Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Omen (1976)

Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) was in an Italian hospital, distraught, when a priest (Martin Benson) approached him with a fantastic idea.  Why should Robert bother his wife with an inconsequential detail like the death of their newborn son only hours after childbirth, when he could lie to her instead?  The priest points to another newborn infant, a child whose mother died during childbirth on that very same day --- the orphaned child would be the same age as Thorn's lost child, and it even kind of looked like Robert's wife, Katherine (Lee Remick).  C'mon...!  It's just a little white lie, and it's not like he's lying to a real person, it's just his wife, a woman!  Plus, if a priest says it's okay, it must be up there with cleanliness, right?

Hoo boy.  The Omen is that rare breed of horror movie that managed to get a talented group together and focus on scary stuff instead of cheap thrills.  That said, the whole "unplanned adoption" angle is a pretty goofy start to a movie that ends up being genuinely chilling.  As the years went by, Robert and Katherine raised their little boy, Damien, with no unseemly incidents.  On his fourth birthday, though, his nanny committed suicide in front of the entire birthday party.  A replacement nanny, Mrs. Blaylock (Billie Whitelaw), mysteriously showed up, without any notice or any connection to the family at all.  While very committed to Damien, the lady was a bit creepy.  Around this time, Robert is approached by another priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who claims that young Damien is the Antichrist.  Not surprisingly, Robert doesn't take the priest's words too seriously.  However, as peculiar deaths start to surround the Thorns, that idea becomes more credible and the suggestion of eliminating the evil --- killing Damien --- becomes a serious consideration.

I don't know why --- maybe it's the focus on the Book of Revelations --- but I always assumed that The Omen would be one of those horror movies that tries to strike fear into Catholics first, and the rest of the world second.  Maybe that's true; I'm not Catholic, so I can't speak for them.  I can, however, say that this movie was awesome.  Why?  Well, a big part of it is the fact that an actual movie star acted in the film.  I really enjoy Gregory Peck and his no-nonsense manliness.  He doesn't appear to be mean, but I imagine that, if you lost an arm in battle, he would scowl and ask if you wanted him to kiss it and make it better.  I don't have anything more than a feeling to back this up, but I imagine that, after seeing a Clint Eastwood western, Gregory Peck would leave confused, asking "What was he smiling at?"  Basically, Peck was a classic Hollywood leading man, and he was still good at it in the 70s.  When casting the part of a man who might kill his own child --- sure, he'd regret it, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do --- I doubt there was anyone else on the casting list.

Gregory Peck is about to hock a loogie on you.
The rest of the cast is good, too.  Lee Remick manages to play her conflicted role quite well and Billie Whitelaw is one scary lady.  The smaller roles are also well done.  Martin Benson is good as the evil-ish priest and Patrick Troughton balanced desperation with instability very well.  David Warner managed to overcome a ridiculous haircut to play a key role as the photographer, too.

This was director Richard Donner's first big movie, and he does a fine job with the directing.  It's always a crapshoot when older movies have child stars, like this film does.  Do you end up with a Haley Joel Osment, or a Jonathan Lipnicki?  Donner manages to direct Damien very well; actually, he films around Damien very well.  It's subtle, but I'm pretty sure that Damien was not actually reacting to a lot of what was going on around him.  It's like Donner would say, "Let's see a smile," and then use Damien smiling sweetly right after a shot of somebody dying.  The total effect is that Damien is a sinister monster, but doesn't rely on the child doing much acting.  Very clever, Mr. Donner.  I also liked Donner's use of the theme.  I'm not usually one to applaud the music in a movie, but these Satanic choruses were freaky.  To make this movie even better, there are some awesome death scenes in the movie, including one of the best beheadings in cinematic history.

Do the math.  Good acting + good directing + good violence = good horror movie.  It's pretty simple.  I always enjoy when a genre film like this takes the time and effort to bring together a good cast, because that makes everything easier.  Honestly, this movie could have been wretched.  All you need is a slight change in tone and you have a film that advocates child abuse/murder.  Luckily, this movie played upon the frightening notion of a truly evil child, but allowed the characters to doubt the existence of that evil.  That uncertainty adds a complexity not usually found in horror films, where the evil is almost always total and explicit.  This is just a well-made movie with great contributions from the actors, director, and everyone in post-production, making it a thinking man's horror movie.  I guess you could say that this Omen is good.  I hate puns.

1 comment:

  1. Well, if this movie was so good, why didn't they make a sequel?!