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The Omen (1976)

Here’s one that I’ve been meaning to address for a long time. Ever since I first started this blog, I’ve wanted to do a Halloween entry on a little horror classic called The Omen. But life kept intervening and I was never able to actually get around to it until now.

Though if I’m being entirely honest, I never found much reason to put this film at the top of my priorities. After all, this is a film from the 1970s, and that’s an era of film that never really agreed with me. So imagine my pleasant surprise to find that The Omen holds up exceptionally well.

Right off the bat, it helps that this isn’t yet another “Rosemary’s Baby” type of situation. Katherine Thorne (Lee Remick) was never pregnant with the Antichrist, she gave birth to a perfectly normal baby who died under mysterious circumstances. And it just so happens that another baby was born in the exact same place at the exact same time, and the child’s mother died in birth. So Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) is persuaded to raise the child as his own, keeping the adoption a secret from everyone, including his wife.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this whole chain of events sounds suspect. But you’d also forgive Robert for not asking any questions, since he’s been put in a tough position and he’s overcome by grief. And therein lies a core part of what makes this film work.

As the film goes on, the Thornes witness a wide variety of freaky events that may or may not be connected to their son (Damien, played through most of the film by a very creepy Harvey Stephens). People turn up dead, animals act weirdly, Damien freaks out when he gets near a church, and so on. Yet the Thornes keep themselves in denial, in large part because they were so desperate to have a child in the first place. But there’s another factor as well: Robert is the US ambassador to Britain. Surely, nothing bad could happen to such a wealthy and powerful couple, right?

Far more importantly, we know that the Thornes are being manipulated. After all, Damien was only given to the Thornes at the insistence and charity of people they know nothing about. There’s also Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), a slightly creepy nanny who shows up out of nowhere, who can sweet-talk the Thornes into just about anything on Damien’s behalf.

The score is another factor. Jerry Goldsmith provides the audience with an overpowering score, letting us know that the events are supernatural in nature, even if the characters don’t necessarily see it. Seriously, there’s no way you can listen to “Ave Satani” and not think that some Biblical evil is at work. It’s a damn shame that Goldsmith only got one Oscar in his long and storied career, but this is totally an Oscar-worthy labor and no mistake.

Getting back to my point, the Thornes are naturally in denial about their son because they’re being manipulated by a greater power. In spite of all their wealth and political connections, these are still mundane and ordinary people dealing with a supernatural and powerful evil. And they don’t even realize it. These people are in WAAAY over their heads, and Satan’s minions are smart enough to keep them ignorant about their predicament.

It’s hard to adequately describe how scary the film is, based on its premise. Yet the film is still terrifying even forty years later. The narrative is peppered with some very gruesome deaths, but it’s just enough to keep the stakes high without overdoing it. The scares are made much more potent by a “quality over quantity” approach, which means that there’s less screen time for the scares themselves and more screen time for setting the scares up. The result is very effective, though it helps that the kills are delivered with effects that still look quite impressive today.

However, there’s the matter of pacing to deal with. This has long been my problem with films from the 1970s, as they often tend to drag on. But The Omen is different. Though the movie could be described as “slow,” I think that “deliberate” might be a better word. There are some shots that could be excised and some moments that could have been tightened up, but I’m not sure that would have made for a better movie. Those slower moments contain most of the character development, the discoveries, the suspense… pretty much the entire heart and soul of the movie. Though the film might be slow, it’s certainly never boring, and that’s the important thing.

Then we have the cast. Gregory Peck is of course phenomenal, and his chemistry with Lee Remick is spectacular. Harvey Stephens was perfectly cast, ditto for Billie Whitelaw. They both do a great job of pulling off that “wolf in sheep’s clothing” act, where they look all sweet and innocent even though there’s a sense that they’re slightly off. That’s a very tricky balancing act to pull off, and these two manage it with aplomb. David Warner is also worthy of mention, though the film took its sweet time getting his character involved.

I’m sad to say that Patrick Troughton is the weak link in the cast, through no fault of his own. Troughton is stuck playing Father Brennan, the religious nutjob trying to convince Thorne that Damien is the harbinger of Armageddon. It’s such a damn shame that the character is a raving lunatic, because Thorne might have come around a lot sooner if Brennan was able to string two sentences together in a way that made rational sense. Yes, I realize that we’re dealing in things that aren’t rational, but meeting Thorne halfway might have done a lot of good.

Also, Brennan has a “666” birthmark identical to the one Damien has. This is never explained.

As long as I’m getting started on my nitpicks, there’s the matter of how Damien is supposed to be killed. Naturally, killing the Antichrist involves a kind of ritual sacrifice, and Robert is expected to do this on his own. BULLSHIT. We’re talking about the Antichrist, for fuck’s sake. The kid that has to die an absolutely certain death in a very intricate way, or all of creation goes kaput. Oh, and the kid is being heavily guarded by minions of Hell put here on Earth.

And Robert is being sent to do this on his own? They couldn’t have gotten the Vatican involved or maybe sent over a couple of priests for assistance? They at least could have called the local church to let them know Robert was coming. But no, Robert (who, remember, is an ambassador with a law enforcement detail around him at all times) is sent on his lonesome to kill his own son for the future of mankind. Stupid.

Finally, there’s the sound design, which is rather hit-and-miss. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes there are some sound effects that were clearly added in after the fact. And then we have the Hellhounds’ introduction, which is accompanied by a hopelessly goofy sound effect.

Nevertheless, The Omen remains a very strong film. The cast is amazing, the writing is solid, the direction is fantastic, and the scares are made very powerful by deliberate pacing and great effects work. Despite some minor complaints, the film has held up amazingly well.

And no, I’m not even going to address the 2006 remake or why anyone thought that was a good idea. I’ll only say that this film had some room for improvement, but not nearly enough to justify a do-over.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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