The Omen (1976)


One of my biggest disappointments rewatching movies from the 1970s has been the realization that I don't really like The Omen as much as I thought I did. Perhaps jaded by the last time I visited the story in 2006's superfluous, nearly word-for-word remake, I haven't watched the original in about eight years. It's not that I don't enjoy it. It's just that it's longer and slower than I remembered and was very easy for me to nitpick.

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There's no doubt The Omen is a classic. Even though it followed The Exorcist and was likely influenced to a certain extent by it, I'd argue that The Omen itself was more influential in spawning similar movies. At least, I can think of more devil-offspring movies than devil-possession movies. It was certainly produced with a lot of talent. This was director Richard Donner's first theatrical motion picture and it starred Hollywood heavyweight Gregory Peck.

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Watching it now, though, Peck seems too old to me. He was 60 at the time and no amount of Grecian Formula can make him look that much younger. Isn't that too old to be having a baby, becoming an ambassador and getting on the fast track to become President of the United States? Although the character of Robert Thorn heads the perfect family from which the devil's son, Damien (Harvey Stephens), can start Armageddon, the actor who plays him may well be miscast.

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I also think it's awfully unusual, even in 1976, that Robert and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) would allow the new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) into the house without knowing from where she came. Neither of them hired her and I don't believe they even check her references after the fact. Perhaps they're too distraught over the fate of the former nanny. She stood on the upstairs ledge, shouted, "It's all for you, Damien," then jumped, hanging herself.

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This time I watched it, I was also annoyed by Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton). He comes off as such a crazy man, I don't blame Thorn for throwing him out of his office when he babbles on and on about Damien not being his son and the end of the world. A more successful approach may have been for him to calmly explain to Thorn what is happening. Not as frantically entertaining, perhaps, but likely more effective.

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Katherine is not a particularly fleshed-out character, either. Remick does a fine job; she's less out of place to me than Peck. But some of her choices seem unexplained. Yes, her son is a handful; however, her announcement that she wants to have no more children seems sudden. Later, we learn more about her psychological state from her doctor (just like we learn that Father Brennan had cancer), but I'd rather see development come from within the characters themselves.

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The Omen serves an interesting menu of gruesome deaths. Besides the aforementioned hanging, someone is impaled by a lightning rod, someone tumbles over the second floor railing, and someone is decapitated. Present at most of these incidents are either Damien, Mrs. Baylock or the Rottweiler that accompanies her. There are also attacks by other dogs and baboons. My favorite scene, though, is when his parents try to take Damien to church.

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The subplot I've always found most compelling involves the photographer, Jennings (David Warner) whose pictures foretell the deaths described above. Imperfections in the developed photos show the shadow of a noose, lightning rod and sheet of plate glass. It all becomes urgent for Jennings as the most recent picture is of himself. He becomes Thorn's partner as the two race to Rome to get to the bottom of the mystery.

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This shouldn't be a spoiler 38 years later; I'm sure everyone knows that Damien is the Antichrist. His father must kill him with a special set of daggers, a situation that sets up a dandy of a finale. Thorn's arms raised above his head with Damien spread on a church altar, police fire a gunshot. Who survives? I won't say who lives or who dies, but keep in mind there are two other movies depicting Damien at later stages of his life.

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The Omen is a glossy Hollywood production. (I saw it for the first time in a proper theater, not at a drive-in.) Both big budget horror movies and low budget horror movies can be effective, depending on the subject matter and special effects required. Even though its credentials are good, I wonder if I'd like The Omen better had it been made independently. As it is, it's starting to feel as old as Gregory Peck.

Written by David Seltzer Directed by Richard Donner Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton US Release June 25, 1976 RT 111 min. Home Video 20th Century Fox

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