Popcorn Theology and Devil’s Food
Fans of the 1976 cult classic film The Omen about the birth of the anti-Christ, that is, the devil, will probably like the new, enhanced version to open world-wide in theaters on June 6 (6.6.06), a date that coincides with the calendar’s numerical line-up and commemorates the anniversary of the original film’s release.
Apocalyptic-centric screenwriter David Seltzer (who also penned last year’s miniseries Revelations) derives the premise for The Omen on a literal and contemporary interpretation of the book of Revelation, especially Chapter 13: 11-18:
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” (NRSV).
When U.S. diplomat Robert Thorn’s (Leiv Schreiber) son dies at birth, a priest convinces him to take another boy instead, an orphan born at the same time. The priest convinces Thorn that this is an act of charity and Thorn agrees not to tell his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles). Two years later, the family is transferred to London, where they settle in a large manor house. Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), however, does not attach to his mother and this upsets Katherine. Inexplicable things start happening. Damien sees a large black dog; he disappears from his parents while out walking. Damien’s nanny jumps to her death while professing her love for the little boy. When a new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (played in a most menacing and creepy manner by Mia Farrow of Rosemary’s Baby fame), appears without being hired, even Thorn starts to get suspicious and nervous. A photographer sees Thorn meeting with a mysterious priest, Fr. Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who warns Thorn of the need to accept Jesus as his personal savior and to receive the body and blood of Christ to ward off the terrible things to come.
And come they do.
The Omen is cinematic schlock built on a dispensational theological premise of the end times that a relative minority of evangelical Christians believe. Though the end of the world didn’t occur in 1976 when the original film was released or at the turn of the century in 2000, not to worry; there’s still time.
In line with pop culture theology, The Omen gathers its visuals from the Catholic Church and its theology and religious dialogue from the Plymouth Brethren, a fringe evangelical Protestant denomination. The Plymouth Brethren began in Ireland in the late 1820’s and migrated to the UK soon after. The Plymouth Brethren’s faith system is driven by the proximate coming of the end times and is essentially non-creedal. The most well known films and books of this genre are the Left Behind franchise (see Scripture, Rapture and Apocalypse: 'Left Behind: World at War'
Fr. Brennan wants to marry Catholicism and dispensational Protestantism when he yells at Thorn: “You must accept Jesus as your personal savior and eat his body and drink his blood to be saved.” But there is no personal life transformation involved in this formula, there is no charity, no sign of a benevolent God anywhere. There is only the crucifix, thousands of them, as the magic wand that may rid Thorn – and the world - of the devil and the apocalypse.
The reporter and Thorn in Fr. Brennan's room
The one thing The Omen may do for audiences is to convince them that the devil exists; Seltzer certainly dishes up enough evidence for this throughout the film. Other films have certainly tried to help us believe in the devil and perhaps scare us into being good. (The Exorcist, 1973, and more recently with the annoying Constantine in 2005 and the more thoughtful The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also in 2005). (See Beat the Devil: Exorcism and Hollywood http://www.the-tidings.com/2005/0909/movieside.htm.)
The problem with Seltzer’s devil is that he is blamed for all the evils in the world leading to the apocalypse. There is not even a hint of personal or social responsibility for wars or the natural disasters, such as global warming which may be attributed to how humans abuse the earth. No one is in control of Seltzer’s universe, not diplomats or politicians, not individuals, not the priests (only Catholic clergy are presented to us and they are either evil or ineffectual) and certainly not God – just the devil. The allusion to the death of Pope John Paul II at the end seemed very distasteful to me, as did the strong insinuation that the Catholic Church is just plain superstitious.
I received a call today (May 31) from a reporter with a city newspaper in Florida asking if I had heard any rumblings of fear among Catholics about the coming date of June 6, 2006 (6.6.06) cited in the book of Revelation as a recipe for disaster. To date, I have not. She wanted to know if there is any Catholic teaching on these numbers. Alas, I think I disappointed her when I explained that the book of Revelation was written for the Christian community almost 2000 years ago to give them courage during times of persecution and trial – and that Catholics do not interpret the Scriptures literally. The book of Revelation is of the biblical apocalyptic genre (see the book of Daniel), and is interpreted accordingly.
No Suspense, Only Jolts
After the screening, one guest filmmaker observed that the film had no suspense; it only offered a series of jolts, albeit very effective ones. A suicide, a beheading, and a murder make for grisly viewing.
People go to films like The Omen because they are already scared, the horror-meister Wes Craven said a few years ago during an interview with Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) at the City of Angels Film Festival. I think Craven is correct. And if people want to assuage their fears about terrifying world events maybe they can do so with this contemporary remake of The Omen. This version is very close to the original that starred Gregory Peck as Thorn and Lee Remick as Katherine, though some new features have been carefully added. I thought Seltzer (or the director) was winking at us by casting Mia Farrow from Rosemary’sBaby (1968); as the Mary Poppins from hell. She was truly very effective.
The film is very rich visually with high production values. The patterns added to the feeling of beauty or order but we find out soon enough that these are visual illusions. The colors, tones, and hues lend themselves very well to creating creepiness and fear. The whiteness (some psychoanalytic film theorists believe this means madness) and dream sequences create the psychological dimension of fear.
Yet there are so many clichés: too much rain and lightening, the lights not working, people moving around in the dark, black dogs, and watering flowers in high heels while standing on a chair over a precipice. The snowy terrain near Rome in the month of June did offer a glimpse of Dante’s version of the lowest pit of hell which is frozen. Some of The Omen’s original iconic scenes have endured and reappear here, as they did in the End of Days in 1999.
Split-pea soup not-with-standing, I think The Exorcist is the best devil film out there. The Omen, instead, is a pop culture icon and 6.6.06 is providing a marketing dream-come-true for Twentieth Century Fox.
As with The Da Vinci Code, most people will agree that The Omen “it’s just a movie”. And that’s true. Yet movies influence us on many levels and all of them deserve to be talked about, questioned, and critiqued by each person in the audience. Questions we can ask are: in whose interest the film was made, what kind of reality does it construct, and whose point of view prevails?
Thirty years on, The Omen is searching for a new audience to devour it, and they probably will.
P.S. Today, June 5, I was speaking with a Norbertine priest and I asked him if he had run into anyone who was impressed with the 6.6.06 numbers. He laughed and said that all the Norbertine priests are - June 6th is the feast of St. Norbert. Happy feast day!