1970s, 3.5/4, Horror, Review, Richard Donner, Thriller

The Omen (1976)

And now, to take a break from our Japanese film festival, I bring my thoughts on The Omen franchise.

This movie is trash, but it’s exceptionally well-made trash. I think Richard Donner, in his first assignment for a feature film outside of television, thought he was making another The Exorcist, but I also don’t think that Donner was particularly good at the whole narrative side of filmmaking. After the film, I read up on it a bit, and he apparently had a bunch of the supernatural elements in the script removed because he wanted to make it less obvious that the things happening on screen were actually happening, perhaps a symptom of the main character going mad. I have no idea who would watch this film and conclude that maybe he was going crazy. It’s obvious from the start that this stuff is actually happening in the film. There’s no subtlety about it. And, I think, that obviousness is what drives this film from what could have been creepy art dealing with the demonic into simply really well made trash that I enjoy.

Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is an American diplomat in Rome whose wife has just given birth to a child that died immediately after the delivery unknown to her. At the hospital, a priest offers him the option to adopt another newborn child whose mother just died as his own, without Katherine Thorn’s (Lee Remick) knowledge. Beset by grief, he accepts, and the two name the child Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens). Several years pass and Thorn is given the ambassadorship to the Court of Saint James, to the United Kingdom, and the family moves to London. At Damien’s fifth birthday party, a large event on the Thorn’s estate where the children of the rich and powerful have come to frolic, Damien’s nanny (Holly Palance) has a stare down with a rottweiler before she climbs to the top of the house, announces that she’s doing this for Damien, and throws herself from the roof, hanging herself. I mean…this moment is creepy and kind of scary and disquieting, but it’s nowhere near subtle. A girl stares into a mysterious dog’s eyes and then suddenly, very publicly, hangs herself, crashing a window? Yeah, no one’s going to start at this and say, “You know what? Maybe this is all in Robert Thorn’s head,” after that.

Anyway, the family gets a new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), neither of whom they hire with her saying that the agency sent her, her performance telling me that no, they did not send her. Apparently no one decides to call the agency because it’s never brought up again, but she takes an immediate shine to Damien, by which I mean she outright announces (out of earshot of Robert, of course), that she’s there to protect him while bringing the mysterious rottweiler into the house. Meanwhile, Robert gets a visit from a priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who warns him earnestly to take the sacraments (repeatedly saying “drink the blood” because this movie is beyond not subtle) and that Damien is not his child. Robert, protective of his secret, turns Brennan out of his office at the American embassy, but Brennan predicts harm for Katherine and her unborn child. Later that night, Katherine tells Robert of her new pregnancy for the first time, begging for his support for an abortion, her fear of Damien growing so great in the face of his errant behavior like attacking her when they approach a church.

Things start going south after Robert meets with Father Brennan one more time where Brennan tries to give him more details on how to kill the creature that masquerades as his son, an event that leads to Brennan running off and getting impaled by a lightning rod (again…there’s no room for, “Is Robert going mad?” when stuff like this is happening, it’s too on the nose and over the top). Robert teams up with a photographer named Keith (David Warner), and after Damien knocks Katherine off a high place in the house, inducing a miscarriage when she hits the ground, the pair go in search of answers in Italy. There they find the priest who had convinced Robert to switch the child, badly burned from a fire at the hospital five years earlier and has returned to Christ, though he can barely move. He gives them information on a cemetery where the woman who gave birth to Damien is buried, a place that, once the two arrive, gets all cloudy and stormy with several rottweilers showing up to attack them when they uncover the stones of the woman and her supposed child, the woman being the bones of a jackal and a murdered infant, Robert’s real son.

When Katharine seems to throw herself out of the hospital room to her death (done by Mrs. Baylock which no one figures out), Robert and Keith go to Israel to meet an archaeologist, Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), who gives them the instructions on how to deal with Damien permanently, a series of daggers to be impaled in the boy’s body to first kill his body and then kill his soul. There’s a fantastic beheading to be had (seriously, for all the dopey obviously of a B-movie that is The Omen, this movie is exceptionally well made), and Robert returns to England to deal with Damien.

The finale is pure exploitation trash, and I kind of love it. I don’t think I’m getting across how much I enjoy this movie. It’s loopy, kind of stupid, and not all that narratively tight, but gosh darn is it a fun bit of Satanistic thriller goodness. Peck is completely dedicated as Thorn, giving a very good performance as the father who grows to believe his son is the Son of the Devil (the last second questioning he does over the question may be narratively thin but he carries the moment well). Warner is solid as Keith, the young man who just wants to help get to the truth (though why he even begins his investigation is a bit muddy). Troughton is probably the highlight from an acting perspective, giving a deeply conflicted and scared performance of near madness, he’s wonderful to watch.

Is this film good? I think so. It’s got a modest goal of thrills, and I think it delivers on it. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s obvious and kind of dumb, but I’ll take entertaining dumb over unentertaining dumb any day.

Rating: 3.5/4

10 thoughts on “The Omen (1976)”

  1. You keep using the word ‘trash’. I’m not sure how you mean it, but I think I disagree whole-heartedly.

    This isn’t camp. This isn’t comedy. This is a straightforward horror story. If it’s trash, then all horror is trash.

    This movie is amazingly cast with memorable performances, including a creepy but not self-aware performance by child actor Harvey Stevens as Damien. It’s written fairly straightforwardly by David Seltzer and it’s literally about the Antichrist. No winking, no jokes, no ‘oh those crazy Christians’ shit.

    I put it in the same category as 1972’s ‘A Thief in the Night’. It may be ‘heightened’ but then so is The Exorcist (and the wonderful Exorcist III).

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    1. I call it trash because I can’t take the threat seriously in the context of the film. It’s the combination of the operatic tone and the silly obviousness of some of the events, like the hanging and, in particular, the priest’s death. It’s not a hit on the horror genre in general, but on the specific execution Donner brought to the story.

      Still, I do enjoy it on that level. Quite a bit really.

      The contrast to The Exorcist is important, I think, because Friedkin brought a very specific documentary approach that kept the events muted, allowing a steady psychological buildup of tension and horror, especially from the mother’s point of view, that Donner seems to be trying to mimic here through the character of Thorn. His last minute, “Maybe I’m going crazy,” is important here, because at no point, I don’t think, could anyone in the audience think that it’s just in his mind.

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    1. It took me forever to place him. I used to know the old Doctors fairly well, dipping my toe into Classic Who once, and I was scrolling through only his movies on the IMDB, not finding anything in particular. I was flabbergasted for a few minutes, until I actually looked at the top of his page and saw the Doctor Who image.

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