Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Omen (1976): A Review (Review #1808)


THE OMEN (1976)

I do not know why the 1970's brought about a slew of Satan-centered films, or at least it seems that way to me. The Omen is a chilling and brilliant film, where the horror comes less from what is on screen than what is not.  

Rome, June 6 at 6 pm. Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) has received devastating news. His newborn son is dead. This will devastate his wife, Karen (Lee Remick) if she finds out. However, there appears to be a way out: substitute his dead child for a living one born at the same time whose mother is dead. With that, Thorn presents this child to his delighted wife, and they name him Damien.

For the first five years of their lives, the Thorns are moving up, culminating with Thorn being appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the United Kingdom. However, Damien seems surrounded by strange goings on. His nanny hangs herself in front of everyone at Damien's birthday party. The new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) is very possessive. An apparently mad priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) warns Robert that great evil will come to him and his family due to Damien. Damien himself has a total breakdown when he approaches a church.

What could be at the heart of all this work? Brennan reveals to Thorn that Damien is the Antichrist. Those who want to further his rise will stop at nothing to get Damien to fulfill his satanic mission. It will mean murder and brutal accidents for everyone involved. Thorn at first rejects this, but with evidence from photographer Jennings (David Warner), he travels first to Rome and then Israel to uncover the shocking, even horrifying truth. Here, biblical scholar Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), Thorn is told that he must kill Damien on the altar of God with special knives. Can Thorn bring about the death of a child to save the world? 

The Omen works best when it underplays things. The film does not have many if any big moments of blood. It is surprisingly restrained in its various killings. Apart from Brennan and possibly Jennings, the visuals of death are not visually gruesome. To be fair, Jennings' death is obviously fake and would now look comical. The same goes to when Thorn and Jennings go to the cemetery to find Damien's birth mother. It is obvious that it is a set, making things look a bit fake.

I cut The Omen some slack in that this moment communicated what the audience needs to know. The film also gives us still shocking moments, such as the deaths of the first nanny and another person caught up in this evil. While again, they are not graphic, they still leave an impact. Karen's tragic fate is rendered quite cinematically, making it both elegant and horrifying. 

The Omen is blessed with solid work by most of the cast. For most of the film, Gregory Peck plays his normal moral uprightness in a strong manner. I will take Peck to task for that cemetery scene. Despite discovering the truth of both Damien's mother and his own son, he was surprisingly almost bored. Peck did not show outrage or horror at his discovery. Instead, he seemed a bit detached from things, as if reciting dialogue versus attempting to make Thorn a real person.

Remick too was a bit dramatic and theatrical as Karen. However, it worked for her here. It is rather the supporting cast that does the best. Troughton's Brenan does come across as psychotic prone to speaking in riddles. However, when he is speaking more clearly, his words of doom are frightening. Whitelaw's Mrs. Baylock ably goes from pleasant and warm to menacing and dangerous. Warner's Jennings too shifts from cynical to horrified. It is a credit to director Richard Donner that he got such strong performances from almost all his cast.

The Omen also has excellent cinematography that gives the story an added layer of storytelling. Early on, we see Damien sitting in front of a fire, the message of his birth clear. There is also the moment when Brennan goes on a rant in front of Ambassador Thorn. The various family photos play a strong counter match to what Brennan is saying.

Finally, there is Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score, surprisingly his only Oscar win out of 18 nominations. While the best-known musical element for The Omen is his vocal theme, Ave Satani, also Oscar nominated, the overall score blends romance with terror quite well. The musical shifts from an almost pastoral section when the Thorns first arrive in London to the creepy music playing when Karen comes to a shocking conclusion balance the menace and horror of the story.

The Omen works on almost every level. Some of the effects are dated, and parts of David Seltzer's screenplay do not hold up. Why, for example, does Thorn push to kill Damien then not be willing to do it? However, these are minor quibbles. The Omen works due to how the story builds up slowly, allowing the menace to grow logically. It also works due to how it draws on an Oedipus-like manner to try and avoid fate only to end up fulfilling it.  

Menacing without being graphic, effectively creepy and well-crafted, The Omen is a fine example of true horror. 


Next Omen Film: Damien: Omen II

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