Thursday, September 5, 2013

THE OMEN (1976)

IMDB keywords: christian horror, moving in, lifting male in air

Confession: I'd never seen THE OMEN before now.  The last time I had a chance to do so, it was because my friend's very Southern Baptist girlfriend told me that I needed to see it, as in I needed to see it before the actual literal Antichrist for real was born and my soul was condemned to hell.  So I'm sure I said fuck off and went off to watch DEATH METAL ZOMBIES instead, so who won that round, Candi?  Maybe God should get better spokespeople.

But then Stacie Ponder said, "You need to see THE OMEN" to the Final Girl Film Club, so here we are.  Going into this, my expectations were that OMEN would be a more polite and genteel version of THE EXORCIST, and that prediction mostly came true.  It digs in the same religious dirt, but focuses on respectably scaring you and forsakes EXORCIST's vomity tides of transgression.  OMEN is easier to swallow because it's less weighty.  Let's discuss.

American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is informed that his newborn baby has died, but the hospital has a very fine alternate baby in stock.  To avoid upsetting his wife (Lee Remick), Thorn agrees to take the stunt baby.  In other news, he receives a transfer from Rome to England.  All seems to be peachy in the Thorns' lives—they have a baby named Damien, plentiful water, and a dog...

...who presages a much different dog...

...who is a manifestation of demonic force, which is drawn to the Thorns' adopted son, aka actually the literal Antichrist (Harvey Stephens). Who names their child "Harvey"?  If you're new to this blog, you're also new to my undying hatred of child actors, especially when they're cast in villain roles.  But, credit where it's due, Harvey does decent work here, mostly because he's not grimacing or leering like a midnight horror host.  He mostly just looks sleepy or disinterested, which is the perfect choice for this film.  Damien's inhumanity isn't showy or active, it's more remote.  He looks at people the same way that people look at insects, like this:

The few scenes which do involve Damien's wails of woe are well staged...

...although no one outfreaks Lee Remick in this film.

Damien's diabolical nature is revealed as he repels animals (except dogs, so what does that tell you?) and attracts creeper nannies, but the real evidence arrives in the form of a shrieking priest, who recites upsetting poems at Mr. Thorn and demands that he "drink the blood of Christ!!!"  Again, God should probably hire better representatives, and so it takes a good long while for Thorn to accept the reality of what he's been told.

At this point, the film kicks into higher gear and what had until now been buoyed mostly by good acting and good-enough direction becomes a very good organic whole.  There are intimations of conspiracy, a lot of suspense, and a fight between a diplomat and a demonic nanny with good taste in pajamas.  You rule, second half of THE OMEN.

The acting across the board is very convincing.  The two leads really sell their relationship and get you invested in their characters.  Lesser actors might have treated the Thorns as throwaway roles until you get to all the screaming and dying scenes, but Peck and Remick give it their all throughout.  Billie Whitelaw also gets high marks as the nanny/apostate of hell.  It helps that the script gives them room to maneuver.  THE OMEN isn't really a film that probes for eternal truths or problems of evil (other than "Hey, this kid is evil and that's a problem").  It's mostly a popcorn movie done by seasoned pros, but the execution elevates it.  Credit the cast and director Richard Donner for delivering primo material and even occasionally some really striking visuals.

I would hesitate to put this on the top shelf of horror (it can't touch EXORCIST or TCM), but it's definitely very well done and worth your time.  


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