Brookwood Military Cemetery & The Omen

When the Jews return to Zion
And a comet rips the sky
And the Holy Roman Empire rises,
Then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
‘Til man exists no more.

Question: What do 1960s anthropomorphic pop group The Banana Splits and the Antichrist have in common?

Answer: They were both directed by filmmaker Richard Donner.

All photos shot with Mamiya 645 Pro TL on Ilford FP4. Developed in Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes

Donner would go on to have great success with action blockbusters such as Superman (1978) and Lethal Weapon (1987). However, back in the early 70s he was known as a safe pair of hands with a solid body of TV work under his belt. He started his career in the late 1950s, gaining a reputation as a reliable TV director. Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were a couple of the shows he worked on. Possibly most memorable, at least to those of us that grew up watching (reruns of) The Twilight Zone, was Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (watch). William Shatner, flying home after recovering from a mental breakdown, is the only person on the flight who can see a terrifying creature on the wing. Fearing the monster will bring the plane down, and realising everyone else thinks he’s crazy, he starts to wonder if he’s having a relapse. Air travel definitely hasn’t got any less stressful in the intervening years.

Although Donner directed a few features in his early career, it was the release of The Omen in 1976 that, in his own words, changed his life. David Seltzer was approached to write the screenplay in 1973. The Exorcist had been a huge commercial hit that year, and other studios were looking for their own supernatural horror to be The Next Big Thing. But although The Omen purported to be based on biblical prophecy, you’ll struggle to find verses like the one at the top of the page in the Bible. Seltzer made them all up.

American diplomat Robert Thorn is in Rome where his wife Katherine gives birth to a boy. Tragically, unknown to Katherine, the boy dies shortly afterwards. The hospital chaplain comes up with a cunning plan for Thorn to secretly adopt an orphan whose mother died giving birth to him. Thorn’s up for it, but thinks it’s best not to mention it to his wife. They name the child – insert thunder roll and lightning strike here – Damien. Thorn is later appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and moves to London with Katherine and Damien. After a series of grisly events, Thorn comes to believe his son is the Antichrist. Something I’m sure most parents can sympathise with.

There were a number of notable actors up for the part of Robert Thorn. William Holden turned it down, saying he didn’t want to be in a film about the Devil. Ironically, he went on to play Thorn’s brother in the 1978 sequel. Charlton Heston didn’t want to spend the winter in Europe. Roy Schneider was in the frame at one point, as was Dick Van Dyke. Van Dyke didn’t accept, undoubtedly fearing reprisals due to his appalling cockney accent in Mary Poppins. However, I was pleased to note his apology in 2017. Presumably there’s now an amnesty and it’s safe for him to set foot in London once again. Charles Bronson was another contender, although that would have made it a very different movie. “Charles Bronson would have made it a joke”, reflected screenwriter David Seltzer in 2014. No, what was needed was someone serious. An actor with gravitas and dignity, someone that could make this admittedly far-fetched script believable.

Gregory Peck wasn’t initially that keen. He didn’t like the idea of a horror film. Besides, he was battling his own demons at that point. His eldest son, Jonathan, was found dead in his home earlier that year, in what authorities believed was a suicide. But his friends, and particularly his agent, were worried about him and keen to get him working again. Donner pitched it to him as more a kind of suspense picture than a horror. There are no explicitly supernatural events in the movie. Everything that happens could just as easily be the result of tragic coincidence and religious mania. Thorn, driven mad by the horrific deaths of people around him, is convinced by some religious nutters that his adopted son is the Antichrist. We’ve all been there.

Peck loved it, and filming began in England in October 1975.

There are some striking scenes in the movie. David Warner’s character getting a permanent cure for headaches, for one (watch). But like all the best movies, it’s the final scenes that’s are some of the most memorable.

In the penultimate scene, Thorn is confronted by armed police as he attempts to kill Damien on a church altar with a set of sacrificial knives. He raises the dagger, plagued with self-doubt, unclear if he’s looking at an innocent child or the Devil.

“Please Daddy, no”, pleads the boy.

“Stop, or I’ll fire”, yells the cop.

With final resolve, Thorn grits his teeth. He plunges the dagger down. A shot rings out. The bullet leaves the gun barrel in slow motion. Fade to black.

The final scene was shot in Brookwood Military Cemetery, but the initial version is not what made it to the final cut.

The US president is presiding over a burial ceremony with three coffins. One each for Robert, Damien, and Katherine. When Alan Ladd Jnr, President of Twentieth Century Fox, saw the footage he asked if there was any to do it and keep the boy alive. No problem, said Donner. This required a pickup 1 shot that was filmed on the green at Shepperton Studios. In this final shot we see just two coffins. The camera pulls away from the backs of the President and his wife, revealing Damien standing between them. He turns to look directly to camera, before smiling and creating one of the creepiest moments in cinema history. Good call, Mr Ladd.

Watch the final scene with Donner’s commentary here.

Here is wisdom, let him that hath understanding, count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man and his number is 666.

– Revelation 13:18

1. A pick-up is a small, relatively minor shot filmed or recorded after the fact to augment footage already shot. When entire scenes are redone, it is referred to as a re-shoot. Both types of shots usually occur after continuity, logic, or quality issues are identified during the film editing process. In other words, such shots occur months after the sets have been struck, the costumes and props have been stored, and all the cast and most of the crew have moved on to other projects. If the issues had been identified during principal photography, the director would simply have asked for another take.

Chicken News: October 2018

This month in Chicken News:

I’m guessing the chickens are around 6 months old now, although it’s hard to say for sure. They’ve been here a couple of months and have settled in to their new home well. So far only two of the four are laying. Nevertheless, I’ve been really pleased to discover what lovely and fascinating companions they make.

All photos Fujifilm X100T

This is Beaker. She’s a Skyline, and the quirky one of the bunch. Which is a polite way of saying she’s as nutty as a fruitcake. She’s easy to spot as she’s the only one that slaps a comedy toupee on top of her head every morning. Skyline’s have an 80% chance of laying blue eggs, but so far, nothing. Beaker, if you’re reading this, sort yourself out please.

Dorothy is a Black Rock, and likes to wander round with a pretty gold collar round her neck. She’s the sensible one of the group and was also the first to lay.

Bluebell is a….Bluebell. She seems to be the timid one, the outsider. If there’s a pecking order, she’s the one being pecked by everyone else. And no eggs yet.

Domino was going to be a Domino, but the farm were out of stock. So she’s apparently a Grey Speckledy. I say apparently, because she still looks more like a Domino to me, but I don’t want to start an argument. She’s pretty docile, and she’s been coming up with the goods every day for the last month or so.

I’m surprised how peacefully the chickens and dogs coexist. Old Girl Daisy can barely contain her indifference, and in any case she generally ignores anything she can’t eat or can’t wee on.

Coco The Cocker want’s to play, but Beaker’s pretty feisty and a swift peck on the snout soon puts her in her place.

More Chicken News next month!

The New Office

This month marks my 13th year with The Company. Thirteen years. 1.33 decades. I find the idea of still being here after all that time somewhere between surprising and terrifying.

During that time I’ve seen the country grow to 14,000 employees in 195 different countries, although I’ve remained based in same office. And after having started to outgrow that office in recent years, and failing to find a decent alternative nearby, it was eventually decided to just build a new one. Next door. Well, they did tell me they’d be travel in this job.

We’ve now moved in to the new place, and having to walk by the old one each day I can’t help but reflect on some of the things that have happened during those 13 years:

  • A period doing night shifts that mainly involved me sleeping under the desk. At 3 o’clock every morning I’d get woken up by a chap phoning from Yerevan, and every time the phone went I’d whack my head on the underside of the desk. I feel this explains quite a lot.
  • Being ‘kidnapped’ by a customer in the Middle East who refused to give me my plane ticket home until I sorted out all the mess.
  • Working at an unnamed airport in Kazakhstan, where the main method of communication between the ground crew and the flight deck involved screwing the official documents into a ball and lobbing them out the ops office window.
  • The former Soviet state where women at the airport kept wanting to have their photo taken with me because apparently I looked like a Russian soap opera star. And not a good looking one, by all accounts.
  • A month working at Baltimore airport, where it seems half the population are terrified of flying and insist on travelling with their emotional support dog/hamster/aardvark/ferret.

I am of course unable to put the really good stories out there…

All photos shot with Fujifilm X100T