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! 

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Gothic Grandeur of Baby Jane

I first read of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in a paperback book published by Pyramid in the 1970s, entitled Karloff and Company: The Horror Film by Robert F. Moss. It was a slim volume that had a surprisingly exhaustive series of essays about the development of the horror genre, all the way from Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari up through the 1960s-70s Hammer Film period. This is where I first became interested in scary movies as varied as Dracula and Frankenstein to Rosemary’s Baby--and Baby Jane. As an “illustrated biography”, the Pyramid series offered a good mix of words and pictures to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old budding movie buff.

The first picture I ever saw of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

It was the gruesome photo that accompanied the section about the 1962 shocker starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that made me pause and take notice...a pancake-faced old blond woman, dressed as a little girl, sitting on a beach with a grotesquely gray-faced brunette expiring beside her. The doll-like blond lady was grimacing and the brunette’s big eyes were full of pain.

At this moment in time, I had never even heard of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but I vowed to find out more. Who were these two scary ladies, and why did they both seem so intensely compelling?

Baby Jane was a movie that was never on television in the 1970s when I was growing up. I first saw it in the mid 1980s, thanks to the magic of videotape. Just prior to the Blockbuster Video era, when studios put out all the classics on VHS tapes, small Mom & Pop video stores would not only rent you the tapes but the videocassette player as well. In college in Chicago, my best friends and I would trudge miles in the snow lugging the video player and tapes, to watch movies we had heretofore only read about--or had only seen in edited-for-television versions.

The Hudson Sisters: Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis)

Naturally, my two gay college friends and I were instantly transfixed by this black-and-white horror classic. A forgotten vaudeville child star and her former movie star sister have shut themselves away in a decaying old house amid regrets and recriminations, as the alcoholic Baby Jane (Bette Davis) taunts and tortures her crippled, long-suffering sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) with gleeful malice.

Reel life melds with real life as actual clips of youthful Davis and Crawford are used to illustrate their 1930s movie careers in one of the extended flashback sequences in the prologue. The Bette Davis clip is used to show what a terrible actress Baby Jane was, and indeed, Davis’s 1933 performance in Ex-Lady is wooden and leaden, replete with a cringe-worthy southern accent. She really does “stink” — Davis must have had quite a sense of humor about herself to allow that clip to be shown. On the other hand, Crawford is beautiful, elegant and flawless (if a little affected!) in her own clip from 1934’s Sadie McKee. The juxtapositions of past and present and young and old, are perfect exposition to precede the two aging stars’ first appearances.

Of course, it is the performances that make this movie a classic. Without a doubt, Davis steals the picture with her balls-out portrayal of the alcoholic, bitter and mentally unhinged Jane.  As caregiver to the crippled recluse, former movie actress Blanche Hudson, Davis’s former child star Jane Hudson is now the “fat sister” slouching around the dingy dark Hudson house, yawning, mugging, shuffling and clomping around, rattling through a multiplicity of empty gin and scotch bottles, beginning her endless guzzling as she prepares her wheelchair-bound sister’s breakfast tray.

"This is my very own Baby Jane doll"

With Mary Pickford sausage curls and heavily lipsticked cupid bow mouth on a chalk white face, Davis transforms herself into a monstrous life-sized doll. (Her performance of the child star’s theme song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” truly has to be seen to be believed.) Jane is a grotesque madwoman but also a psychopath and a sadist, serving her disabled sister first their pet canary then a big juicy rat from the cellar under a silver cloche. She savagely kicks Crawford around the room then trusses her up with the precision of a BDSM dominatrix, but not before coldbloodedly murdering their housekeeper Elvira by bludgeoning her with a hammer.

Davis plays the role with a savage gusto, as if she knows this may be her last chance to prove herself on the silver screen. She is truly a force of nature--and Jane Hudson remains one of her most unforgettable roles. Already a two-time Oscar winner, she received her final Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for the role, but lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. (Ironically, Joan Crawford famously accepted Bancroft’s award that night amid glamorous fanfare, completely upstaging her former costar.)

Joan knew how to look like a winner!
Though Crawford was supposedly incensed that she had not received a nomination herself, she too had garnered strong reviews for her more sedate performance. Crawford was heavily praised by many critics, including reviewer Paul V. Beckley in the New York Herald Tribune: “If Miss Davis's portrait of an outrageous slattern with the mind of an infant has something of the force of a hurricane, Miss Crawford's performance could be described as the eye of that hurricane, abnormally quiet, perhaps, but ominous and desperate.”

You can’t underestimate Crawford’s contribution to the film, both on screen and off. It was Joan who found the novel by Henry Farrell and brought it to director Robert Aldrich, with whom she’d done Autumn Leaves. As the crippled Blanche Hudson, Crawford wisely chose to underplay to her costar’s flamboyant histrionics.

When the character of Jane imitates her sister Blanche’s voice over the telephone, Davis is obviously miming Joan Crawford’s own voice--and Crawford exaggerates her own hoity-toity, piss elegant delivery, neatly spoofing the saintly, holier-than-thou  “Bless You” Crawford image. It’s obvious Joan  was savvy to the joke and able to poke fun at herself for the sake of a good story.

Maidie Norman as Elvira: "I can't remember the last time I saw words like that written down!"

Victor Buono and Marjorie Bennett: "This is Mr. Flagg's seck-etary...I think you'll find he's very well qualified."

B.D. Merrill (later Hyman) and her Mommie Dearest
Obese and effete young actor Victor Buono (best known as the evil King Tut on Batman), who was only in his early 20s at the time, was inspired casting as the pianist and potential “love interest” for Jane, and he earned a well-deserved Oscar nod himself for Best Supporting Actor. Other standouts in the cast include the reliable Maidie Norman (Torch Song) as Elvira, and British character actress Marjorie Bennett’s (Promises, Promises) broad cockney characterization as Edwin’s coddling mother.

Rounding out the cast are Anna Lee (The Sound of Music, General Hospital) as the nosy next-door neighbor,  and a flat-voiced B.D. Merrill giving the worst performance in the film as the neighbor's daughter…obviously reading her lines off a cue card, practically pausing in the middle of a sentence till the next card is turned  (Of course, B.D. Merrill Hyman is Bette Davis’s less talented daughter who later wrote the Mommie Dearest-inspired hack job My Mother’s Keeper in Bette’s waning years.)

Director Robert Aldrich confers with his stars
Baby Jane is the film that spawned a brand new movie genre—the Grand Guignol, named for the grotesque and violent French theatre that played ironically until 1962, the year this film was released. Guignol horror pictures of the 1960s revitalized the careers of the grande dames who headlined them, and created a new stereotype--the aging movie actress as either victim or killer. Some were well-produced and notable, but most were schlocky and exploitative, but almost all made money and kept leading ladies of a certain age working and in the public eye.

Some of my own guilty pleasures of the period include Die, Die My Darling! (with Tallulah Bankhead), What’s The Matter with Helen? (Debbie Reynolds), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Ruth Gordon), Lady in a Cage (Olivia de Havilland) and The Devil’s Own (Joan Fontaine). Later on, into the 1970s and even the ’80s, Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch and Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th kept the subgenre alive.

Crawford kept up her new image as Scream Queen with Straight Jacket, Berserk and Trog, while Bette Davis returned often to the Guignol, first in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, then in The Nanny, Burnt Offerings and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home.

Why does Baby Jane remain a classic? The bottom line is that it is a very solid low-budget horror  movie, suspenseful, taut and well-plotted, infused with dark humor. This grotesquely gothic film is a camp classic, yes...but it’s so much more than just that. The inimitable style and attention to detail of director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Killing of Sister George) are everywhere apparent, and the film is photographed with flair by the brilliant Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce). The charisma and combustible chemistry of its two leading ladies adds an undeniable layer of excitement.

Much has been written about the making of this unique film, and the legendary feud between the two stars, a lot of it myth and legend and hearsay. One particular writer, Shaun Considine, has compiled all the Baby Jane lore into an engrossing book called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. How much of it is true and how much is fiction is debatable. Perhaps some of the more outlandish stories were made up or exaggerated by the participants themselves specifically to sell tickets to the film. 

Joan and Bette's reunion in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was not meant to be.
But it’s safe to say that Davis and Crawford were never the best of friends...to put it mildly. Their first teaming was such a box office bonanza that Aldrich convinced them to reunite in a new movie, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, but on location in Louisiana Joan reportedly fell ill and then quit the picture just as filming got underway. Bette’s old friend Olivia deHavilland took over the role. Yep, their mutual enmity was most likely real!

And yes, of course I am watching (and LOVING) Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan starring Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford. Both actresses are absolutely marvelous in it! It’s must-see TV for classic movie freaks like me.