Working as a photojournalist, ‘Jennings’ discovers his arbitrary photographs contain more than he bargained for…
It’s Damien’s fifth birthday party at the Thorn family mansion. A photographer breaks from the crowd and walks over to his friend, ‘Run out of film?’ he asks. ‘Just saving a bit for his canonisation’, Jennings replies, ‘I don’t know if we just got the heir to the Thorn millions or Jesus Christ himself’. Jennings takes a sneaky snapshot of Damien’s nanny. An ill-omened dog hypnotises her to climb onto the roof. With a noose tied around her neck she shouts towards Damien, ‘It’s all for you’. Documenting her death for the front page of the newspapers, Jennings camera lingers on the smashed windowpane.
The next morning, photographers hound Thorn as he arrives at his office. A camera smashes against the floor. Thorn asks the photographer if he can send him a bill for the damage. ‘No, that’s all right, Mr. Ambassador. Let’s just day you owe me.’ Jennings examines his camera. An insane priest visits Thorn. Security escorts him out of the building. Jennings shouts for the priest’s attention and takes a photograph. Back at his home, he develops the film. There’s a mistake on the photograph, a vague wraithlike line coming from the priest’s hat.
Thorn receives an anonymous phone call. He checks the newspaper. The headline: PRIEST IMPALED IN BIZARRE TRAGEDY. Meeting with Thorn, Jennings shows him the photograph of the Nanny before her suicide. A fuzzy wraithlike line appears around her neck too. While taking photos of the priest’s bible riddled room, Jennings catches himself in a mirror. After developing the film there appears to be a sharp line across his neck.
Departing on a journey to Italy, they discover more about Damien. They find all the records of his birth at the hospital have been destroyed in a fire five years ago. The priest that presented Damien to Thorn is still alive. They travel to his monastery in the isolated hills of the countryside. He writes down where Damien’s mother is buried.
Climbing over the gate of the cemetery, Jennings and Thorn saunter into the shadows, searching for the lost tomb. Removing the stone slab, they discover the carcass of a dog. From the child’s grave, they unearth the skeleton of Thorns legitimate son. Its skull smashed. Satan’s slaves, the hounds of hell encircle them. Growling from the bottom of their bellies, the ravenous teeth display their appetite. The beasts molest them, sending Jennings to the floor. Thorn jumps the metal railings and impales his arm on a spike. Jennings runs from the creatures. Stumbling to the entrance, he climbs over the railings, rescuing Thorn.
A priest near Jerusalem gives Thorn ancient religious daggers. Jennings wants to know what was said, ‘I’m not some bystander. I was the one that found him.’ Thorn must kill the child. Refusing to do anything, he throws the daggers. Jennings scampers to the bottom of an embankment to collect them, ‘If you don’t do it, I will’. A truck begins to roll down the bank. Building up its pace it hits a block of concrete. A sheet of glass takes to the air, slicing Jennings head from his body. Thorn now realises what must be done…
"I never saw it [The Omen] as a horror movie myself; I saw it as a— more of a kind of a strange, supernatural thriller, um, suspense drama rather than a horror film. The whole script was so fantastical. So fantastical that one didn't know whether it would work1."
David Warner was thirty-five when he portrayed ‘Jennings’ in Richard Donner’s 1976 psychological horror, The Omen. Based on a screenplay by David Seltzer, the film also stars the late and great Gregory Peck (as Robert Thorn), the sublime and beautiful Lee Remick (as Katherine Thorn), the mysterious Billie Whitelaw (as Mrs. Baylock) and the legend that is Patrick Troughton (as Father Brennan). It’s often been referred to by critics as hiding in the shadow of The Exorcist (1973) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Even though it adopts the same basic structure of these two movies and deals with the same sort of issues, The Omen relies on its own ingredients. Director Richard Donner includes a few extra spices, doesn’t overcook the tension, adds his own secret ingredient at the right times and produces a special ‘full-flavored’ horror movie that is easy to soak up.
Jennings is introduced to the audience through simple everyday humour, with his jibe about Thorn’s child being Jesus Christ we initially dismiss him. He has a ruffled, unhygienic look, dressed in a brown weatherworn jacket, scarf, shaggy hair that covers his ears and a camera. He comes across as a cold professional whose sole purpose it is to make money from photographing a special event for the newspapers. At the party, his willingness to photograph the dead Nanny sets him up as unscrupulous. There’s an undercurrent to his performance, like a retired stalker that has faded into the shadows and decided to become a photojournalist to legitimise his disease. The scruffy, muddled appearance of Jennings adds a degree of believability to his character, a freelance photographer who will cast aside his morals to get a few good snaps.
Even though Warner appears to play a one-dimensional character without a back-story and who has no emotional access, his keen observations are what glue the plot together. We learn to identify with him. The initial opinions we form are shattered as we penetrate his internal mechanisms. Jennings is the first character to realise something is wrong. He puts the pieces of the puzzle together, acting as a mouthpiece to Thorn and the audience. He wants to find out what is happening, why his photographs seem to have strange ghost-like marks on them. As he enters the priest’s dilapidated home to take photographs, he discovers that he has caught a reflection of himself in the mirror. Showing Thorn the picture, there is a sharp line across his reflection and a sharp tug at our emotions. In this scene, when the moment hits us, Jerry Goldsmiths score sounds like the stamping of Satan’s feet. This is when Jennings becomes included in the plot. His emotional horror brings us closer to him as we sympathise with his situation. He doesn’t want to die.
Traveling to Rome, Thorn and Jennings develop an absorbing friendship. They sit together in a roadside café, drinking coffee and going over scriptures from the Bible. They are brought together by the same spiraling desire, to find out what the hell is happening. Even though they don’t compare to the intensity, these scenes of discovery, religious symbolism and blind panic are similar to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with Donald Sunderland searching through the streets of Venice to find his daughter. One would think that acting alongside a juggernaut like Gregory Peck would be an impossible task, but the two actors create an interesting on-screen dynamic. Warner has even said himself, ‘I just had a marvelous time working with Gregory Peck2’. It’s a surprising duo that makes the third act of the film so compelling. The graveyard scene is one of the most forceful and energetic scenes in the entire movie, moving along at a break-neck pace. You care about their escape, on the edge of your seat throughout as the camera hides behind the trees, barks pierce the soundtrack, the swift editing by Stuart Baird builds our panic and the score sounds like possessed Italian monks chanting a mantra of death. It’s like an archetypal graveyard scene from the old Hammer films of the 1960s.
After the storm of the graveyard, we are treated to a tender sequence between Jennings and Thorn. Finding out that his wife Kathy has died, Thorn sits in quiet comfort on a bed in a hotel room. Recalling the name of a priest he recites the poem, ‘When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet fills the sky and the Holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die…’ It cements their predicament, knowing that they might die in all this chaos.
Visiting a priest near Jerusalem sets in motion the final sequence with Jennings. After having an argument with Thorn, Jennings scampers towards the daggers. The scene is one of the most iconic deaths in horror movie history, like the ruination at the end of The Wicker Man (1973); it lives on in the ‘horror mythology hall of fame’. It doesn’t get any better than being decapitated by a sheet of glass. Your head spins through the air in a deliberately sluggish slow-mo fashion. Landing on the ground, it gazes at its own reflection. Maybe a tiny echelon of consciousness still resides within it. Bring Me the Head of David ‘Alfredo’ Warner! Richard Donner has said that Warner refused to watch the beheading sequence and didn’t even want to see the head as it freaked him out. Referring to his death scene in a 2001 documentary, Warner sums it up perfectly, ‘"You don't see the blood splattering, like in a Peckinpah picture or something. I mean you just get the [makes slicing gesture] you know, and it bounces [gesturing up and down with hand]3." Classic crazy cinema at its best…
Breathing life into a somewhat inconsequential character is not an easy task. Wes Craven, director of Swamp Thing (1982), has referred to Warner as having a ‘sort of blood hound look to him4’ in The Omen. The reality of acting is out of sight as our empathy begins to take hold. We believe in this guy. To make characters believable, character actors like David Warner have to develop an illusionary personality, to persuade the audience that this person is real. He feeds us fictitious emotions created in his own imagination; makes us feel uneasy, makes us giggle, develops the story through his dialogue and makes us care about his death. David Warner may not have achieved the fame of his contemporaries such as Donald Sunderland but he is a sharp and gifted performer with an abundance of natural talent. A blue-collar character actor that has developed his own cult appeal, appearing in films like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), The Man with Two Brains (1983), Time Bandits (1981), Time After Time (1979) and his TV work is beyond belief. Branching off into shows like Twin Peaks, the new Outer Limits, episodes of the Spiderman cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series, and he even played Superman’s father in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. David Warner is a Legend!
“I think of money [from acting] in terms of having enough to live on-to buy a meal, a place to sleep, clothes to wear and to be able to, once in a while, buy a friend a drink5”
1 The Omen Legacy (2001) Documentary
2 Starlog, Nov. 1989
3 The Omen Legacy (2001) Documentary
4 An Appreciation: Wes Craven on ‘The Omen’, DVD feature
5 NY Sunday News, May 1, 1966