-out).
From the start, the film does a great job of piquing interest in Wonka by having him discussed, Citizen Kane fashion, at length before he even makes an appearance. It also gives us a likable and sympathetic hero to root for in Charlie, who's saved from being a totally pathetic character by being blessed with a loving, if oddball, family. Conflict rears its head in the form of the other four Golden Ticket winners, who may be amplified versions of archetypal bratty kids, but, with the possible exception of Veruca, are not malicious or mean-spirited, just self-centered. (Even the awful Mike Teevee precurses questions to his host with a polite, "Mr. Wonka….")
Touring the candy factory in the S.S. Wonkatania

The two halves of the film complement one another nicely. The first half is appropriately dingy and sentimental (bordering on cloying), setting the stage for the second half, which, mirroring Wonka's unpredictable spirit, explodes into a colorful, colorful, anarchic phantasmagoria that plays gleeful havoc with the genre expectations of the children's movie.

In fact, one of my favorite things about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that it is such a sublimely nasty twist on the traditional tolerant celebration of childhood precocity that fuels so many films intended for children. Wonka's factory‒ a place where anything is possible…an environment wherein the laws of reason, logic, or physics don't apply‒ recall those marvelously anarchic Warner Bros. cartoons. The at-odds, adversarial byplay between Wonka and the kids evoked the comic clashes between Bugs Bunny (unflappable, always one step ahead, just a little screwy) and Daffy Duck (unchecked id combined with brazen self-interest).
While panic reigns, Wonka watches Augustus Gloop's probable drowning in the chocolate river with detached, intellectual curiosity. However, Mrs. Gloop's outburst, "You terrible man!" never fails to crack me up.

People are fond of pointing out that Roald Dahl was not very fond of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, no doubt due to the extensive rewrites his adapted screenplay was subjected to by an unbilled David Seltzer (The Omen) and the shift of the story's focus from Charlie to Wonka. This point would be persuasive save for two things: 1) Dahl's heirs stated he would have liked the 2005 Tim Burton version (a film I found to be irredeemably wretched, so, so much for taste), and 2) With rare exceptions, an author's ability to write a book doesn't mean a hill of jellybeans when it comes to understanding what makes a film work (see: Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stephen King). As far as I'm concerned, to place the focus on anyone but Wonka would have been sheer folly, especially if you're lucky enough to land an actor as inspired as Gene Wilder to take on the role. 
As personified by Wilder, Willy Wonka lives up to the alliterative suggestion of his name by being quite wonky indeed. Dressed in anachronistic high style, he sports a madman's mane of wiry locks yet keeps his wits about him at all times; he is enthusiastic and excitable as a child, yet remains unflappable and unflustered at even the most life-threatening (to the children, anyway) occurrences; and has bright, inquisitive eyes that can be warm and paternal one moment, wild and certifiably insane the next. A genial host, he's witty, sharp, sarcastic, and not particularly child-friendly. He seems singularly disinterested in being the surrogate parent and disciplinarian for the transgressions of his misbehaving guests.
"What is this, a freak-out?"
The brilliance of Wilder's portrayal is that we expect the mystery surrounding Wonka to be cleared up when we meet him, but instead, it only increases. I don't care how many times or in how many ways Warner Bros tries to wring income out of Dahl's book; Gene Wilder is the one and only Willy Wonka

Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974) would expose Wilder's comic genius to a broader audience, but even at this relatively early juncture in his career, his performance is nothing short of Oscar-worthy. Creating an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind character (his Wonka is loveable and scary, frequently simultaneously), Wilder is the main reason the film works at all and the primary factor in why it has endured for so long after its initial flop release. Thanks to Gene Wilder's ingenious brand of insanity, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become a genuine children's classic. (Although Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe, the film received only one Oscar nomination: Best Original Score.)
Any fan of The Bad Seed should find Julie Dawn Cole's vitriolic Veruca Salt a sheer delight

By the way, did I mention Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a musical? No, I didn't, but that's because I was saving it for this section. At a time when movie musicals were becoming as bloated as Violet Beauregarde at maximum blueberry transformation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory successfully bucked the trend toward entertainment elephantiasis (as much as a film deemed to be a boxoffice flop upon release can be called a success). They came up with an appealing, bite-size musical that, for once, didn't overwhelm its story and characters.
The songwriting team of Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Scrooge!) reined in their usual tendency toward over-sophisticated melodies (although Cheer Up, Charlie, a real snoozer and always my cue to visit the snack bar, somehow made the cut) and came up with a score of tuneful, engaging songs possessing the simple, sing-song lilt of nursery rhymes and grade school. Best of all, each is staged in a clever, intimate scale that avoids bringing the proceedings to a halt and instead draws you deeper into the characters and storyline.
Director Mel Stuart wisely rejected the suggestion to expand the rousing "I've Got a Golden Ticket" into a large-scale production number that spilled out into the streets, a la 1968s Oliver!

Those around in 1971 can attest to the unavoidability of Sammy Davis Jr.'s grooved-up version of "The Candy Man" played 'round the clock on the radio at the time. And though it reached No.1 on the charts and became one of Davis' signature songs, its popularity, and omnipresence failed to garner the song an Oscar nomination (for that matter, neither did the splendid "Pure Imagination") or boost public interest in the poorly-promoted film. (Willy Wonka's visually unappealing initial-release poster and non-existent marketing campaign clearly reveal that Paramount didn't have a clue how to sell it).
"The Candy Man" is sung by Aubrey Woods (here shown giving an inadvertent jaw realignment to a little girl who didn't know her cues) as Bill, the candy shop proprietor. A role both Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. had angled for. Once again, can we give it up for the wise decisions of Mel Stuart?

I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 when it was released, largely at my older sister's prodding. Then being unfamiliar with either Roald Dahl or the book (which I've since read, and, as much as I love it, I find the film to be a vast improvement), the title Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sounded far too much like Toby Tyler: or Ten Weeks with a Circus, a cornball 1960 film serialized on The Wonderful World of Disney that exemplified a great many of the things I hated about children's movies. I was 13-years-old at the time, realism was all the rage, and the movies I most wanted to see in 1971 were Klute, Carnal Knowledge, Straw Dogs, The Devils, and Play Misty for Me; certainly not a treacly kiddie musical set in a candy factory.
Those catchy Oompa-Loompa songs are near impossible to dislodge from one's memory

Lucky for me, my parents put their foot down; it was either Willy Wonka or stay home. And, as this post attests, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory became one of the happiest surprises of my youth. It's a children's movie made by people who, like me, had perhaps grown tired of the conventions of the genre. It's funny in a lot of sharp, adult-centric ways (the Wonka-mania vignettes are real gems), its dialogue is witty, and its characterizations frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. And while the story has a great deal of sweetness and sentimentality, it never feels forced or phony. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory never ever made me cry when I was a kid. But now, as an adult, each and every time I watch it, I get an attack of waterworks when Wonka, Charlie, and Grandpa Joe are flying over the city in the Wonkavator.
Nowadays, when children indulging in bad behavior are rewarded with reality-TV contracts or celebrated by YouTube hits, I guess a movie like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory really pushes a few nostalgia buttons of my own. In today's culture-of-cruelty climate, where reality shows teach us that the-end-justifies-the-means if that end is fame or fortune, I can grow pretty sentimental about a story where a child is actually rewarded for doing the right thing.

Wonka: But Charlie... don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie: What happened?

Fans of Joan Crawford's 1967 circus epic, Berserk, will recognize Bruno the clown (George Claydon) as one of Wonka's Oompa Loompas.

Fans of Lost Horizon (1973)....those with good ears, anyway...will recognize the dubbed singing voice of Charlie's mother to also be that of Liv Ullmann. The singer is Diana Lee.

In 2013 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory became a West End musical. Although the title suggests little or no connection with the film, the show's original music score includes the Newley/Bricusse composition. "Pure Imagination."

Many sites are devoted to trivia, production info, and hidden-joke theories surrounding Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. My favorite is the groundswell movement dedicated to proving that Charlie's beloved Grandpa Joe is basically a selfish, lazy slob without a conscience. Precipitated by the character-revealing remark he volunteers to Charlie being asked where he got the loaf of bread for dinner (suitable for a banquet, I'm sad to say): "What difference does it make where he got it? The point is, he got it!" Combined with his "magical" ability to get out of bed when there's something fun to do (aka, not work), a persuasive case is made against lovable Grandpa Joe throughout the web. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 20014

Monday, September 8, 2014


On the topic of the durability of certain horror films/suspense thrillers, a defining factor for me has always been whether or not the film in question continues to “work” long after its employment of the genre’s raison dˈêtre (suspense, shocks, twists, surprises) have become well-known and anticipated.

For all its considerable merits, I don’t really regard The Omen as a classic horror film in the vein of, say, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973)—it’s a tad too silly and market-calculated for that. However, I do consider it a classic “scary movie” in that it skillfully and stylishly makes good on its dominant purpose: to provide audiences with a rollicking good time while scaring the bejesus out of them.
Gregory Peck as Ambassador Robert Thorn
Lee Remick as Katherine Thorn
David Warner as Keith Jennings
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Harvey Stephens as Damien Thorn
A characteristic of many of my favorite horror films, certainly those I consider to be classics, is the sense that they emerge out of a larger social unease or cultural anxiety. That they are able to translate the vulnerability and unease that lies at the core of fear into a narrative that serves as the cathartic expression of a vague, unarticulated sense of dread. The kind of unnamed anxiety that can lie just below the surface normalcy of calm. Rosemary’s Baby found its scares in the cultural instability of the '60s; Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the emphasis on postwar conformity and the threat of communism; The Stepford Wives—gender role reevaluation in the wake of feminism.
These films understand that merely scaring an audience is to elicit a temporary reaction: a fleeting sensation akin to making them laugh at the unexpected. For a movie to inspire real fear, it has to draw upon something infinitely more complex and deep-rooted. Films that understand this basic principle manage to enthrall and engage audiences years after the “spoilers” of their scare gimmicks have become common knowledge.
Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan
A lapsed Catholic about to get the point

Like that other favorite scary movie of mine, The Exorcist, The Omen is one of those rare horror films that rely heavily on shock effects yet still manage to play fairly well the second and third time around. The over-the-top excesses of The Exorcist benefit significantly from the seriousness of intent and absolute conviction of its filmmakers (both director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty see the film as an earnest treatise on the mystery of faith). The Omen, on the other hand, in spite of publicity-friendly lip service paid by self-serious screenwriter David Seltzer and co-creator/religious technical advisor Robert L. Munger, never convinces that it actually believes in its own pseudo-religious hokum. Rather, it feels like a scare-the-pants-off-America project dreamt up by a sophisticated William Castle (if one can imagine such a being).

Borrowing liberally from all that came before it while inventing a few tricks of its own along the way, The Omen is a skillful cut-and-paste of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Bad Seed, all designed to cash in on the post-Exorcist interest in the occult, the trend toward increasingly graphic depictions of violence in films, and the universal suspicion that all bratty children are likely the spawn of Satan.
Fans of religious supernatural horror will note that while no witches, tannis roots, or yellow cat eyes are in attendance, The Omen, for all intents and purposes, narratively begins where Rosemary’s Baby ends: with the birth of the human antichrist into an unsuspecting world.

Through a suspiciously serendipitous coincidence of tragedies, American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck) is granted an orphaned infant born at the very second his emotionally fragile wife Katherine (Remick) has given birth to a stillborn child. At 6am on June 6th, no less.
Displaying a curious lack of concern for origins and paper trails for a politician, loving husband Robert decides to pull a Folger's Crystals switch on his wife and present the bouncing baby boy bundle as their own without telling her (she’s emotionally fragile, y’know). A child they christen Damien, a name even Minnie Castevet might find a tad Satan-y. 
The origin of Katherine's escalating belief that Damien wants to kill her might be traced to her letting him go about with this haircut

As a still-photo montage illustrates, life is rosy for the Thorn family until Damien turns five, when, it must be assumed, all hell literally breaks loose. At this time, I’d say violent death begins to follow little disaffected Damien around like a puppy, but he already has one of those. A rather king-sized, vicious-looking Rottweiler capable of devouring several puppies in one gulp, in fact, courtesy of one Mrs. Baylock (Whitelaw): mysterious replacement nanny and possessor of the least-huggable name in live-in childcare.
The previous nanny, about to give notice
That's Holly Palance, daughter of actor Jack Palance

It takes time, a little persuasion, and a rising body count, but Robert Thorn eventually comes to learn and believe that his adopted son was indeed born of a jackal, bears the mark of the beast (that dreaded 666 area code), and is the living antichrist. Will Robert be able to avert Armageddon and carry out the requisite ritual execution that will save mankind? Well, The Omen being followed by two sequels and a remake should give you a clue.

Being raised Catholic and coming from an extravagantly dysfunctional family has given me a leg-up in appreciating horror films that use specious religious scripture as the catalyst for familial turmoil. In fact, newcomers to The Omen, familiar only with its reputation, are often disappointed to discover that director Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), following in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and eventually paving the way for The Shining, has made The Omen just as much a psychological thriller about the emotional and mental disintegration of a family as it is a horror film about the unleashing of the Ultimate Evil.
The Omen's questionable scenario of a father surreptitiously swapping his newborn child is made credible by the implication that Kathy is in some way emotionally and psychologically incapable of withstanding the truth of having lost her child at birth. Moreover, the parental, almost caretaker attitude Thorn adapts toward his wife, plus the ease with which he's persuaded to take the orphan child,  suggests an existing stress in the marriage before the film even begins. 
Kathy: "We're the 'Beautiful People, aren't we?"
A significant part of The Omen's drama concerns itself with the internal erosion of a family deemed to "have it all." Although contemporary audiences may be disappointed by the film's pace and relatively low body count, most appreciate that the film takes the time to establish an atmosphere of normalcy before the introduction of chaos

Although nowhere near as subtle as Rosemary's Baby in casting suspicious events in such a light as to leave open the possibility of their malevolence being merely a manifestation of the fragile mental state of its protagonist, The Omen does manage to wring considerable tension out of Kathy's can't-quite-put-her-finger-on-it unease around her child by effectively refraining from having Damien behave in any manner that can be deemed suspicious or overtly sinister. (Not true of the heinous 2006 remake, which had its Damien affect a perpetual evil scowl, which, in a child, only looks like persistent tummy trouble).

For the Thorns, a wealthy political couple with their eye on the Presidency, a child represents the realization of an idealized "perfect" family. And indeed, for a time, the three enjoy an idyllic, picture-perfect bonding period. But, somewhat provocatively, Damien's true nature doesn't manifest itself in the performance of devilish deeds but in a devoted mother having to confront the disquieting notion that not only is she afraid of her child, but perhaps doesn't even like him. The cracks in the Thorn marriage begin to show, unspoken tensions arise, and the end of the world is harkened by a family being emotionally and mentally torn apart at the seams
Little Devil
One of the main reasons The Omen doesn't play out as preposterously as it does in summarization is because the supernatural horror is kept within human scale. For example, in an early draft of the script, Remick’s character admitted that her burning desire to have a child was rooted not in maternal longing but in the politically-minded desire to project an image of a perfect family for the sake of her husband's career.

Though no longer explicitly stated in the film, there remains an air of neurotic vulnerability around Remick's character (and the Thorn marriage) that renders the introduction of the supernatural an almost secondary threat to the stability of the very rocky Thorn household.
Few horror films today seem to understand that without the firm establishment of something of value being placed at stake in the characters' circumstances, no amount of high-tech violence or CGI explicitness will make a film the viscerally frightening experience it needs to be. Gross, repugnant, or gory, perhaps, but not frightening.
I don't do windows
Legitimacy has always been the elusive, snobbish scourge of horror films. Regardless of the quality, attach Joan Collins or American-International Pictures to it, and you’ve got yourself the cheapo half of a drive-in double-bill; bump up the budget, sign Hitchcock or some arthouse favorite as director, and you’re looking at possible Oscar bait. In the wake of The Exorcist and Jaws, the horror film was riding a crest of mainstream legitimacy, making it possible for a movie whose subject might otherwise have been considered best suited to Vincent Price and Beverly Garland to attract the likes of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
Having to go from no-nonsense pragmatism to possible insanity as a man who slowly comes to believe he must kill his child to save mankind, Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) has, arguably, the role in The Omen with the broadest character arc. But as it capitalizes on the same qualities of stolid authority and compassionate strength which typified much of his film work since the 1940s, it's really not that much of a stretch for the actor. Still, Peck's innate stability contrasts effectively with the regal fragility of Lee Remick, with whom he shares a tender and believable chemistry. 

The solid, rather old-fashioned performances of Peck and Remick are two of the main reasons why The Omen hasn’t been regulated to that slush pile I reserve for films I still adore but find impossible to take seriously anymore (Valley of the Dolls, The PoseidonAdventure, The Great Gatsby, The Towering Inferno). Both bring maturity, intelligence, and a considerable amount of old-Hollywood gravitas to their largely reactive, underwritten roles. A quality I'd not fully appreciated until I saw those blank slates Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles in the remake and realized how ludicrous the whole enterprise feels without actors capable of conveying an appropriate emotional maturity.
Yanks Lee Remick and Gregory Peck get solid UK support from Royal Shakespeare Academy alumni David Warner and Billie Whitelaw. Understated and natural, Warner's photojournalist gets my vote as the film's best performance, but Whitelaw (who grappled with Elizabeth Taylor in 1973s chilling Night Watch) can't help but evoke a few unintentional campy laughs in a role that posits her nefarious nanny as the anti-Mary Poppins.

After the headline-making excesses of The Exorcist, audiences were no longer satisfied with run-of-the-mill violence and death in movies. Fanned by the '70s "disaster film" craze and the escalating depiction of violence on television (I remember 1975s The Legend of Lizzie Borden and 1972s The Night Stalker both being taken to task for their bloody content), America ghoulishly attended certain films in the express hope of being treated to ingeniously gruesome and spectacular deaths.
The Omen became one of the Top 5 boxoffice releases of 1976 largely due to word-of-mouth over its then-shocking violence and faint-inducing tension. While (mercifully) not on par with even the level of explicitness you can find in a PG film today, The Omen's talked-about setpieces still manage to pack a punch. In line with what I stated earlier about the ineffectiveness of horror without the establishment of human risk, one would miss the point of The Omen's success were one to assume its boxoffice success was due exclusively to the explicitness of its violence and the extravagance of its deaths. On the contrary, I believe the violence in The Omen (which is surprisingly bloodless) got under people's skin because, in the context of the film, the deaths had the emotional weight of real jeopardy and loss. And Jerry Goldsmith's magnificently ominous score didn't hurt either. 

I saw The Omen on opening night (Friday, June 25th at San Francisco's Coronet Theater) and while I can't vouch for anyone passing out, I can certainly attest to the many screams; the patrons who chose to sit out much of the film in the theater's lobby; and the fact that my younger sister (who really should have learned her lesson after The Exorcist and The Day of the Locust), at the occurrence of a particularly startling, now-iconic moment, burst into tears and had to be taken to the restroom to compose herself.
Love how the newspaper obligingly supplies a gruesome photograph of the impaled corpse on the front page.

Time, too many parodies, too many awful sequels, my own lapsed Catholicism, and the swiftness with which its plot points became camp pop cultural clichés has softened the impact of The Omen a bit for me over the years. But I’m forever grateful that I first learned of The Omen in the most ideal manner possible: through its ad campaign. 
1976 was a great year for film. So amazing that all of my attention was taken up with many of the more high-profile, hype-attendant releases of the day: Hitchcock’s Family Plot, the US/Russian collaboration on The Blue Bird, Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, the remake of King Kong, Dustin Hoffman teaming with Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, and Michael York in the sci-fi adventure, Logan’s Run.
The Omen marked Oscar-winner Gregory Peck's return to
American films after a five-year absence

This was also the year that saw the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth; nostalgia-based films about both Clark Gable and WC Fields; Fellini’s Casanova; Liv Ullman’s return to Ingmar Bergman with Face to Face after her inauspicious shot at Hollywood stardom; Dustin Hoffman again in All The President’s Men; and the horror of a different kind supplied by Network

More traditional horror appeared with the release of Carrie, The Sentinel, and Burnt Offerings. All in the same year. And I haven't even brought up the heavily-anticipated features by high-profile, prestige directors like Altman, Bertolucci, Polanski, and Vincente Minnelli that were also released in this wonderfully overcrowded market. As I said, 1976 was a particularly amazing year to be a film fan.  
My mind and imagination were so wrapped up in those films that (strange as it seems) I had absolutely no foreknowledge of the forthcoming release of The Omen. What I do recall is riding the BART train to school one morning and being confronted by this massive billboard in the terminal…this completely stark, black sign with white lettering: “Good Morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world.” That was it! Nothing else. It stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea it was an ad for anything at was just his creepy, eye-catching sign with nary a movie studio logo in the corner or anything.
In the ensuing weeks, more and more posters began showing up all over San Francisco. Each just as cryptic, just as foreboding: “If something frightening happens to you today, think about it,” “You Have Been Warned,” and inevitably, “This is your Final Warning.”

It felt as if an entire month had passed before the signs began to include the 20th-Century-Fox logo in the corner, then eventually, written in blood red, the words, “The Omen,” with what I then thought were bowling ball finger-holes in the ”O” which of course I’d later discover were three sixes. 

By the time these teaser ads gave way to graphic art featuring a little boy casting the shadow of some kind of beast, ads divulging the cast (real, honest-to-god Hollywood movie stars!  Not straight-to-Drive-In nobodies!), I was like a fish on the hook. The movie I knew nothing about beforehand had become the film I HAD to see.
I was too young to remember the groundbreaking "Pray for Rosemary's Baby" ad campaign that launched the film that still remains my #1 favorite horror movie of all time, but I'm glad that the creative minds behind the marketing of The Omen gave me my own personal '70s version of the experience. Happily, once it was released, The Omen more than lived up to the hype and was quite the goosebumpy thrill ride I thereafter sought to re-experience time and time again that summer. Indeed, a good deal of the goodwill I currently harbor for this film (and the broad latitude I give its many faults) is in large part due to the pleasant memories I have of being young enough to have allowed myself to get so thoroughly caught up in the whole groundswell of excitement that accompanied the release of The Omen in 1976.
"On this night, Mr. Thorn, God has given you a son."

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014