Release date: June 25, 1976
Director: Richard Donner
Martin Benson and
The Omen is not as serious a movie as it appears to be. Coming to the modern audience as the infant in a Holy trinity of satanic, demonic horror movies, like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, The Omen arrives leaden with reputation and expectation. Its story is renowned, its sequences remembered, and its delicious score is an iconic pop-cultural phenomenon. On the surface of things, Richard Donner's film matches its Trinitarian peers shock for shock. However, as little Damian proves, not everything is as it seems. Though garbed in the accoutrements of its satanic predecessors, it is at its core a story of gross implausibility and squandered potential, a schlocky piece of fluff shot and cut with unwarranted earnestness. When poked and prodded, when the hair is cut away, the film is essentially a pretty good bad movie.
The story of the devil's son born to an American politician starts with a moment that only reveals its ridiculousness in retrospect: when Ambassador to Italy Robert Thorn's (Gregory Peck) first-born dies moments after the birth, and in turn takes an abandoned child as replacement. This is done so his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) doesn't have to go throught the torment of the death. With any moral quibbles twitched away by a few hard long stares, the Thorns live in England when Robert receives a promotion. The years pass in a montage and Damian (a creepily cute Harvey Stephens) grows to age five in blissful British tranquility. Naturally, when his nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself on his sixth birthday, announcing 'It's all for you Damian,' things change.
After this, we meet the new nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), a depressingly weird villainess, and her big, overprotective dogs. Damian begins reacting strangely to churches, animals start begin to act strangley around Damian, and priests start showing up with all manner of weird things to say. Add a photographer with a lens for predestination, baboon attacks, a famous fall, and an unnaturally persistent lightning storm, and The Omen delivers an extremely good film.
Donner does an excellent job of directing all of this action. Every moment of terror, every dead person, hits hard with suddenness. The nanny death is an extremelly well orchestrated ballet of close-ups, crazy eyes, and well, suicidal nannies. Donner attacks the ears with barking animals and a ludicrous yet great score courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith. The camera is a lot less extreme though, observing the action within a modest distance.
Forming a classic style gives an expectation that said style and story will meet on equal playing fields and the story told here does not sustain the manner of its telling. It left me puzzled as to what damian did to get his parents to distrust him so much. It is not the boy but his minders and certain priests that cause the film's central troubles. The only incident for which Damian might be held accountable for is planned by another, and potentially an accident. Damian never revels in but rather runs from the horrors that he seems to create. The Thorns' turn against him is plainly unwarranted and dramatically unsubstantiated. This is the only gripe I have with the film though.
The Omen is marked out by its succession of gory and excellently-choreographed set pieces. If it’s been a few years since you last watched The Omen these are the scenes that you probably remember - death by impaling, death by beheading, death by hanging…each one of them delivered with a gleeful aplomb by director Donner.
Despite all of the gore this is no cheap exploitation film thankfully. No, this is a well-created big-budget horror for adults. And from the isolating enormity of the Thorn residence to Jerry Goldsmith’s operatic score there is always the sense that this is a film that everyone involved in has taken great care to get right.
With its word-perfect script and extreme attention to detail it’s proof that a horror movie can be about much more than cheap shocks. We don’t even need to mention the recent entirely pointless remake, right?
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