The Omen (1976)
The Omen is one of those classic horror films that has received vast amounts of praise over the years. It was widely heralded upon release, and gained a powerful reputation of horror since then. It’s also a film that I have never paid much attention to. I’ve watched it a time or two before, owned the DVD for years, but it’s never really stuck with me. Six years ago, a remake was released that was almost a carbon copy, but I recall it having some things I liked about it. Still, I always felt that both versions came off about equal, in their own ways, but that’s an old assessment. So, on this Halloween, I have decided to take a fair look at both films to judge them apart from and against one another. Which one do I prefer? Which one does it better? I hope I will have an answer at the end of these two reviews.
Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) seem to have it all. They are happily married, and he is the US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want more than to have children. When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth. Without telling his wife, he agrees. Years later, after relocating to London, strange events – and the ominous warnings of a priest – lead Robert Thorn to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate. The Ambassador is approached by photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Warner) with startling evidence that supports the claims of Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton). From there, both Thorn and Jennings must take a journey to uncover the truth.
After watching this, what I find striking is that, despite all the great talents and potentially ripe subject matter at hand, this film made barely any impact on me at all. I can tell you that the film starts me off on the wrong foot with a score that is way too overbearing and obvious, but I will get to that, in depth, later on. It sets the wrong mood for me right out the gate telling me this is not a film of subtlety, but one of shock moments and broad strokes. Turns out, that’s exactly what I got.
Early on, there is an extreme lack of suspense or setup to dramatic or horrifying moments such as the nanny’s hanging. It just happens without any buildup of anticipation or tension, and the traumatic potential is barely dealt with in the aftermath. Events that should have adverse emotional effects on the characters don’t seem to have lasting impacts. Even before that, there’s a wholly unnecessary scene where the Thorns are just walking along, and then, freak out when they don’t see Damien trailing behind them. The score goes melodramatic for a few seconds before they find Damien unharmed just standing around. The moment served no purpose whatsoever, and it was even handled in a very clunky manner. The film doesn’t take its time to craft suspense to setup an audience for the chilling moments of horror. It just sort of drops them in front of you like a bag of bricks.
The thing The Omen really seemed to not take advantage of is building a looming aura. While there are moments which are strongly implied as being supernatural, that feeling is just fleeting. We are never given a lasting sense that there is a subversive, sinister force weaving its way through the background. The film also seemed to lack a natural flow of events in its long first act, and partly because of this, it takes nearly forever to build an atmosphere or sense of perceived direction. It takes nearly half the film until there’s even a sustained sense of dread or momentum for more than one scene. In the second half, for a very long stretch of time, Damien’s not even present for the threat of what he is to be sustained. There’s a simple rule in good storytelling which is “show, don’t tell.” The film takes more time telling us about what Damien is instead of showing us. Anything we are shown feels too disjointed due to that lack of natural flow in the story. Also, I certainly have no qualms about a slow burning film, but it takes until almost the one hour mark before anyone gets motivated into the action of the plot. Until then, it sort of meanders along with mysterious and murderous things happening, but no one really doing anything in light of them.
This happens when Jennings begins to convey the foreboding details behind Damien. The notes of Father Brennan about the child, and the startling evidence of the photographs are revealed to Robert Thorn. These are interesting moments which actually do nicely give us insight into the truth of the matter. Yet, it could have been used to actually create a foreboding atmosphere of terrible dread and urgency, but there’s barely any atmosphere in this film at all. I never got a sense of impending doom or urgency at any point in time. The film becomes so focused on the origins of Damien and what needs to be done about him, almost no time it spent exploring what he’s capable of. While surely the son of Satan shouldn’t be allowed to live, no time is devoted to conveying what he himself will do if not stopped. There are obviously forces around Damien causing all this death and tragedy, but he’s barely done anything threatening. All we get are people repeating the Bible passage about “from the eternal sea he rises,” but no one bothers to translate that into terms a regular person can understand. It is never put into a real world context.
The priest’s death is a tad ridiculous as he just stands there for several long seconds, waiting for the spire to fall and impale him. There’s more than enough time for him to run away from it, but he just stands there. If I look up and see something falling from several stories high about to hit me, I lunge out of the way. This isn’t nitpicky. This is challenging the intelligence of the filmmaking on display. There are any number of better ways to have plotted out and edited that scene for more immediate impact. At times, such as this one, the filmmakers try to overdramatize these death scenes. Other times, they under dramatize them to where they have almost no impact at all. If you want a better example of these sorts of deaths done better, just look at the Final Destination films.
I dearly love the work of the late Jerry Goldsmith. He was a magnificent composer. However, when it comes to The Omen, I don’t think I’ve heard a score more devoid of subtlety in my life. Every single music cue is loud, verbose, and melodramatic to the point of it being obtrusive. It treats nearly every moment as the biggest dramatic, climactic moment in the film. It’s well composed, powerful music, but it’s just too over-the-top for my tastes. It just bludgeons your ears with music. Moments that are shot and executed with a lot of suspenseful tension are ruined by the blunt instrument of the bombastic score. People have praised this score as having made the film more terrifying for them. For me, it kills the mood time and time again, and tries to force more drama upon you than the scene calls for.
Gregory Peck was an immensely acclaimed actor, but I’m a little divided on his performance here. He does have a very good presence conveying a hefty weight of drama. However, I feel he overacts in a few too many scenes. He exaggerates the drama or horror of the moment a little too much, pulling the film out of its grounded sensibilities. It’s another aspect of the film that could’ve used some more subtlety. Following further down that path, actor Patrick Troughton pushes his performance as Father Brennan way too over the top into bad B-grade movie territory. It’s a one dimensional crazy man who is very hard to take seriously.
On the other hand, as always, I think David Warner is excellent. He’s one of the finest character actors around, and he really handles the role of Jennings with grace and urgency. I don’t think I’ve ever seen David Warner not give a good performance, and here, he really shows the value and quality he’s consistently brought throughout his career. Also, Billie Whitelaw is exceptionally good as Mrs. Baylock. She is effectively creepy with a definite psychotic edge, and a pair of fiercely evil, chilling eyes. I wouldn’t want that woman roaming around my house.
Harvey Stephens does a fine job as Damien giving him a rather exhuberant fascination that implies his evil. Although, that evil never really manifests in a knowing way. It’s more of a screenwriting issue that Damien himself isn’t very active in the plot. Regardless of that, Harvey mixes both the innocence of a child with an underlying, evil nature. You can tell there is something not right about the child, and that is effective enough for what the filmmakers were going for.
Unfortunately, I was left with a blank impression of Lee Remick. She has so very little to do as Katherine Thorn that I just have nothing to say about her performance other than it was okay. Normally, if I have nothing to say, I say nothing, but I thought it was important to mention this as it ties into a lack of emotional depth in the movie. That is something I will touch on, again, later.
The effects work is a slightly mixed bag. Most of the death scenes have very impressive and somewhat elaborate effects. The decapitation was especially well done. On the bad side, while people were amazed by the shot of Lee Remick’s fall from the balcony at the time of release, today, it looks comical. It’s more like something from a parody of the movie than an actual effect to take seriously. It has absolutely no realistic quality or impact at all. What would’ve improved it is shooting it at a slower frame to generate more motion blur, and thus, creating a sense of velocity and visceral impact. Richard Donner might’ve been going for a slow motion approach, but it clearly wasn’t shot in slow motion, just performed in slow motion. Also, the prosthetic make-up on the burned priest is very primitive by even the standards of the day. It’s terribly unimpressive work. These are only minor gripes, but the film doesn’t have a lot of make-up or visual effects to comment on. That’s neither a good or bad thing, just a statement of fact.
Another real problem I have with this film is that no one is scared out of their minds at any point. I mean, it is the Anti-Christ, the son of Satan they are dealing with, but never did I feel like anyone was in dreadful fear over this reality. At least in The Exorcist, the characters were petrified by the fact that they were facing down a demon, and their fear really carried the weight of urgency and threat in that film. Here, the closest we get is our final moments with Jennings as he tries to convince Robert Thorn that Damien is no innocent child, and that he should be destroyed. Even then, it’s more a matter of conviction than fright There is such a lack of emotional depth present in this movie which results in a very mild sense of fear. This is aside from something like the dogs attacking Thorn and Jennings in the cemetery. I’m referring to people having a deathly serious fear about Damien. The characters are more afraid of Mrs. Baylock, the psycho nanny, than the actual spawn of the Devil. To me, that seems really, really backwards. He might only be a small child, but if the kid is supposed to be perceived as apocalyptically dangerous, I think our fear should be directed towards him, instead.
While the film does have its potentially shocking moments of brutality and death, I think the scary qualities are entirely religious based, and I have no such beliefs. I watched this film waiting for it to give me something to be scared or tense about, but nothing ever came. Even the climax, aside from the violent confrontation with Mrs. Baylock, lacks a driving sense of dramatic intensity. It would seem that the subject matter is what scared audiences, not so much the execution of the ideas. I don’t think the style of filmmaking holds up thirty-six years later. While it’s rather well shot and edited, which I give much credit for to Gilbert Taylor and Stuart Baird, respectively, there’s just a lack of plot cohesion and momentum in The Omen. This film had talents who were masters at their crafts from Taylor and Baird to Goldsmith, Peck, and Donner, but maybe, this wasn’t the right material for some of them to tackle. Richard Donner tried to convince himself he was making a psychological suspense thriller instead of a horror movie, apparently because thinking of it as a horror movie made it uninteresting to him. Obviously, I can’t help but take a serious issue with that point of view. Yet, what he was trying to make was indeed a horror movie, and I don’t think it’s really his forte as a director. He knew how to shock an audience, but demonstrated no ability to even attempt to craft suspense. I think it just comes down to subtlety. It takes no skill to shock an audience. To genuinely scare them through atmosphere and suspense requires quite a lot.
Honestly, I didn’t expect The Omen to hit me as this blunt and shallow of a film, and I know there are going to be people reading this shocked at this severe criticism considering the film’s status as a “classic.” However, no art should ever stand on reputation alone. Time is not kind to all movies, and some do not stand that test of it. Not to mention, for someone who has no religious beliefs, I need more than just the ideas this film presents to scare me. You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to earn it, and this film didn’t try hard enough. The only thing that did stick with me over the years about the movie were my issues with the score, and so, I did go into the film bracing myself for that. Still, I was willing to give the score a chance to showcase some subtlety, some grace, but there was next to none where it counted. I really wanted this film to give me something impressive, something that really grabbed me, but it gave me nothing. I was almost wholly underwhelmed by the 1976 version of The Omen. At this point, I cannot fathom why I even own this movie beyond the fact that I have it in a beautiful steelbook DVD case. The creepiest thing in the movie is the last shot of the movie, and I do mean by a very wide margin.