I’ll be focusing this series on the horror films of 1976 throughout the entire duration of Scary Movie Month, and no horror movie looms over that year like Richard Donner’s thriller/horror hit The Omen. It was the fifth-highest-grossing movie of ’76, out-performing the remake of King Kong, which is the only other horror movie to hit the top ten. I have to be completely honest, I’m not sure what it was about this movie that audiences responded to, but they clearly did, and this movie often makes the short list of “horror classics” that are still highly-regarded today. Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) stars as a U.S. ambassador whose wife (Lee Remick, Days of Wine and Roses) has given birth to a stillborn baby. Someone quietly pulls him aside and tells him that within that very hospital is a baby who was just born to a mother that didn’t survive labor, and that no one would know if he took the baby as his own. Peck does this while keeping his dark secret to himself. Everything is fine until the boy, who they name Damien, reaches the age of five and terrible things start to happen. It seems that Damien has a dark side, and as the tension ramps up and the body count rises, Peck begins to suspect that his son might actually be the antichrist.
What works in the movie’s favor is that we’re never exactly sure if this kid really is the antichrist or if this is just one long string of coincidences. Richard Donner and writer David Seltzer (1979’s Prophecy) made a choice never to show us anything supernatural, and the possibility looms throughout the entire movie that Gregory Peck could just be losing his grip on reality. Ambiguity like that goes a long way in a movie that walks in such a realistic world, with not a single (well, maybe one) hint of the actual supernatural.
I’ve always struggled with Gregory Peck. I think he’s been in some terrific movies, but I’ve never found him to be terrific in a movie. He wanders through this film doing his best impression of Abraham Lincoln, standing around and looking stern while keeping his voice low and his emotions in check. Even when his whole world is falling apart, he only seems mildly annoyed. He spends most of the movie exhibiting the calm demeanor of a man quietly inconvenienced, as if he’s just been informed that his in-flight meal is actually a bag of pretzels and a Coke. We get close to some real human emotion in the final twenty minutes, but it’s a new level of minimalism, especially for a horror performance.
The supporting cast is fantastic, though, and more than makes up for any slack from the headliners. David Warner (Time Bandits, TRON) plays a photographer with some evidence that there may be more than meets the eye. Warner is great, and actually brings some real acting experience to the role and goes a long way to making us care about what’s happening. Patrick Troughton (the second actor to play Doctor Who) is a priest who explains the biblical ramifications and apocalyptic scope of the story. Troughton is always outstanding; he’s a genre movie staple who had a history with Hammer Films in the sixties and seventies, and The Omen might be the biggest international film success he ever had. Last but certainly not least is an incredible performance from Billie Whitelaw (Hot Fuzz) as a cheeky nanny (Cheeky Nanny: Fridays on BBC One) tasked with watching over Damien. Of all the actors in this film, she’s the one who gives the most memorable turn and displays the broadest range.
Superman, there are signs of his style and what’s to come littered throughout. There’s a big high fall stunt that looks identical to one in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, and he shoots the brief bursts of action in The Omen with a flourish that fans would soon come to know well. Still, I have to admit that the pacing doesn’t feel like Donner’s future work. This movie virtually crawls to the finish line. It’s under two hours, but it sure feels like it’s three. The Omen? More like The SLOWmen.
As for the visual style, this is the mid-seventies, so there’s a lot of diffused, soft light and hazy filters on a lot of shots. I think that’s a stylistic choice that has aged horribly, but it doesn’t drag the movie down as much as Peck’s dead-weight performance. Actually, the visuals of the movie are mostly great, with some stunning cinematography and shot compositions from director of photography Gilbert Taylor, the man behind the camera for little movies like Dr. Strangelove, Flash Gordon, and an indie flick called Star Wars. His lens captures what could be (and sometimes is) rather mundane in a very engaging way.
Jerry Goldsmith contributes a score that won him an Academy Award (his only Oscar), but I don’t think it’s nearly as good as the one he wrote for Logan’s Run. His music here is dominated by a men’s choir chanting in Latin, all doom and gloom stuff straight out of a Wagner opera. It’s funny to think that the Latin chanting that scared audiences in 1976 is very similar to the Latin chanting that sold millions of CDs twenty years later when people wanted music for doing yoga, meditating, and drinking herbal tea.
The truth is, sometimes The Omen really works, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. Most of the running time seems to be filled by guys with hairy eyebrows standing around and giving conspiratorial glances and yelling things like “You have to do something!” I actually wonder if this movie isn’t actually about the antichrist, and there’s an undercurrent of truth that really makes people subconsciously uncomfortable. Is it possible that we’re all a little bit worried that our own children will turn out to be Damien? Not actually the antichrist, of course, but just giant douche bags. I can speak to that concern, because I think somewhere in the back of every parent’s mind, in the dark corners they don’t want to talk about, is a concern that they might be raising an A-hole.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!