Richard Donner passed away at the age of 91 this past week (July 5, 2021). He left behind a legacy of awe, laughter, inspiration, and horror. Few men are able to become legends in multiple fields of various film genres, but our dearly departed Donner achieved just that.
He Made Us All Believe A Man Could Fly
Today we are glutted on superhero movies, but this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until Dick Donner was brought on board a little project that looked absolutely impossible to do. Someone had to achieve the impossible, bring Superman, the world’s greatest superhero, to life and make it the world’s greatest superhero film of all time.
It was nothing short of a master-class work of pure cinematic alchemy that came together. From the actors (after all not just anyone could play both Clark and Kal El), the music, the cinematography, and, most importantly, the man in the director’s chair.
One of the things that really stands out about the movie is John William’s immortal score. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen) was brought on to score this legendary undertaking. However, and despite already working with Goldsmith, Dick heard a sample of what Williams had to bring to the film, and, in Donner’s own words, the soundtrack literally shouted SUP-ER-MAN! And that sold him on the idea. Williams took charge of the music and we can all be thankful for that crucial decision.
And it’s simply a given fact. If it wasn’t for the groundbreaking success of Donner’s legendary Superman there wouldn’t be a Marvel Studios today. Superman was groundbreaking and a pioneer of the superhero film.
We wouldn’t have Batman, the Dark Knight Trilogy, or Joker, Wonder Woman, or Zack Snyder’s imperial Justice League. Dick Donner showed the world comic books were more than worthy to become blockbuster franchises.
The Day the Devil Grinned
Not a single soul in Hollywood wanted to touch a little film project about a 5 y/o Antichrist. It had been turned down by some of the best-named directors in Hollywood. Fox Studios brought the script to Donner and told him no one wanted it.
“Why are you bringing it to me then?” he asked with a chuckle. They told him there was a lot of potential in this project. So he gave it a look, saw something in it, called them back, and agreed to take it on with one exception, “Get all that devil stuff out of it.” He wanted it to feel like the worst day of bad luck a man could ever have to deal with.
He wanted audiences to decide for themselves if this was all a coincidence or was Satan really in the background orchestrating events? The original script had satanic images, covens, and cloven hooves in the audience’s face the whole time. By removing this stuff it not only elevated the film from B level to A standard, but he created a horror sensation that flooded across the world and made people believe End Time prophecies were fulfilling in the ‘70s. The subtlety wormed into people’s minds and drove them nuts!
Suddenly people’s asses were going back to church and the Antichrist was a red hot topic. Parents looked at their own children and wondered if they’d given birth to a Hellspawn.
It was fucking great!
Donner was also involved in casting Damien Thorn, the child of Satan. The casting was pretty straightforward. Each kid brought in to audition was given very specific instructions, “I want you to fight me,” he’d tell them. This was crucial to the role because of the freak-out scene involving Damien Thorn not wanting to enter a church.
In came little Harvey Spencer, a blonde-haired angelic-looking kid. Donner told Harvey to fight him and right off the bat Harvey punched Dick right in the balls and they could not get the kid off him. He was throwing punches like he was auditioning for Fight Club. Once his parents pulled him away Dick’s mind was made up. “Dye his hair black. We’ve found the Antichrist.”
There are plenty of moments that stand out in this apocalyptic horror classic. The beheading by glass, the hellhounds in the graveyard, the nanny’s hanging. But the ending seals it. Like the frosting atop a cake, the finale really sells the story and it was by complete accident.
Due to the chemistry between Donner and Spencer, the moment worked like (black) magic. The scene was supposed to have little Damien turn and look morosely at the audience. So Donner is behind the camera and telling little Harvey, “Harvey, now don’t you smile. Look serious. If you smile I won’t be your friend ever again. Don’t you dare smile.”
The scene became a moment of satanic victory as audiences watch the Antichrist turn and give us a devilish grin. He’s won! Evil triumphed! The little bastard is victorious. That’s not how a movie is supposed to end! It shocked the fuck out of people.
Not at all bad for an accident. Realizing the potential of the moment (and having great taste) Donner used the scene to tremendous effect.
Donner’s satanic movie made so much money for the studio that they were able to support a little struggling project called Star Wars that was being made at the time.
Dick Donner’s contribution to our childhoods is limitless. Who didn’t grow up loving Goonies? And Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie. And know what? Fuck it, I’m gonna say it. I like The Toy with Richard Pryor. But there’s also Lethal Weapon to the man’s credit.
Really, if there’s one man’s career that defined my generation it’s Donner’s. He will be missed but he lives on by his films.
Let us know which of Donner’s films have the most impact on you.
Be sure to not miss out on our latest about the scares and shocks that got us from the Friday the 13th franchise.
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