Omen, The


Oct 18, 2012

The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: David Seltzer
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, and Billie Whitelaw

The Plot: While visiting Rome, Robert Thorn’s (Gregory Peck) wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), goes into labor with their first child. Unfortunately, the child dies shortly after being born, but Robert is approached by a priest, Father Spiletto (Martin Benson), who offers him the chance to substitute the child with a newborn orphan whose mother died on the same day. Knowing that the death of their only child would tear Katherine apart, Robert agrees to the switch and decides that he and his wife will raise this child as their own. They decide to name the child Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens), and soon they are off to England for Robert’s position as a US Ambassador. Their first years together as a family are everything that this couple could have ever hoped for. When Damien starts to get older though, strange things begin to happen. At Damien’s fifth birthday party, his nanny commits suicide while proclaiming that she does it out of love for him. The new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), arrives under mysterious circumstances and moves a very scary rottweiler in with the family. After a short while, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), from the same hospital/monastery where Damien was born, shows up with grave news for Robert. He claims that Damien is the son of the devil, the looming antichrist who has been foretold to bring grave destruction to the world. To back up this story, Robert also meets photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) who has several frightening photographs that also point to some form of supernatural terror afflicting the Thorn family. Could all of this be a scam, or is young Damien truly the antichrist?

The Review
The world of horror is unlike any other genre within all of cinema. There are a few other genres that have managed to develop cult followings, but horror is arguably the biggest of them all. It battles only science fiction for the very top spot, and I would argue that horror movies have far more mainstream appeal. One interesting aspect for the horror genre, however, is the way that it seems to develop by generations. There are always highs and lows within the horror marketplace, but preference sometimes depends upon when the viewer was born. As a child born in the mid eighties, I grew up on a steady diet of eighties and seventies horror. If you ask me which decade I prefer though, I will easily hand out my devotion to the eighties. I was a kid brought up on 80s slashers, it is almost required of me to align with the decade that brought us the Friday the 13th series. Yet, if you ask most critics, I believe the answer usually points to the seventies. Similar to the Elvis/Beatles fan predicament, most people tend to side a little bit more towards one decade over the other. The main difference between these decades would be the way in which horror was treated. In the seventies, horror was treated with more of a flare that seemed to reference Hitchcock and his control over tension in film. The eighties proved to be as excessive in its horror as it was in every other regard, so, gone were the attempts at keeping things atmospheric and artistic, these were instead the days of blood and boobs. Yet, still, as a kid, I did indeed grow up on a regulated TV diet featuring films from both decades. Younger audiences likely won’t appreciate some of the low key suspense and dark drama of The Omen, but open minded audiences should see roughly everything that all other audiences did when it was first released.

There is a very different mindframe audiences should have when going into these classic horror films, they provide something different from what we expect to find in horror cinema these days. I grew up watching The Omen on television, and being raised in a Southern Baptist/Protestant home, some of the issues that the film deals with certainly rang true for me. Serving a slightly more mainstream version of Christian theology than what The Exorcist provided, The Omen stood out as being a very creepy and effective film that didn’t push quite as many buttons. Made in the immediate aftermath of The Exorcist, The Omen fell into the same lot of films that attempted to capture a mainstream audience while also playing things slightly more sophisticated. The Omen is fairly well researched, has a tremendous cast, makes use of impeccable lighting and set design, but it also deals with some decent carnage onscreen. Standing alongside Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, and The Amytyville Horror, it is a horror movie that establishes a very interesting pace and leads its audience by the hand in a very professional nature. However, does that make it a horrifying experience? This was a question that I asked myself numerous times while revisiting the film.

Before turning the movie on and watching it for the first time in nearly a decade, I knew that I would have a slight bias towards the movie. As I mentioned above, The Omen was a film that I grew up watching. In the same way that Friday the 13th had never petrified me as a kid, neither did The Omen, but it was always a refreshing film to sit down and watch. I was always enthralled by it, and I loved it for introducing me to Gregory Peck. While sitting back down to familiarize myself with the movie, I did find certain segments within the movie to be rather dead, I can’t deny this. While watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder how other audiences, viewers who did not grow up watching the movie, might react to the pacing of the film. Yet, every time I started to let my mind wander, I found myself slowly falling back into the clutches of Donner’s growing tension. A tension that is built and highlighted by what is arguably one of the very best scores in film history. “Ave Satani,” by Jerry Goldsmith, is easily one of the most unnerving and over-the-top scores ever put to celluloid. Despite being a massive clashing of sounds that essentially scream “Danger!” to the viewer, Donner uses the score to great effect and only pulls out the big guns when necessary. Without this amazing score, what would this movie be? A shell of its self, to be sure.

The cast are also equally responsible for the movie being so successful. This was indeed the first movie that I had ever seen starring the fantastic Gregory Peck, and he is phenomenal here. As an older man, he brings with him a tremendous amount of class and reality to the role. This isn’t a twenty-something being shown in a role of great power and responsibility, this is a man during his twilight years who has earned his position. Yet, throughout the film we will see that position taken from him inch by inch. Peck plays the role with confidence and also vulnerability, as we see him struggle throughout the course of the movie. Lee Remick, who plays Katherine, is also very well cast in her role. Played by another actress, her character could have been cold or heartless, but Remick shows paranoia very well and the audience can understand her own fear/distrust towards her very own child. Filling out the rest of the supporting cast, we have the immortal David Warner who plays a photographer who is caught up in the midst of this battle against Satan. Warner has always been a favorite actor of mine, and he delivers very well here. Playing the slightly hip young man to Gregory Peck’s more conservative older business man, these two manage to bypass all of the expected silliness and instead have a certain sense of “business” shared between the two of them. Although Warner was hardly a heavyweight in the Hollywood system at this point, it is nice to see him commanding the screen as much as Peck does.

The Conclusion
I find myself going back and forth on the pacing of the film. The Omen has certainly earned its place in the horror movie spectrum, but despite it being a classic, I am going to do something controversial: I’m giving it a four instead of a perfect five. I may regret the decision later, but for now, I rate it this way in order to recommend it with a warning. Audiences expecting sheer horror may not find what they are looking for, but for younger viewers I only recommend that they go into it with an open mind and a willingness to feel the movie out. New viewers will have a better time if they can relish this relaxed pace and not continually hope for something scary to pop out of a closet.