Facing a Childhood Fear: The Omega Memory

When I was a young kid, 5 or 6 years old, I would sometimes get insomnia and watch movies very late at night. These are, naturally, not the movies little kids should be watching. For the most part I don’t think it did me any harm to see the occasional Hammer horror film or the occasional monster flick. One movie hit me, though. The Omega Man.

The idea of being all alone in a world of monsters resonated with my own childhood feelings of isolation. I used to have recurring nightmares (long before seeing The Omega Man) of being chased around town by zombies or lizard people or some other nasty that could transform you into one of their own by touching you. It was like the scariest game of tag, ever. The dream always went the same way: Monsters chase me through the school playground. Run home. See that [mom, dad, grandmother, some trustworthy person] is there. See them turn, just as I think I’m safe…they are a zomb-lizard-guy, too! There is no safe place! And wake up sweating and terrified.

This is not the nightmare of a kid who should see The Omega Man.

I don’t know how much of the film I saw. Not long ago I forced myself to watch the trailer and I must admit it is entirely possible that the trailer is all I ever saw when I was young. But the film would have been about 5 years old when I saw it, so I don’t know why I should have seen the trailer. The point is, though, I don’t think I saw much of it, just enough to scare the ever-lovin’ chutney out of my young self.

I have rented this film no fewer than ten times. VHS, DVD, it’s been on my Netflix Instant queue for a long time. I have read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend — upon which the movie is based — several times. I love that book. I count it among the very best vampire stories ever, as well as a brilliant study on the psychological breakdown of a person in terrifying isolation. (I’ve also seen The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and I enjoyed it. Also saw the more recent remake and all I will say about it is that Will Smith wasn’t the problem, but everything else sucked.) Every time I get ready to watch The Omega Man, I chicken out. The adult-me puts the DVD in and the kid-me turns it off all over again, remembering strange ghostly faces, weird cults, and the general feeling that no where is safe and everyone is out to get me.

At some point, I have known all along, I would have to watch this film. I’m fully cognizant that it may turn out to be as scary as an episode of Fantasy Island. Or it might still scare me chutney-less. I don’t know. But when faced with old fears, one must take up the challenge, what?

Question: What movies scared and/or scarred you as a youth? Have you been able to watch them since? Other than The Omega Man, my close second is The Shining, but I was 17 when I saw that. I should mention I was on LSD at the time. At a house party in Carson, CA with a huge bonfire in the back yard and a bunch of Samoan gang members and skinheads dancing around it. Even without the LSD that is a recipe for a potentially tense viewing experience.

Tonight is the night, mes amis. Tonight I shall go once more into the breach of childhood nightmares. If I survive, then what follows next will be a post-film account. If I die of fear, never mind, because I won’t have submitted this article anyhow.

Psyching myself up, now. I shall look into the abyss and shout, “We’ve got movie sign!” I can do this.

 

POST FILM REPORT

Even after writing the first half of this post, my determination faltered and I didn’t watch the film the same night. I brought up Netflix and…watched MI5 instead. It took me two nights to finally get this movie started. But once it began, and I saw Charlton Heston cruising LA listening to an 8-track of easy listening, I wondered what exactly I had been afraid of all this time.

The film is far more quirky than frightening. There are a lot of dramatic zoom-ins (zooms in?) and sudden pulling back to wide shots, seldom with much reason apart from trying to give the viewer an upset stomach. The sound editing is odd, too. Mumble-grumble-whisper-BANG! Whisper-shuffle-KAPOW!-grumble. All told, its distressing, disorienting and surreal but not exactly scary. The soundtrack certainly doesn’t help, either. It’s a series of Hammond organ randomness and entirely inappropriate sweeping orchestration. I wonder, in all seriousness, if the score wasn’t originally meant for a different film and just sort of plastered on to this one.

The film has even less resemblance to the novel I Am Legend than did the Will Smith film (which was, it seems, more an Omega Man remake than an adaptation of the novel). In the novel there are vampires. In the film there is a Sino-Russian war, a plague of asphyxiation, a cult of photosensitive Luddite albinos (a sort of secondary mutation of the plague) and Colonel Doctor Tough Guy Robert Neville (Cheston himself) inoculating himself after surviving a helicopter crash. Like ya do. Oh, and there’s a badass foxee layday in leather (Rosalind Cash), the kind who could say “Your name is mud!” and mean it. This reviewer referred to the film as “the world’s only Gothic Sci-Fi Action Proto-Blaxploitation film.”

In other words, the whole damn thing is bonkers from soup to nuts. That’s not to say there aren’t some effectively tense scenes. The first time you see The Family (the aforementioned cult, whose members look like Brain Guy from MST3K with festering skin lesions) they are decidedly creepy, dropping down like bat-a-roaches and being all swarmy and flammable. But when you hear them speak, equal parts Amish and Manson, they cease to be creepy and simply sound campy. And when they get shot, they bleed fire-engine red melted crayon. That aside, Neville’s scene in the clothing store with the mannequin works well, too, though there is nothing at all original about spooky mannequin scenes.

Cheston comes across kooky more than desperate. The greatest strength of the book is the portrayal of a person going insane from seclusion and fear. Not eccentric, not comical: mentally falling apart. In some early scenes, Cheston comes close to this, but the filmmakers clearly opted for an action hero character rather than a guy who is heroic for fighting on despite getting unraveled (as is the case in the book).

However much I saw of the film originally, I’m pretty sure I never saw the ending (um, immediate spoiler warning, I guess). I think I would have remembered Neville with a spear in his chest, dying in a fountain full o’ Jesus symbolism.

To wrap it up, this isn’t all that great a movie, especially in comparison to the book. Had I seen it when I was 10 or 11, I probably would have loved it. At 5 or 40, it is not such success, however. It’s fun at times, disorienting throughout, very dated and generally screwballish. I’m glad I saw it though. It took genuine effort to do so. Sometimes when you are little you think there’s a monster in the room but when the lights go on, the monster goes, too. The little kid in me had held onto a monster of the past, made more of sadness and insecurity than of any real threat, and the grown up in me turned the lights on and saw the monster and the feelings that created it are no more.


Jason Henninger no longer takes LSD. 

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