Friday, September 29, 2017

Big Talents, Giant Movie

My sister and her family recently moved to Dallas, so I’ve had the opportunity to visit there a couple of times. I had a blast there, and confirmed for myself the old aphorism that “everything’s big in Texas”: big guns, big food, big hair, big smiles and big Southern hospitality. And, of course, big pride for a great state that was once the biggest in the union.

The 1956 film Giant captures the expansive spirit of the Lone Star state, and in fact probably had a lot to do with creating that Texas mythos that still endures today. The aptly-named film is epic, sprawling and grand, Giant in every respect. From the majestic strains of Dmitri Tiomkin’s powerful score, to cinematographer William C. Mellor’s moody lighting, big skies and Texas sunsets, to George Stevens’s skilled direction of some of the most talented and legendary actors on the planet, Giant is more than a movie; it’s a force to be reckoned with—not unlike the state itself.

Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Lynnton Benedict

Based on the 1952 historical novel by Edna Ferber (Show Boat, So Big), Giant is several movies rolled into one—a multi-generational saga of the fictional Benedict dynasty; a boy-meets-girl/battle of the sexes romance; a political soap opera, and a modern Western. Director Stevens (The Greatest Story Ever Told, A Place in the Sun) seemed to include every detail of Ferber’s 400-page tome up there on the screen in the film’s 3 hour and 21 minute running time. 

Rock Hudson as Jordan "Bick" Benedict

The film captures the spirit and flavor of Texas, with its frequent historical references to Carrie Nation, San Jacinto and the Alamo, and Tiomkin’s score is peppered with the familiar folk tunes including “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Us” and of course “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Giant delves into politics as well, exploring Texas’s uneasy relationship with Mexico (which continues to this day) and Texans’ poor treatment of the Mexicans who serve them. Both rich and poor Texans (Bick Benedict and Jett Rink) are prejudiced against the subservient people they call “wetbacks,” while an enlightened newcomer (Leslie Benedict) shows them kindness, generosity and compassion. 

James Dean as Jett Rink

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the most at the time since Gone With the Wind (to which it is often compared), George Stevens deservedly won the Oscar for Best Director that year.

Unlike GWTW, which was filmed completely on a studio backlot, exteriors of Giant were filmed on location in the western town of Marfa, where the townsfolk became extras and bit players in the film and rubbed elbows with Jimmy, Rock and Liz, attending the daily rushes at the local movie house and enjoying after-dinner musicales at the town’s only hotel--enjoying their fleeting five minutes of fame before settling back down into obscurity. (The 1981 play and film Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean provides some imaginative fictional backstory on the location filming of the classic.)  

Mercedes McCambridge as "Madama" Luz Benedict
Giant boasts unforgettable performances by three of Hollywood’s biggest stars, supported by one of the most accomplished and talented casts in film history.

Elizabeth Taylor received top billing as the steely Leslie Benedict, loving matriarch of the rowdy Benedict clan. Director George Stevens had been among the first to nurture the latent talents of the violet-eyed sensation, whom he had cast as socialite Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun several years before. As the object of Montgomery Clift’s obsession, Taylor had turned in a subtle and unexpectedly multilayered performance. Thus Stevens saw more in Elizabeth than just a pretty face and figure, taking the child star-turned-glamour girl seriously as an actress. 

Carroll Baker as young Luz Benedict

In recent years, Taylor had had almost no opportunity to sharpen those budding acting chops during her indentured servitude at MGM, who usually cast her as arm candy for stars like Van Johnson and Robert Taylor in dull melodramas. A sparkling performance as Spencer Tracy’s daughter in Father of the Bride was an exception, but high spots like that had been few and far between. Giant was a turning point in Taylor’s career.

Dennis Hopper as Jordie Benedict

For Giant, Taylor and costars Rock Hudson and James Dean would all be required to age more than 25 years over the course of the epic saga, believably playing the older generation to film newcomers Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper, who were around the same age as Dean himself (he was 24 at the time). Rather than employing rubber prosthetics and over-the-top age makeup, Stevens wisely chose to suggest the future maturity of his young stars with a bit of silver in their hair and a few lines around the eyes and mouth. (Jimmy would never live to see his 50s, of course, and both Rock and Elizabeth aged a little bit less gracefully than their Benedict counterparts.) 

Jane Withers as Vashti Snythe

Though Taylor did not receive an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her role of Leslie Benedict, Giant opened that door and served as a transition to important adult roles. She would be nominated for the Oscar the next four years running—for Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Butterfield 8, which finally won her the coveted statuette. (She would win a second Oscar six years later for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.) In 1970, Taylor would work with director Stevens one more time, appearing opposite Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town, but the film would not be a success. 

Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley
For Rock Hudson, Giant was a career milestone and elevated his status from leading man to superstar after lending broad-shouldered support and bolstering the sex appeal of stars like Jane Wyman (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession). As Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Hudson would receive his first and only Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. (Both he and costar James Dean, who was nominated posthumously, would lose to Yul Brynner as the iconic king of Siam).

East of Eden had made moody James Dean the new Marlon Brando, and the soon-to-be-released teen melodrama Rebel Without a Cause would forever change the trajectory of the apple-pie 1950s, partially because of the untimely death of its star on September 30, 1955, just 10 days after he finished his work on Giant.  In this his third film, James Dean solidifies his image as the symbol of tortured youth as surly yet vulnerable ranch hand Jett Rink. In contrast to handsome leading man Hudson, Dean is all animal magnetism and overt sexuality in tight-fitting blue jeans and shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skulking round Reata Ranch wearing his cowboy hat over his eyes. 

Rod Taylor as David Karfrey
 James Dean was not the only Method actor on the film. The same year as Giant, Carroll Baker stunned Hollywood with her portrayal of Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, and would later reinvent herself as a blond bombshell in the mid 1960s with Harlow and The Carpetbaggers. (At this writing, Ms. Baker is one of two surviving members of the principal cast.) Dennis Hopper, best friend of James Dean and his recent costar in Rebel, displays his own brand of vulnerability and sensitivity as young Jordie Benedict.

Sal Mineo as Angel Obregon

The imposing Mercedes McCambridge, who had won an Oscar for All The King’s Men and tussled with Joan Crawford in the western Johnny Guitar, also earned an Oscar nod as tough-as-nails Benedict sister Luz, who rules the roost and wears the pants—indeed, James Dean’s character refers to her as “Madama.”  

Child star Jane Withers (still with us and age 94 as of this writing) is the garrulous girl Hudson left behind to marry Taylor, while a young Rod Taylor (The Birds) plays Elizabeth Taylor’s spurned fiance. There’s also a tiny but memorable cameo role by sad-eyed Sal Mineo, who had such great chemistry with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, as Mexican ranch hand turned tragic soldier Angel Obregon. Chill Wills, one of the great character actors, ubiquitous in classic westerns, lends strong support as understanding Uncle Bawley, who runs interference between the often-feuding Benedicts. 

The Benedicts age 25 years through the course of the film

Rock Hudson and James Dean were not friendly, though they both adored Elizabeth Taylor, but rumors of a feud between the two are probably apocryphal. The two trade punches in a key scene, and there are extant photos of the pair sparring on the porch, probably rehearsing for that famous confrontation between a buttoned-up, linen-clad Hudson and a crude-oil-drenched Dean.

Despite the rumors about Dean’s fluid sexuality, the two male stars had little else in common. Where Rock Hudson learned his lines and his hit his marks with old-school professionalism, Dean the anti-establishment Method actor prepared in unusual ways, including racing around the set to keep his adrenalin pumping and his emotions high, and mumbling his dialogue using a newly acquired, authentic Texas drawl.

If James Dean is electrifying as the young hellcat Jett Rink of the first half, Rock Hudson provides the story’s most gripping moments in the second half. Hudson truly excels in his portrayal of the mature Bick Benedict, patriarch of the fading Benedict dynasty, a cantankerous member of the older generation flummoxed by a changing world.

Possibly the most intense scene of the picture takes place near the end in Sarge’s hamburger joint, where Bick gallantly defends the honor of his Mexican daughter-in-law and grandchild, who had been previously embarrassments to him). It’s one of Hudson’s finest moments in his 30-year career as an actor. 

Was there a real-life rivalry between Rock and Jimmy?

After his sudden death in a car crash at the age of 24 with only three films under his belt, James Dean became one of those iconic show business ghosts who continue to haunt us decades later, permanently frozen in time. Along with Marilyn, Elvis, Judy and Heath, his legend lives on.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor remained lifelong friends after Giant, later reuniting on the screen in the campy Agatha Christie mystery The Mirror Crack’d in 1980. When Hudson fell ill and died from AIDS in 1986, the traumatic event was a turning point for Elizabeth, who was instrumental in establishing the AmFar Foundation to create visibility and accelerate the search for a cure or treatment for the dreaded disease.

Rock and Liz on the set in Marfa with director George Stevens, and clowning with Jimmy

If you have a long, lazy Sunday afternoon free one of these days, I highly recommend this beautifully crafted portrait of a loving, brawling, dysfunctional Texas family. You’ll learn a lot of history along with being satisfyingly entertained, as well as the reason why they say “Don’t mess with Texas!”  

Thanks so much to Quiggy at the Midnite Drive-In for hosting this Texas movie blogathon celebration! It promises to be one of the biggest blogathon events ever, and I look forward to reading all the entries.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Roman's Baby

I was an avid reader from an early age, always raiding my parents’ bookshelf for material that was usually a bit above my head. My favorites, though, were my dad’s horror and suspense titles—Harvest Home by Tom Tryon, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and, best of all, the amazing Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, a novel that was so cleverly and cinematically written that it played like a film in my head as I read it.

When, several years later, I got the chance to see the movie, I was amazed and delighted that the film followed the book faithfully, scene by scene, beat by beat, practically even line by line of dialogue. Director Roman Polanski had wisely followed Levin’s tightly written book to the letter; Rosemary’s Baby (1968) remains the most faithful film adaptation of a popular novel.

It’s also one of my all-time favorite movies, one that I can watch over and over and find new things to admire about it. (The beautiful Criterion Collection blu-ray edition I own allows me to do just that.) Best of all, Rosemary turned me on to the talents of one of the cinema’s most groundbreaking and controversial directors.

The best-selling novel by Ira Levin was not the author’s first to be adapted into a film--A Kiss Before Dying was first. (The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, Deathtrap and Sliver were to follow, with varying degrees of success, but none approached the cache of the Polanski film.) Levin’s themes, delving into urban paranoia, conspiracy and the nature of evil in contemporary society, were perfect in a post-JFK-assassination America. (The Time magazine  asking “Is God Dead?” that Rosemary reads in the doctor’s office says it all.)

When wunderkind producer Robert Evans, newly minted head of Paramount Pictures (a former actor far handsomer than many of his stars) green-lighted the project, the novel had been optioned by horror schlockmeister William Castle (The Tingler, Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did), but Evans was determined not to allow Castle to direct. (Castle would receive a producer credit and a cameo appearance as the menacing man outside the phone booth in Rosemary’s claustrophobic telephone scene.) Instead, Evans chose an exciting new talent to helm the project.

Star Farrow confers with producer Evans and director Polanski
Rosemary is the perfect introduction to the artistry of director Roman Polanski—it may in fact be the auteur’s masterwork. It was Polanski’s first American production, after wowing European audiences with his innovative thrillers Knife in the Water (produced in his native Poland and Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film of 1964) and Repulsion (made in France in 1965). Polanski was fast garnering a reputation for bold, raw realism, taking the “New Wave” cinema of the 1960s to the next level.

Together, Evans and Polanski assembled a talented creative team to tell this absorbing story of a young woman expecting her first child, and the strange circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. 

This may be the ultimate “victim movie;” the character of Rosemary is duped, drugged, raped, lied to and controlled by a sinister devil-worshiping cabal that includes her own husband. (Ambitious actor Guy Woodhouse treats his young wife like chattel, a bargaining chip to put on the table, selling his soul—and his wife’s—to achieve stardom.) It’s also the ultimate conspiracy film as well, because not until the final scene do we know for sure that Rosemary’s worries and concerns are not mere paranoid delusions. Oh, yes, and evil seems to triumph in the end.

The character of Rosemary offers a conflicted view of womanhood. On one hand, she embodies weakness, pain and suffering. On the other, she listens to her own intuition and  relentlessly pursues the truth about her situation. Ultimately, although she is confronted with the ultimate evil, her maternal instincts kick in and she finds herself adapting to a “new normal.”

Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse

Polanski seriously considered his wife Sharon Tate for the role of Rosemary; indeed, she did have a quality very similar to Catherine Deneuve, the beleaguered heroine of his previous psychological thriller Repulsion; but Paramount wanted at least one bankable name in the cast. Mia Farrow starred on the wildly popular nighttime soap opera Peyton Place, and won the role after Tuesday Weld reportedly turned it down.

As Rosemary Woodhouse, Mia Farrow is delicate, waif-like and reed-thin, and the famous Vidal Sassoon pixie cut makes her appear even more vulnerable, a sharp contrast from her Sydney Guilaroff wigs (favored by Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day and Kim Novak) in the early sequences. Mia Farrow iconically embodies the title character, imbuing her with warmth and humanity. Farrow deserved a Best Actress Oscar for creating one of the most iconic damsels in distress in cinema history, but incredibly, she was not even nominated. She did win Italy’s David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actress and was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for her luminous and fragile—yet determined—Rosemary.

Farrow sacrificed her marriage to Frank Sinatra to finish filming Rosemary. Sinatra had signed his young wife to costar opposite him in The Detective, but by the film’s appointed start date, the Polanski film was far from finished. Polanski’s painstaking attention to detail and elaborate setups slowed the creative process and put the picture weeks behind schedule, which infuriated Sinatra. He served his wife of nine months divorce papers right on the Rosemary set.

John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Polanski was inspired in his against-type casting of John Cassavetes in the role of Guy Woodhouse; an auteur himself, Cassavetes epitomizes the hungry ambition of the New York “actor type.” Originally the role was planned for Robert Redford...but if he had gone through with it, Polanski would have run the risk of turning his suspense thriller into Barefoot at the Bramford…with Mia in her sunny Doris Day-like outfits with golden boy Redford by her side. (Later Redford would star opposite Farrow in the unfortunate 1974 version of The Great Gatsby.) Instead, the dark, inscrutable Cassavetes (sexy without being handsome) with his curious Method delivery and his shifty eyes, adds a menacing air right from the start.

Making the villanous Satan-worshiping cabal a seemingly kindly group of senior citizens was an Ira Levin stroke of genius, and those supporting roles were cast just as brilliantly by Polanski, with old-time character actors like Patsy Kelly (Pigskin Parade), Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday) and Elisha Cook (The Maltese Falcon). Sidney Blackmer (who played Grace Kelly’s dad in High Society) is eccentric and bombastic as Roman Castevet, martyr to his father’s old religion.

Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet
As Roman’s dotty wife Minnie, showbiz veteran Ruth Gordon all but steals the show, earning her a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 71. A multitalented actress and writer, Gordon was the wife of Garson Kanin, with whom she coauthored such classic films as A Double Life, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike.

Gordon’s quirky character role as Natalie Wood’s demented mother in Inside Daisy Clover had reignited her acting career, and thanks to Rosemary’s Baby, she went on to enjoy the most successful third act in all of show business (save perhaps for Betty White), working steadily through the 1970s in classics including Harold and Maude, Where’s Poppa? and My Bodyguard. Her last film was Maxie with Glenn Close in 1985, the year she died. In 1977, Gordon briefly reprised her role as Minnie Castevet in the poor TV movie sequel Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby. Perhaps it would have been more palatable had Minnie’s role been bigger!

Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Director Polanski begins his storytelling at a leisurely pace, letting the tension build slowly but surely with a heightened form of naturalism, as newlyweds Guy and Rosemary rent a four-room apartment in a grand and charming old apartment house with a sinister history, as they are warned by their elderly friend Hutch. The film is punctuated with a strain of black humor throughout, mostly in the character of Minnie Castevet but also through Guy (“I think I hear the Trench Sisters chewing”) and Maurice Evans’s Hutch (“I see you had another suicide over there at Happy House”), among others.

The Woodhouses tour the Bramford apartment with Mr. Miklas (Elisha Cook, Jr.)
An important character in the film is the gothic apartment house itself, the “Black Bramford.” The filming location, of course, is the infamous Dakota on Central Park West, scene of tragedy a dozen years later when John Lennon was shot and killed in front of the building where he lived.

Production designer Paul Sylbert, aided by his talented daughter costume designer (and later producer) Anthea Sylbert, creates a palette of bright Technicolor to contrast with the darkness of the tale—lemon yellows, rose reds and wild prints. Rosemary’s penchant for yellow-and-white wallpaper described in the book is brought to life here and used as a backdrop for the weird dreams and goings-on in the bedroom scenes. Anthea Sylbert captures the late 1960s zeitgeist in Rosemary’s breezy dresses (including some very chic maternity ensembles), the avant garde outfits of the young friends at Rosemary’s party.  and even the colorfully zany pinks-and-reds of the Castevets, oldies trying to seem hip and vibrant and “with it.”

A scuffed-up Rosemary in her lemon yellow bedroom
Polanski seemed galvanized by every aspect of the story, both grandiose and mundane, and his obsessively detailed and choreographed camera compositions make this a cinema experience like no other. Some of my favorite Polanski moments here include seeing a distorted Rosemary’s bloody lips and fingers reflected in the toaster as she gnaws on raw chicken livers (her kid will not grow up a vegan); and Rosemary using her butcher knife to stop the baby’s bassinet from rocking and give her away as she readies herself for a climactic confrontation with evil.

"Oh, no, don't change the program on my account..."
The director excels in conceptualizing the novel’s unusual dream sequences, which when reading seem impossible to convey on film. These include Minnie Castevet’s voiceover on a scene with nuns in a Catholic school, and the drug-induced yacht sequence replete with weird cameo appearances by lookalikes for Pope Paul, Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, which segues into the nude ritual in which Rosemary is impregnated by “someone inhuman.” “This is no dream, this is really happening!”

Polanski’s choice of composer is another feather in his cap as a master of suspense. Christopher Komeda’s innovative use of music conveys the underlying tension and anxiety, from the repetitive piano tinklings of “Fur Elise” to the atonal cacophony of jazz as Rosemary flees from Guy and Sapirstein upstairs to her apartment. Komeda even composed a memorable theme for Rosemary’s mysterious pregnancy pain, described by Levin in the book as “a wire around me getting tighter and tighter.”

Mrs. Gilmore (Hope Summers) and Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy)
 Is this a horror film? In some ways, yes, but far from a conventional one. Though the supernatural element is downplayed in favor of gnawing tension and paranoia—is Rosemary imagining it all?—we must remember that the Castevets’ satanic magic actually works. Guy wins the star-making stage role he had previously lost to Donald Baumgart after his enlightening after-dinner conversation with Roman—Baumgart suddenly goes blind. (The tense telephone scene between Rosemary and an unseen Baumgurt later in the film is chilling—thanks partially to the inimitable voiceover performance of Tony Curtis, who just happened to be a visitor to the set that day!)  And Hutch goes into a coma before he has time to warn Rosemary about all of those witches, directly after meeting Castevet. And of course, in the iconic final scene when Rosemary sees her baby open its eyes for the first time, she knows that Guy Woodhouse is definitely not the father.

Dark humor alert: Rosemary, Roman and Laura-Louise (Patsy Kelly)
Rosemary’s Baby made Roman Polanski an international filmmaking superstar. Though not nominated for Best Director by the Academy that year (he should have been!), Polanski did earn a well-deserved Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay of the Levin novel. 

The controversial Polanski has manifested even more drama in his life than in his work. Less than a year after Rosemary’s success, he endured a horrific real-life tragedy when wife Sharon Tate, pregnant with their child, was brutally murdered in their L.A. home, becoming the most famous victim of the gruesome “Manson family” murders.

Roman Polanski
Several years later, Polanski was convicted of raping a teenage girl at the home of Jack Nicholson. The director fled the U.S. to avoid a prison sentence, and has not been permitted to set foot in the United States since. He has been married to French actress Emmanuelle Seigneur since 1989.

The prolific Polanski has enjoyed many career high points since Rosemary’s Baby, most notably 1974’s Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and 2002’s The Pianist, which finally earned him the Best Director Academy Award. My personal favorite Polanski films include Frantic with Harrison Ford and soon-to-be-wife Seigneur, The Ghost Writer with Ewan McGregor, and the auteur’s return to the occult devil-worship oeuvre with 1999’s The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, with Seigneur as a seductive female Satan.

My all-time-favorite blogpost about this all-time-favorite film can be found over at the divine Le Cinema Dreams movie-lover's mecca.

Thanks so much to my friend Quiggy at the Midnite Drive-In and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting the Favorite Director Blogathon!  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Oh Damien, You Devil

Horror movies are among my chief cinematic pleasures, and the one that scared me the most as a child was The Omen (1976). I begged my father to take me to see it, and he reluctantly complied, but it scared the bejesus out of me and I was forced to sleep with a night light on for years to come. I would even run out of the room in terror whenever the TV commercial for the film would come on...the frighteningly hollow and cold-blooded tones of the Gregorian chant-inspired theme music by Jerry Goldsmith (the aptly titled opus “Ave Satani”). I was 10 years old.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the Blockbuster Video era in the mid-1980s that I was able to muster up the courage see the 1978 and 1981 sequels to the terrifying original. As a college student at Northwestern University, I also had the opportunity to take a screenwriting seminar taught by a fellow alum—the talented David Seltzer, who wrote the original screenplay that started the Omen phenomenon.

The Antichrist is perhaps filmdom’s greatest arch-villain, bringing about not only murder and mayhem but quite possibly the end of the world itself, and the character of Damien Thorn as portrayed in the Omen trilogy gives viewers a fanciful birds-eye view into the mind and heart of a born killer as he grows from infant to adult.

The three faces of Damien: Stephens, Scott-Thomas and Neill
Obviously inspired by the huge popularity of previous horror classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen enjoyed less critical acclaim but was nevertheless a big box office hit that spawned two entertaining sequels. Seltzer’s original screenplay boasts a strong and compelling narrative and an inventive mythology that provides the blueprint and the backbone for the rest of the series. Punctuated by violent set-pieces and steeped in Catholic and apocalyptic lore, the Omen films chillingly represent the personification of evil in the person of a single character—Damien Thorn.

Born of a jackal and bearing a 666 birthmark—the sign of the Beast as described in the Book of Revelations—Damien does have his share of issues. But he does not have to bear the burden of responsibility alone. He’s surrounded by a bevy of hellbound helpers (played by some of filmdom’s finest character actors) determined to do away with anyone standing in their antihero’s path to ultimate power. One can’t be an effective devil without fearless acolytes, and Satan’s minions are brought to vivid life with wonderful performances in all films. 

Over the course of the three films, each of Damien’s enemies is dispatched in a creatively vivid and violent fashion through a series of gory freak “accidents”—including but not limited to hangings, stabbings, burnings, impalings and dismemberments—that are the hallmarks of the Omen oeuvre.

The Omen (1976): The Littlest Devil
The diminutive Antichrist is portrayed in the original Omen by young Harvey Stephens, but Damien is really just a supporting character in this opening chapter. This first film is headlined by Gregory Peck (Gentlemen’s Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird) as diplomat Robert Thorn, the Ambassador to Great Britain, and beautiful Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder, The Days of Wine and Roses) as his wife Cathy. (The ever-prolific horror movie genre is a saving grace of aging A-list talents who want to keep their names above the title!)

Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn

Lee Remick as Cathy Thorn
As the movie opens, the Thorns’ newborn child has been murdered and replaced with the spawn of the devil, setting the prophecy and plan of the Antichrist’s rise into motion. All is idyllic for the young family until, at Damien’s elaborate fifth birthday party, his nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack) is given the evil eye by a big black Hellhound dog and ends up swinging from a rope in a spectacular suicide sequence. (“Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” )

The new governess, Mrs. Baylock, played by the brilliant Billie Whitelaw (Night Watch, Hot Fuzz), is soft-spoken with a gentle brogue and wears sweater sets and sensible shoes. But she turns out to be one tough customer, aided by her fearsome familiar, the ferocious black dog, by her side, to guard her young charge: “Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee.” Mary Poppins she is not—a spoonful of hemlock rather than sugar seems to be her preferred prescription.

The marvelous Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Religious imagery and terminology are laid on thickly throughout the film. “Accept Christ, Mr. Thorn,” a crazy old coot of a priest admonishes Gregory Peck. “Drink his blood and eat his flesh.” Later, the seven knives of Megiddo, the sacred implements that are the only weapon that can destroy the Antichrist (and appear as an important plot device in all three films), are given to Thorn by Buchenhagen (Leo McKern).

David Warner (Time After Time, Titanic) is memorable as a photographer whose pictures show premonitions of the violence to come—to others as well as himself, the victim of one of the most gruesome “accidents.”

The devil dog, hound of hell, appears in chapters one and three

At first, it’s not quite clear if Damien, played by the young, cherubic-faced Harvey Stephens, is truly the embodiment of evil, or merely a hyperactive and migraine-inducing spoiled brat. Indeed, he drives his adoptive mother Cathy Thorn, played beautifully by Lee Remick, batty to the point of neurosis.  When the animals at the Windsor Lion Country Safari are terrified of Damien, the giraffes stampeding away and the baboons attacking the car, Cathy muses, “What could be wrong with our child?”

Just follow David Warner's bouncing rubber head in the decapitation scene
Indeed, the obstreperous Damien pitches a hysterical fit when approaching an Episcopal church for a wedding, ripping off poor Lee’s glamorous blue satin turban and socking her in the face; and is truly an annoying presence in the Thorn drawing room, throwing billiard balls and yelling at the top of his lungs. (No wonder Cathy starts seeing a psychiatrist, since spanking the little devil is clearly out of the question.)

But alas, Cathy’s fears are not unfounded. When she gets pregnant, her new baby must be gotten out of the way. While she balances precariously against a top-floor balustrade to fuss with a potted plant, evil Damien mows her down with his tricycle, causing her to fall, break her back and lose her unborn child. (Later, Mrs. Baylock pays her a visit in the hospital to finish the job.)

Young Stephens does give a memorable performance, especially in the climactic scenes with Gregory Peck and Billie Whitelaw, fighting tooth and nail against his adoptive father, who has had quite enough of Damien by now, thank you very much.

Damien: Omen II (1978): The Devil’s Advocates
Now living in Chicago with Robert’s brother, Richard Thorn (William Holden), his wife Ann (Lee Grant) and Richard’s son Mark (Lucas Donat), thirteen-year-old Damien (Jonathan Scott-Thomas) attends a military academy and comes of age—with a little help from his friends.

Top stars like Lee Grant, recent Oscar winner as Best Supporting Actress for Shampoo, and William Holden, who had headlined the acclaimed 1976 Best Picture Network, obviously never declined any paying gig, including this schlocky horror movie (indeed, Miss Grant’s autobiography is entitled I Said Yes To Everything). Actors need to work and earn a paycheck just like the rest of us!

A-listers Lee Grant and Bill Holden—slumming for a paycheck?
 A bloody continuation of the violent acts that must be taken to ensure Damien’s clear path to omnipotence, this chapter focuses upon the many protectors and helpers that surround Damien—conspirators are everywhere to prepare the way for Satan’s kingdom.  At the military academy, platoon leader Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator) is so enamored with his young hero that he can barely look the boy in the eye. “Our time has come,” remarks businessman Robert Foxworth, who does away with old Lew Ayres to run Bill Holden’s vast conglomerate until Damien comes of age. Lee Grant, the nurturing earth-mother stepmother, plays favorites, turning out to love one of her adopted children just a wee bit more than the other...

Jonathan Scott-Thomas as Damien Thorn
 As for Damien himself, Scott-Thomas portrays him as a well-mannered and well-behaved young man, but does use his “evil eye” to punish a bullying classmate, and later to murder his cousin and best friend Mark in order to claim his birthright. As Damien’s latent talents emerge, he is admonished not to attract attention: “Someday everyone will know who you are.”

In this film, the satanic familiar switches from a black dog to a raven, ostensibly for one of the violent murder scenes to steal boldly from Hitchcock’s The Birds. (For the third film, the black Hellhound canine returns.) Poor Elizabeth Shepherd, resplendent in a fur-trimmed, blood red coat, gets her eyes pecked out by the nasty, angry bird, then stumbles into oncoming traffic. Ouch!

Elizabeth Shepherd and a Hitchcockian feathered friend

Before William Holden can end the madness by destroying Damien with the newly rediscovered knives of Megiddo, Lee Grant literally stops him dead in his tracks with histrionic aplomb, and chapter two ends in an operatic fiery conflagration as the Thorn Museum burns to the ground.

Lee Grant camps it up in the finale: "Daaamieeeeeen!"

The Final Conflict (1981): Devil-May-Care Savoir Faire
This one is all about the eternal appeal of its bad boy antihero. In The Final Conflict, New Zealand actor Sam Neill (A Cry in the Dark, Jurassic Park) makes a handsome and charismatic Damien—but make no mistake, this is one mean and cold-blooded dude. Unlike the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite Damien played by Scott-Taylor in Omen II, Neill’s Damien is as hard as nails.

Sam Neill as the DILF version of Damien—the devil you'd like to....
 As the third film opens, the seven knives of Megiddo are unearthed from the remains of the Thorn Museum fire just as a cosmic alignment is taking place in the heavens, the one that will herald the Second Coming of Christ. Thus Damien, now an adult, must accelerate his plan for world domination by doing away with the Ambassador to Great Britain to obtain his father’s old job (apparently part of the prophecy and a prerequisite for Damien’s rise to political power) and gain a coveted appointment as president of the (obviously Hitleresque) United Nations Youth Council. Indeed, the American Ambassador’s gruesome suicide is the first of several violent set-pieces in the tradition of the other two films.

Damien and his evil brethren then embark upon a crusade to destroy all infants born on March 24th—the date of the Nazarene child’s birth.

Damien and his nemesis

Not quite as broad and campy as Omen II, The Final Conflict does have its share of over-the-top characters and broadly outlandish scenes of gory violence. The knife-wielding monks (including an elegant and thickly-accented Rossano Brazzi) and religious fanatics fight for the good guys, while Damien’s satanic henchmen include a pair of mean-spirited boy scouts, a wild-eyed priest who drowns the baby he is baptizing, and a sinister nurse (with a faint female mustache) wielding a hypodermic.

Neill is effective, even though he does gnaw the scenery in a few places. Damien’s monologue, a prayer to Papa Satan before a grotesque life-size Christ statue hanging backwards on a cross, is memorably florid as he praises “the violent rapture of my Father’s kingdom…” “Oh god of desolation…save us from Jesus Christ and his grubby, mundane creed…” he intones (with a remarkably straight face). 

A large part of this devil’s appeal is as a sex symbol—indeed, Mr. Neill is very easy on the eyes as the grown-up Prince of Darkness. In the film, Damien is having sex with reporter Kate Reynolds—“The Barbara Walters of British journalism” (well played by Neill’s real-life former paramour Lisa Harrow)— and (it’s implied), maybe even with her teenage son Peter (Barnaby Holm), who turns out to be another devil-worshiping acolyte. In bed with Kate making love, Damien roughly flips her over to face the mattress in order to—well, let’s just say the devil’s favorite flavor definitely isn’t vanilla.

"Nazarene, you have won...nothing."

Lovers of the Omen chronicles like me were delighted when 20th Century Fox released digitally remastered versions of these horror classics in a Blu-Ray collection a couple of years ago. The collection includes the trilogy, plus the 2006 remake with Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles and Mia Farrow in the Billie Whitelaw role. (The less said about that one, the better, though!)

Of the three Damiens, only Mr. Neill still works as an actor. Stephens is now a real estate developer in London, while Brazilian-born Brit Jonathan Scott-Taylor added only a few more film and TV roles to his credit before disappearing from public life in the mid-1980s.

When Shadows and SatinSpeakeasy and Silver Screenings announced this year’s Great Villain Blogathon, Damien Thorn was the first character to pop into my mind. Thanks to them for inspiring me to add the Antichrist to their villainous lineup this year! I look forward to reading all the entries of this stellar annual event!