Posted in: by Pierre Greenfield, Contributors, Essays, Horror

The Devil’s Parties

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Who’s the biggest box-office star at the moment? Not Redford, not Newman, not Eastwood, but, it would seem, the Prince of Darkness, whose presence in or on the periphery of a large number of popular movies in recent years has led to what Variety might call a Beelzebub boffola. And why? Look to the times: devil movies are not a portent of impending Armageddon, as the originator of The Omen would have us believe, but a result. World crises in the Seventies have implied that we may well be merrily off to hell, in metaphorical terms, and it’s nothing unusual for movies to take such phrases literally. Putting it bluntly, devil movies offer a kind of reassuring disturbance. They give us something apart from the grim realities of life to worry about.

It’s an old trick. Chinatown had the citizens of L.A. suffering from a largely invented drought, and their concern with it diverted their attention from what was really going on. When a real drought hit Great Britain in 1976, everyone had a wonderful time worrying about it, encouraged by their political masters, who were glad of a breathing space in which to tackle the actually rather more pressing problems of the pound. Britain didn’t actually die of thirst or turn into Death Valley, but it was a popular summer madness trying to figure out what might happen. The big thing was that it was a danger from outside. It wasn’t our fault. There was no way we could stop the onslaught of unimagined terrors, but we might conceivably blame people for such mundane and equally depressing (more depressing) things as unemployment, strikes, political corruption, and the balance of payments. Whenever a society is in big trouble, as Western society certainly is right now, it’s vital for the public to find all manner of bogeymen on which to vent its otherwise quite impotent wrath.

Hence America’s various anti-Communist scares; hence the popularity of flying saucers (recently in vogue again in Britain); and hence, too, the rise of the Horned One as a leading box-office proposition. It’s a real relief to be able to pin the blame for one’s troubles on the Lord of Misrule rather than on (horrors!) oneself or the society one complacently lives in. The film that really kicked off the diabolical upswing in the movies was, of course, The Exorcist, a smash hit in the final days of the Nixon era. The most cogent criticism of William Friedkin’s movie, and the most succinct, was that offered by Alan Brien of the London Sunday Times: “The devil does not exist, because it has not been necessary to invent him.”

He was right on the nail. The Exorcist would be a much better movie if the Devil weren’t in it. That sounds like a facetious Smart Remark, but it really isn’t. There is absolutely no doubt that we are meant to believe that 12-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) really is possessed by a demon: “I’m the Devil!” hisses Regan, in the inimitable rusty-file tones of Mercedes McCambridge, just in case we don’t get the point. But as David Thomson has sensibly pointed out, it’s very much a childish, banal evil that we get to support the idea; screenwriter and original novelist William Peter Blatty has a simple-minded view of evil, indeed. Of course, this would be explicable if the childish “evil” really were the attempted evildoing of a child—if, in other words, the so-called evil came from within the child’s own, necessarily somewhat limited imagination. For Regan has plenty to be distressed about, and an elaborate psychological trauma could easily be accounted for. It’s Blatty’s idea of subtlety to tease us for a while with false ideas about what provokes Regan’s odd behaviour; everything from being upset about divorcing parents to having a brain lesion is trotted out. What Blatty doesn’t get is that all these explanations are not only more credible, but also more interesting, than the Hallowe’en-scareshow punch he offers us instead.

William Friedkin has more glimmerings about this than his scenarist. The direction of The Exorcist has several very shrewd touches. The world into which the demon chooses to come via a child’s body is one that scarcely needs its presence. Friedkin’s eye for the everyday passing oddities that no one much notices—to say nothing of life’s increasingly everyday unpleasantness—is sharp. One notes not merely the car-crunching thugs loose in the slums, the wino in the subway, the ghastly impersonal hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother dies alone, but such things as the mysteriously stopping clock in the Iraqi prologue and the children running through Georgetown streets in October fright-masks even though the trees are still leafy enough for it to be too early for Hallowe’en. But, alas, Friedkin’s only real interest is in producing a slambang shiver-and-shake show, and though a few further hints of a credible psychological explanation are dotted about—the first indications of something being wrong come when nice little Regan’s language gets as coarse as, but no more so than, that of the adults around her—the film turns into a prolonged commercial for the more hysterical kind of primitive superstition.

Friedkin aims for the viscera. But there’s no sense of actual evil in the film. Regan may cuss, puke, acquire scabs, and use a crucifix for jerking off, but this is simply and merely unpleasant. It’s not wicked. When, indeed, she upsets the smarmy psychiatrist by seizing his gonads and giving a tight squeeze, or when she vomits a litre or so of green bile onto the pate of Fr. Karras (a joke managed more neatly in Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, a raucous Australian comedy of the same year), one might almost be inclined to applaud these radical methods of rebuffing prissily condescending adults. There is only one act that Regan performs whilst possessed that is actually, unquestionably evil, and it is the only one of her excesses that Friedkin does not show us: we don’t see her kill Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), the alcoholic film director. In short, The Exorcist is quite silly as an examination of evil, or of morality, or of religious faith. The intellectualising indulged in by Karras and his elderly superior, Fr. Merrin, is shorn in the journey from book to film—much, it is alleged, to the fury of both Blatty and Max von Sydow, who plays Merrin. We can’t avoid thinking that what Friedkin really wanted was just to get rich by putting us on a sensory rollercoaster. He succeeded in this aim.

If, of course, one looks on The Exorcist simply as another horror movie, it can be enjoyed to a reasonable extent; it held my attention in the way that the infinitely less expensive and ambitious Tales from the Crypt did, though the latter was far more entertaining. The effects department has enjoyed demonstrating its expertise, the photography is excellent, and there are a lot of good actors working hard, if mostly in unrewarding roles. (Max von Sydow is especially hard done by: he’s saddled with a chalky old-man make-up and is required chiefly to exude faintly Bergmanesque vibrations). It is as a sociological phenomenon that the film is most interesting. The two priests (one young and volatile, the other old and sage—Bing and Barry in the wrong genre) get rid of Satan, though not without dying themselves, by means of an elaborate Roman ritual and by their Catholic charisma. Very comforting, especially to a 1973 audience: Merrin and Karras are a kind of Woodward and Bernstein of the spiritual world. The power of (specifically) Rome is pretty awesome, making mincemeat of the agnostic psychiatrist’s diagnoses or the Jewish cop’s investigating. A nervy audience’s need for someone to look after us in our time of trouble is comfortingly fulfilled. There are, after all, no atheists in foxholes.

It’s sociologically significant that such a wave of devil movies should follow The Exorcist and not have started five years earlier, when Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby made nearly as much money and garnered far more critical esteem than Friedkin’s movie. Polanski’s film was and is a cult favourite, but it inspired no sequels and no imitations, and I don’t think it would have even if the director’s wife hadn’t been hideously murdered, along with several others, in 1969. The appalling reality of the Manson killings reminded people that the evil in real life is, as Alan Brien said, more revolting and terrifying than anything the movies or any other artform could ever dream up, and that there’s been no abomination attributed to Satan that people couldn’t manage on their own.

But in the twelve months or so that separated the first release of Rosemary’s Baby from the killings, there were no major attempts at routine Hollywood bandwagon-jumping. Rosemary’s Baby is a much better film than The Exorcist, and far more ambiguous. It really could be that the heroine hasn’t mothered the Anti-Christ at all (Polanski is notoriously trenchant in his dismissal of both religion and superstition), but has just gone mad. The final sequence, involving the unseen child, is shot from her point of view; we don’t stand back from her, not until the very last moment in the film when the camera dips and pans out the window and, from high up above the roof, shows us two people entering the Bramford building to take up residence—two people we may recognise as Rosemary and her perfidious husband Guy, for the piece of film Polanski uses is, in fact, the movie’s very first shot. So fastidious a director as Polanski would be most unlikely to use the same piece of film just for economy. What this usage suggests to me, as does the fact that the preceding scene is in part filmed as a kind of homage to the final moments of Psycho, is that Polanski’s main aim is to show that Rosemary is now insane. It does not matter whether or not the child in the cradle is the Anti-Christ; what does matter is that a human soul has been lost, presumably forever.

This is something that could, in the right circumstances, happen to any of us. Roman Catholicism, the faith Rosemary has rejected, does not save her, nor does marriage, nor medicine. The film is deeply disturbing and bleak. It appeared just before America voted in Richard Nixon in a blaze of grotesquely misplaced optimism. In a way, it’s a surprise that it was a success at all, for the American psyche was busily denying the phobias that would make occult movies of a few years later so popular and so illustrative of the way we live now. Not every film in this genre offers us the pseudo-holy placebo of The Exorcist; people are quite willing to buy despair, just as they have recently shown great interest in disasters more explicable than occult ones via The Towering Inferno and its ilk. (Significantly, that genre is reputedly in eclipse now as a result of The Hindenburg‘s financial failure—people didn’t want a film about a disaster that actually happened). Paranoia has been a dominant strain in films increasingly in the Seventies, and this shows no sign of abating as I write. There is no reason why it should. Paranoia is getting more common, not less.

Unhappy endings in devil movies proliferate most freely in films of the less ambitious sort. In other words, in straightforward commercial horror movies made for fixed budgets and quick audiences, before a swift voyage to late-night TV. Films less pretentious than The Exorcist may nonetheless have as much or maybe more to say about reality, even if they don’t mean to. Certainly Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil will tell future generations, if they need telling (which I doubt), about the macho-jock ethos of the late Sixties and Seventies, and is an apt expression of paranoid feelings about rednecks in the West and those wide open spaces. The wide open spaces along which our two unpleasant and self-satisfied heroes (Peter Fonda and Warren Oates) charge with their passive wives—whilst dodging the seemingly endless number of diabolists living in contemporary Texas—grow ever more constricted, until eventually the quartet’s mobile home is trapped in a ring of flame. Well, Kennedy got knocked off in Texas, so there’s no way the doomed heroes of Easy Rider and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia could survive there.

Just as garlic and crucifixes got less and less effective with every Dracula movie, so, it seems, Old Nick is gaining in strength; for his emissary on Earth in Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain, a certain Jonathan Corbis (spot the initials), shrugs off just about every attempt to keep him under wraps. Corbis (Ernest Borgnine) gets burnt at the stake in 1680, but bounces back, turning up in remotest New Mexico in 1975 to get revenge on the last descendants of his betrayer and claim a book full of Satanic info. The plot-basis is the merest excuse for a phantasmagoria of grotesque make-up jobs perpetrated by the anonymous artists of the Burman’s Studio, who have a very nice line in sticky custard faces suitable for melting. Not since Vincent Price disintegrated into a pile of marmalade and corn flour at the end of Tales of Terror have so many actors come literally unstuck to such pleasingly weird effect. However, the sock finish of The Devil’s Rain defies even their skills: Ernest Borgnine, having previously undergone a Lon Chaney-style transmogrification into a sort of Ram Man, now turns into pretty Joan Prather, as the hero’s wife! The real Joan is trapped forever in the endless downpour that gives the film its title.

How this is managed is not explained, and it’s significant that the film’s makers don’t feel any explanation is needed. Corbis has seemingly crumbled into wet confectionery like all his minions, and has, to boot, been swallowed up into a yawning pit. But back he comes, by heaven, and clearly hero Tom Skerritt is going to have tough bedtimes from now on. Evil is all-pervading. You can’t keep a really dedicated fiend down. None of the good guys in The Devil’s Rain has a happy ending and this is getting common in the genre. The Omen even has Gregory Peck and Lee Remick expiring without giving the Devil his comeuppance. Does this mark a decline in hope, or is the public just getting more cynical? It is not without significance that Peter Sykes’ To the DevilA Daughter reportedly had two endings: the optimistic one that remained, with Richard Widmark offing Christopher Lee with a bit of help from a book called The Grimoire of Ashtaroth, and another that followed this scene with a sequence suggesting that heroine Nastassia Kinski would be carrying on the bad work anyway. Perhaps audiences have seen too much to want a bit of reassurance.

On the other hand, it’s possible to see a few criticisms of orthodox virtue creeping in. In The Devil’s Rain, when Corbis challenges good guy William Shatner to pit his Christian faith against diabolism, the latter responds merely by producing his pistol and chanting the Lord’s Prayer. In the 1680 flashback, the forces of organized Christianity take great glee in roasting the opposition, and their leader also reneges upon his promise and burns alive the reformed Satanist (a woman) who ratted on her colleagues in the coven. Richard Widmark in To the DevilA Daughter is a notably agnostic type who reacts to manifestations of the Evil One as if he were in the wrong genre, with a New York tough guy’s wisecracks and bland assurances that 98 percent of all Satanists are either sick freaks or people primarily interested in kinky sex. In The Omen the Anti-Christ is adopted by, in all but name, John and Jackie Kennedy, and young Damien (a joke: it’s the same name as the prissy hero of The Exorcist!), after demolishing this Camelot couple and a trendy London photographer who’s found him out, winds up as ward—and likely future occupant—of the White House in Bicentennial Year.

The Omen is emphatically not a film to be taken over-seriously. It is too full of illogicalities and frisson-making foolishness for that. (Why, for instance, should the forces of evil tip their hand so clearly by causing the clairvoyant blemishes in the photographer’s snaps?) Furthermore, it has a very odd attitude to Christianity, sanctioning ritual infanticide as the only means of stopping the Anti-Christ. A demented priest—a reformed Satanist—insists that the Only Way to be saved is to “embrace Christ … you must drink His blood!”, and the poor fellow wonders why no one pays him much mind. If one could take the film at all seriously, it would be deeply distasteful. Even as things stand, it is at least mildly so, for all that Richard Donner directs with some flair, making the most of a lavish budget and excellent cast. He and writer David Seltzer have made no claims to wanting it to be anything but a mindless, luridly gripping horror movie, terror for fun and profit. What a pity, then, that its huge box-office success should have prompted not merely orgies of self-congratulation from some of its other prime movers, but also pompous and bogus claims to Significance.

The guilty party here is one Bob Munger, a mysterious fellow who claims to have hatched the plot, although Seltzer (previously the scenarist of Skolimowski’s King, Queen, Knave) gets sole screenplay credit. Munger claims to have been prompted to devise the film by the Almighty Himself, Who has rewarded Twentieth Century Fox for its devotion with a welcome box-office bonanza. This Munger is credited on the film as a “religious adviser”, but is in fact a California advertising executive, especially renowned, it is said, for his skill in peddling dog food. Who ever heard of a pious adman? Even allowing for possible religiosity in the ranks of copywriting, one may ask Munger why, if The Omen is a God-inspired movie, the Devil should win so decisively in the end. Humanity, it is true, may administer a retaliatory uppercut in the sequel being prepared as I write, but Munger must know perfectly well that the sequel wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if little Damien’s success in Part One hadn’t been so popular.

On a TV interview with Munger, it was stressed that the Anti-Christ might well be alive and kicking in the world today. If he is alive, may one suggest that he is more likely to be found in an L.A. advertising agency pumping out lies for money than in the body of a 5-year-old child? Many have leapt in to point out that the film’s grandiose interpretations of various sections of the Book of Revelations—which provide the key to the plot—are largely inaccurate. This wouldn’t matter in an unpretentious chiller, such as the film actually is, but it does rather dent its chances as metaphysical speculation, much less as a warning to the ungodly. Furthermore, one may note that the embracing of Christ does Fr. Brennan (The Omen‘s aforementioned loony priest) little good, and that hero Gregory Peck’s implicit obeying of the instructions of a learned exorcist (Leo McKern, uncredited—perhaps on the advice of his agent?) leads only to his getting a bullet in the skull from a mysteriously-armed British police officer. Little Damien scarce turns a hair, and in the last shot smiles knowingly at the camera—at us.

It’s tempting to read the film as a subversive addition to the Argent de PocheBugsy Malone Children’s Lib cycle, for the adults are an ugly lot. Damien doesn’t ever seem unsympathetic (he is the thinnest of cyphers, actually, barely speaking and entirely passive for most of the time), but Mom and Dad are, despite the sympathetic personalities of Peck and Remick, a selfish pair, largely ignoring the child (as does screenwriter Seltzer—a mistake) and given to most undiplomatic emotional outbursts. The trendy photographer (David Warner) is a pushy careerist, and the various representatives of Light and Darkness are equally self-centered. Does Bob Munger seriously expect people not to side with a 5-year-old who gets blamed for everything, screamed at, manipulated and nearly stabbed? Perhaps he would riposte that the Lord works in mysterious ways—a line one imagines William Peter Blatty also favours. Sometimes, as the cleric in Peter Weir’s delicious Australian fable The Cars That Ate Paris remarks, His ways are downright incomprehensible.

Every fascist likes to claim that God is on his side, and the fondness film people are currently displaying for linking piety and exploitation is repulsive. Perhaps the most disgusting example in recent times is The Sentinel, directed by Michael Winner from Jeffrey Konvitz’s novel. Winner and Konvitz co-produced and co-scripted the movie. One hesitates to call it a meeting of minds, exactly; but, surely, these two were made for each other? The cinema’s most shameless purveyor of expensive cheap rip-offs meets a writer with exactly the same dubious talent, and they come up with The Exorcist Meets Rosemary’s Baby. From the first, we get the dead living in in other bodies, grim-jawed priests, a prologue with far-off hints of nastiness to come, and a shrewd Jewish cop; from the second, an innocent lapsed-Catholic heroine in danger, a perfidious loved one, and an old apartment house full of elderly eccentrics who are worse than they seem. Common to both are the illnesses plaguing the heroine. The linchpin of Konvitz’s tale is the enchantingly surreal idea that a New York apartment can conceal the entrance to Hell Itself, as a handy sign reading “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” confirms.

So stay away from South Brooklyn, folks. Could there be some cheap fun in this daft idea? Maybe, but Winner, true to form from The Stone Killer, Death Wish, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land and other rotten movies, plays it solidly for nastiness. Quite apart from its phony, cynical and quite amazingly vulgar advert for Roman Catholicism as The Only Possible Answer (which has been roundly and justly condemned by Catholic authorities, I’m delighted to say), the film exults in showing us a man getting his nose cut off and his eye gouged out with the same knife (it is, to add aesthetic insult to moral injury, a crushingly obvious rubber head on which these indignities are inflicted), a rodent creeping out from a fat naked woman’s mons veneris, and, in the so-called sock finish, when the legions of the damned are summoned out from Hell to engulf our heroine, as many people with actual gross physical deformities as Winner could gloatingly find. The equation of genuine deformity with evil is as gross and calculated an affront to decency as I can recall. Winner, as little a director as ever, just plonks these unfortunate people (bizarrely made-up) in front of his lens, orders some garish lighting to accentuate their misshapenness, and sits back to await our screams. It’s not, however, the film that genuinely does horrify at this juncture, but the repellent commercial calculations of Messrs. Winner and Konvitz. They are of the Devil’s party—and they know it.

In its absurd and sickmaking way, The Sentinel does afford some insight into the vicious side of human nature, I suppose, albeit indirectly. Only John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, though, is directly concerned, of all the diabolical movies, with the nature of evil and with the nature of good, and their co-existence. Conceived as a straightforward followup to William Friedkin’s movie, it has emerged as a Boorman film after all, with the ironic result that its box-office receipts have been vastly smaller. Boorman, who turned down The Exorcist and told Warner Brothers he didn’t think Blatty’s novel could possibly be made into a good film, was badly in need of a hit after the expensive failure of Zardoz. His film is, fortunately for the audience, much more like that bizarre movie than Friedkin’s. And with the inevitable result. But though it is certainly not a complete success, The Heretic is still the most interesting of the devil movies so far and the logical culmination of the genre. With its box-office flop, it may be the culmination of the genre anyway.

There is barely any gore in The Heretic, and no swearing. The demonic visage wished on Linda Blair in Part One is used sparingly and absolutely matter-of-factly; as Boris Karloff astutely spotted years ago, the public swiftly tires of monster make-ups once it gets used to them. In fact, one guesses that Boorman’s chief headache was in having to turn out a sequel to The Exorcist. He has come up with an answer to the question that vexed so many, and that Blatty and Friedkin ignored: namely, why should Satan bother to pick on a young girl for his mischief? The answer Boorman provides is very much in line with the philosophies of Zardoz and Leo the Last, his two favourites amongst his own films. Good and evil always, always co-exist; one is impossible without the other. It transpires that Regan has been gifted with Power; she has an enormous and growing gift for doing good, as yet untapped at the film’s start but developing slowly, via ESP and clairvoyancy, and sought by the evil side of her personality. The demon Pazuzu is, in effect, herself, her Miss Hyde. The coming-together of good and evil leads to cataclysm. Blatty’s hints that wise old Fr. Merrin was based on Teilhard du Chardin are extended here (insufficiently: Max von Sydow, resurrected as Merrin and given, via flashbacks, the chance to look like himself and not an ancient dotard, is given only a few lines, some of them woolly, to expound ideas on the duality of good and evil).

The imagery of the film gets the ideas across more skillfully than the dialogue, in the main, but the film’s visual style is uneven, despite fine work by cameraman William Fraker (who also shot Rosemary’s Baby) and designer Richard MacDonald; furthermore, the film’s notorious editing problems have clearly not been adequately solved. The changes Boorman made between the film’s first American showings and its British release are detailed by Todd McCarthy in the latest Film Comment, but this is scant help to someone seeing the film in its present condition. For instance, Richard Burton as Fr. Lamont, Merrin’s protégé and successor, is last seen wrestling with the Pazuzu manifestation of Regan’s persona; then he just disappears from the stream of events.

Still, good is unequivocally triumphant, which makes for a pleasant change these days, and we may assume that Regan McNeil goes on to become some sort of 20th-century saint, curing mental disorders and spreading enlightenment. Moreover, this is a non-secular sort of goodness. Fr. Lamont becomes the heretic of the title by pursuing his quest to destroy Pazuzu, contravening the orders of his severe cardinal (Paul Henreid); Regan herself shows no sign of religious affiliation and there is a sharp (and, from the maker of Zardoz, typical) putdown of holy complacency implicit in the character of Ecumenical Edwards, a salesman of artefacts who blandly informs Lamont, with an agnostic chuckle, “Religion’s my business!”—it’s all a matter of hard cash to him. (Edwards is glimpsed only briefly. Given that he is played by so well-known an actor as Ned Beatty, one assumes this is another sign of cutting-room problems.) The gulf between establishment faith and the reality of coping with evil is made clear by the film’s first sequence: Lamont, due to exorcise a young Latin American girl who, like Regan, has powers for good as well as evil, undergoes a crisis in faith which seems also like simple failure of nerve. The girl, echoing Fr. Karras in Friedkin’s film, destroys herself—here, by immolation—to rid the world of her evil. The Catholic sin of suicide is again transmuted into a positive act to prevent wickedness. At the film’s end, Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), Regan’s tutor from the earlier film and her surrogate mother in this one, also burns herself to death, and it is implied that this second sacrifice gives Lamont the strength he had lacked at the film’s start.

If The Heretic seems untidy, insufficiently thought through, it is nonetheless a film that stays in the mind and grows in it, thus being the opposite of its predecessor. It is a significant departure from the rest of its genre insofar as it aims at the mind rather than the nervous system, and suggests a reasoning process for the core of its substance. This sacrifices its status as a horror movie and puts it into the realm of the psychological thriller (in fact, there is ample evidence that Boorman got more and more dissatisfied with the necessary supernatural element as filming went on); the film treats its psychologist (Louise Fletcher) with more respect than the smarmy type in The Exorcist got. This is an eminently sensible and responsible thing. Films like The Exorcist and The Sentinel promote, with varying degrees of efficiency, an unthinking hysteria, what Pauline Kael called the “cinema du zap.” Boorman suggests that there may be a few things that people with brains can do against evil in the world. The atheistic Dr. Tuskin is not wrong in her assertion that what some call demonic possession is also a recognisable branch of mental disorder. Let us not forget that The Exorcist itself derived from a real case that took place in the small Washington town of Mount Rainier in the late Forties. It was in the same town, and at about the same period, that people started seeing flying saucers in the sky. Extra-terrestrial visitants, demons, ghoulies, ghosties or long-leggedy beasties. Is there much difference?

2010 Afterword: I wasn’t the first person to suggest that the ending of Rosemary’s Baby might simply mean that she’d gone mad, rather than actually mothered the devil’s spawn, but it was satisfying to have Polanski confirm the possibility in his autobiography some years later. I didn’t know it in 1977, but there had actually been a sequelof sortsto his film in the form of a TV movie called Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby, aired in the U.S. over Hallowe’en in 1976. (It was directed by Polanski’s frequent editor, Sam O’Steen). In 1997, Ira Levin published a mediocre, as-yet-unfilmed novel called Son Of Rosemary, set two years in the futureat the end of the 20th century, of course, Rosemary’s baby would be 33, the same age as… It was Levin’s last book. There were, of course, sequels aplenty to both The Omen (in 1978 and 1981) and The Exorcist, the disastrous box-office of Boorman’s film notwithstanding. William Peter Blatty himself directed 1990’s Exorcist III (the crassly retitled film of his novel Legion) and more recently, we have had a “prequel,” too. The Omen was remade with utter cynicism in 2006, this version having the hideous bad taste to include news footage of 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami to convince us that Beelzebub was still on the case. After decades, the influence of these three films continues to be very strong. I’ve seen all three, by chance, over the past year, The Omen for the first time since 1976. Although I saw Exorcist II: The Heretic several more times in cinemas after writing the above (viewings which diminished my criticisms and strengthened my enthusiasm), I went for about thirty years without re-seeing its predecessor, and two TV viewings in the recent past have, like my second viewing of The Omen, led me to ask an unexpected question“Is that all there is?” I didn’t really think I’d like them any better, but it was a surprise that they should both prove so very insubstantial.

© 1977 Pierre Greenfield.

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