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.

The Omen: 24 Grosvenor Square

The US Embassy, London, applying for a visa. It’s a brutalist slab of architecture that’s says ‘Do not come in, you are not welcome’. On the plus side, it was used in the filming of the 1976 classic The Omen, where it doubled as….. er… the US Embassy. Gregory Peck played Robert Thorn, US Ambassador to the UK and adoptive father to the Antichrist. I believe that was actually the official job description.

Camera: Fujifilm X100T


Kensal Green Cemetery: Theatre Of Blood

It’s well known in these parts that hanging round cemeteries is one of my guilty pleasures. Unsurprisingly I have many more, most of which I’ll keep to myself if you don’t mind, thanks for asking anyway. But there is one other I’m prepared to admit to: old British horror movies. For me, the golden era is the 1950s to the mid-seventies, and I’m particularly fond of the classic Hammer and Amicus pictures.

Way back in the seventies when I was a kid we were lucky enough to have a second TV, an old beat up black and white portable that a family friend had given us. It didn’t have any buttons for the channels, just a dial that you had to twist to tune in to one of three stations – that’s all we had in the UK back in those days. Most of the time this TV lived in the kitchen where it kept my mum company whilst she cooked, but on the weekends I was allowed to take it up to my room on the condition it was lights out and TV off by ten. Dear Mum, in the unlikely event you ever read this, I’m sorry. I’m a bad son. Yes, the lights did go out at ten, but the TV stayed on, and it was round about midnight on Friday and Saturday evenings that these films were shown. I’m sure my parents would have been horrified if they had known what I was watching. They’d have worried that I’d scare myself witless. As it turned out, I scared myself witless. Nowadays many of these old pictures come across as camp and creaky, but I still love them.

I was probably around ten when I first saw Theatre Of Blood (1973), a wickedly black comic picture starring Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, and a host of fine British character actors. Price plays Edward Lionheart, a failed Shakespearean actor whose performances are savaged by the critics and thus is driven to drown himself in the Thames. Unbeknownst to all he survives and proceeds to exact a bloody revenge on all of them. Those critics who gave him poor notices become the victims of a series of inventive and gory murders imitating Shakespearean death scenes. Price hams it up big time in a number of different guises, not least his insanely memorable portrayal of a camp hairdresser with an afro. If this film was made today, that haircut would have it’s own Twitter account. Oh, and did I mention Diana Rigg was in it?

One thing that’s quite unusual for the time is that (as far as I can tell) every scene is shot on location, in and around London. There are no studio sets at all. And it was whilst watching it again recently that I realised that one of the scenes is shot in Kensal Green Cemetery, a huge gothic style graveyard in West London. So, a classic horror movie filmed in a local graveyard – was there really any chance that I wouldn’t pay a visit with a camera? Seriously?

Kensal Green Cemetery
Mamiya 645 Pro TL with 45mm Sekor C lens / Ilford FP4 / Developed in Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes

In the movie, Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) is seen tending his memorial in the mausoleum’s portico. In reality this statue is actually a monument to sculptor Robert William Sievier, but in the movie the face is cunningly disguised to resemble Vincent Price.

Four other movies that kept me awake as a kid:

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Christopher Lee plays against type as the good guy in Hammer’s adaption of Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 occult novel. Contains all the elements that Wheatley is famous for. Devil Worship? Check. Sacrificing animals? Check. British superiority and causal racism? Check. I actually own an original publicity photograph of Lee and fellow actors in the scene where they spend the night in the chalk circle whilst Satan’s legions are mustered against them. If I could have my time over again, that would be my ideal job – an on-set photographer.

Horror Express (1972)

Bonkers Anglo-Spanish production redeemed by Christpoher Lee and Peter Cushing. A monster from another world is loose aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, sucking out the brains of some dodgy 1970s actors and taking over their bodies. Telly Savalas turns up half way through for no reason other than to chew up the scenery. Best quote:

Policeman:The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?
Peter Cushing: Monster? We’re British, you know.

Quite.

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

Actually it didn’t. Not a single drop of it in fact. Director Peter Duffell wanted to call the film the more appropriate and refined ‘Death and the Maiden’, but producer and head of Amicus Studios, Milton Subotsky, wanted something more dramatic. This is one of those of Portmanteau horror films – several separate stories connected by a single theme or a location – that were popular ever since 1945’s Dead of Night. In this case, the four stories are linked together by a creaky old house. Beautiful Queen of Horror Ingrid Pitt turns up in one of the segments and takes a bite or two out of a pre-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. When I was a kid, Ingrid Pitt playing a seductive vampire gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I didn’t know quite what it meant.

From Beyond The Grave (1974)

Another Amicus Portmanteau flick, this time the linking device is Peter Cushing’s seemingly doddery old antique shop proprietor. Think you can put one over on him? Think again. My parents couldn’t understand why the electricity bill went up for the following year after I’d seen this film, but it was that long before I could sleep with the light off. Bits of this still give me the willies even to this day.