Thursday, June 9, 2016

Franchises: The Omen. The Omen (1976)

I have this very poster on my wall.
I grew up in the south in an area that can very much be described as a Bible Belt, in a family that is very religious, particularly on my father's side, so, even though I distanced myself from it in later years and still do to this day, the Bible and the church was a big part of my upbringing. As such, movies that delved into and, in the eyes of some, glorified the devil were very much frowned upon by my parents, who weren't too big on me watching the much more graphic and intense horror films from the 70's onward anyway, and I must admit that I was rather leery of those types of movies myself due to all of the times I'd spent at Sunday school and the sermons I had heard in church when I was forced to stay afterwards. I knew of The Exorcist from as far back as when I was in late elementary school and had heard so much about how it was the scariest, most reprehensible movie ever made, with my mom saying that she absolutely hated it (she saw it at the drive-in when she was a teenager), to the point where it almost felt like a movie that you'd think would have been banned, but the first time I heard about The Omen was on an AMC documentary called Monster Mania that I first saw when I was twelve-years old. The clip that they showed was the scene where Damien knocks his mother over the banister and she falls to the floor but from what little I saw, I had no idea that it had anything to do with the devil; I thought it was just a movie about an evil, psychotic child who killed anybody who displeased him. Over time, I realized from various sources, like an advertisement for a marathon of all four movies on CineMax and a book on horror films that I found at my high school's library, that there were satanic connotations to the movie and that the evil little boy was meant to be the Antichrist. I still wasn't too eager to see it because of my upbringing and the fact that I was going to a religious, private high school, although I did see the movie's creepy opening credits sequence one night when AMC played it, which was enough for me at that time. The Omen Legacy documentary, narrated by Jack Palance, premiered on AMC shortly afterward that October and when I sat down and watched it that night, I not only enjoyed it but also became quite curious and interested in the franchise. I finally saw the original movie itself for the first time in early 2002 when I was channel-surfing one day and just happened across it when AMC was playing it once again, and while I missed some parts of it here and there, I had to admit to myself that I was quite taken by it and thought it was quite a good movie. That, plus a new perspective that the aforementioned high school that I was going to allowed me to have on things of this nature, convinced me that there was really nothing wrong or to be afraid of in watching this movie and so, I decided that it was a movie that I would add to my collection, which I did later that year when I bought the VHS.

To this day, The Omen is a film that I absolutely love and, for my money, is the superior movie when it comes down to the eternal "which is better" conversation between it and The Exorcist. While I can respect The Exorcist for its stellar acting, craftsmanship, and the profound effect that it had when it was originally released, I had heard so much about it that, by the time I finally got around to seeing it, it had lost a lot of its impact, whereas The Omen sort of crept up on me, with my only learning about it gradually instead of it being talked about to death (which leads into its rather odd place in film history and reputation amongst the general public, which I'll get into shortly). Plus, The Omen's classier, subtler, and less overtly shocking approach to the material has always appealed to me much more, whereas The Exorcist, although undoubtedly effective in its own way, has always felt like it was mostly just trying to bash you over the head with its graphic content and vulgarity. It also helps that I like this cast more and really enjoy the mystery aspect to this film, especially during the second half.

On a June night in Rome, U.S. diplomat Robert Thorn rushes to the hospital upon hearing that his wife, Kathy, gave birth to a baby who died moments afterward. Dreading telling his wife about the death because of how much she wanted a child, Thorn is talked into adopting a newborn baby whose mother died at the exact same time as his own son by the hospital's chaplain, saying that Kathy needn't know. Some time after the adoption, Thorn is appointed Ambassador to Great Britain and he and his family move to England to begin their new life. The first few years there are normal and happy for the family but when their "son," Damien, reaches his fifth birthday, unsettling events begin to occur: Damien's nanny hangs herself during his extravagant birthday party, a priest named Father Brennan shows up at Thorn's office and tries to warn him that there's something sinister about his son, a mysterious new nanny calling herself Mrs. Baylock arrives at the house out of the blue, Damien throws a very violent tantrum when his parents attempt to take him with them to church, and animals at a zoo that Kathy and Damien visit appear absolutely terrified of the boy. When Thorn meets up with Father Brennan again, he tells the ambassador that Damien is the son of the devil, that Kathy has become pregnant, and that Damien will kill the unborn child, Kathy, and eventually Thorn himself when he's set to inherit everything that he has. Thorn writes off the priest as a madman but, after Brennan is impaled by a spear atop a church in what appears to have been a freak accident, Thorn learns that Kathy is indeed pregnant and, immediately afterward, she's knocked over a railing by Damien, causing her to miscarry the baby. While Kathy is recovering in the hospital, Thorn is contacted by Keith Jennings, a photographer who's been covering various events Thorn has been involved in, and is shown some pictures of their first nanny and Father Brennan with unexplainable marks that seem to correspond with how they later died. Upon showing Thorn some disturbing things about Brennan that he's uncovered, as well as a photograph that seems to foretell that Jennings himself is marked for death, the two of them venture to Rome to investigate Damien's past... and discover horrifying clues that seem to point to Damien being the Antichrist, whom Thorn must kill using some daggers given to him by an archeologist Brennan implored him to seek out.

Among other things, this is the movie that placed Richard Donner firmly on the directing A-list. Beforehand, Donner had mainly worked in television, directing episodes of many and beloved shows like Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun Will Travel, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gilligan's Island, Kojack, and The Twilight Zone, particularly the classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode with William Shatner. He'd been trying to break into features since the early 1960's, with movies like X-15 with Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore, Salt and Pepper with Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and Twinky (known in the U.S. as Lola), another movie with Bronson, but none of them made any sort of impact and there were long gaps between them, with X-15 and Salt and Pepper have one of seven years and another seven years between Twinky and The Omen. Donner has himself admitted that he wasn't ready to become a movie director until it came time for The Omen, which he's always been quick to call a supernatural thriller rather than a horror film (which, like Jonathan Demme and everyone else's insistence that The Silence of the Lambs is a psychological thriller rather than a horror movie, is a bit of pretentiousness that has always rubbed me the wrong way), and he's said that when he found himself working with big, respected actors like Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, and Billie Whitelaw, he became quite confident in himself. And after The Omen became an enormous hit, Donner's career went into overdrive, as he went on to do flicks like Superman, Inside Moves, The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon films, Scrooged, Maverick, and Conspiracy Theory. As a result, as far as he's concerned, "If there is an omen, then it's a good one."

As I said in my introduction, there's an odd dichotomy with The Omen's impact and legacy. While it was a big hit when it was released in June of 1976, got really good reviews for the most part, and is fondly remembered by many and considered one of the best horror films of all time, often appearing on various lists on the subject, it nevertheless hasn't been heralded as a classic in quite the same way as other horror films of the time, particularly The Exorcist. It's often overshadowed by that film, sometimes looked at as nothing more than a cash-in on its success and influence, and because it's nowhere near as edgy or graphically intense, it doesn't elicit the same kind of fearful response from people as that movie does, even from people who've only heard of it instead of having actually seen it. Both it and Rosemary's Baby are often seen as pretty famous but not nearly as legendary Satan-oriented horror films that came out around the same time as The Exorcist and got lost in the huge cloud of dust that it left behind. One possible reason for its lack of major impact according to 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die is the sheer fact that it's a very polished, classy film (there's not a single swear word here; not even damn or hell), with a legendary actor like Gregory Peck in the lead role, a number of beloved character actors in the supporting cast, a score by high-profile composer Jerry Goldsmith, and an overall slick look with fairy high production values (I say "fairly" because the movie's budget was only $2.5 million); in short, it's too Hollywood to have the same confrontational punch as some of its peers. In my opinion, however, I think it's awfully shallow to dismiss a horror movie as not being as effective just because it's not an anti-establishment, independent movie made outside of the Hollywood system. While that has certainly produced some great flicks, throughout the history of film, studios have certainly been no slouch in making great horror movies either. Look at all the classics Universal made back in its heyday, including the immortal Jaws the year before The Omen, as well as the stuff Val Lewton produced at RKO in the 40's and the classic film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Paramount and MGM. And let's also not forget that The Exorcist was a big studio film as well. For me, it's all about execution. If a horror film has enough talent behind it to pull it off as effectively as possible, as I feel The Omen did, what's wrong with having the resources to get big-name actors, create well-designed sets, and make the film look good? In my opinion, horror never has and never will be a genre that only the independents are allowed to tackle. Again, as long as you get a well-done and effective movie, who cares whether it's polished and expensive or really gritty and low-budget?

The filmmakers went through a number of well-known actors for the role of Robert Thorn, from Charlton Heston and Roy Scheider to William Holden (who would go on to star in the sequel), but when they managed to snag Gregory Peck, they hit paydirt because he turns in a really sympathetic and likable performance. He comes across as a good guy all-around, both in terms of his job as a diplomat and later as Ambassador to Great Britain but, more importantly, as a family man who absolutely loves and is devoted to his wife. Upon learning that their baby died right after he was born, he's devastated for both of them, dreading telling her because he feels it will destroy her due to how much and how long she wanted a child, which is why he eventually decides to adopt Damien without telling her the truth. For a while, it seems like he made the right decision, and with his election as ambassador, he lives a very happy and prosperous life with Kathy and Damien for the next five years. However, when all the strange and terrifying events begin to plague the family, Thorn slowly but surely begins to realize that there's something not quite right about his son, especially when it all begins to take a toll on Kathy, who begins to fear that Damien not only is not her child but is also evil. Thorn does find it strange early on that Damien has never been sick a day in his life but initially brushes off Father Brennan's claims that he's the son of the devil as the ravings of a madman. But, when Brennan's sudden and bizarre death corresponds with two of his claims (Kathy becoming pregnant again and Damien causing her to lose the child) coming true, Thorn clearly wonders if there is something sinister going on. One of Peck's best moments in the film for me is after he comes home from the hospital after Kathy's been admitted there and looks down over the railing where she fell, thinking about the tragic nightmare his life has become recently and possibly feeling guilty about it since none of this happened until after he adopted Damien. After that is when he's contacted by Keith Jennings, who shows him evidence that supernatural forces may be at work and that also suggests that there is something sinister about Damien's origin. This leads the two of them to Rome, where Thorn eventually discovers the horrifying truth: Damien's biological mother was an animal (a jackal, although it's never explicitly said) and Thorn's real child was murdered at birth so Damien could be adopted in his place.

Now knowing that there are Satanists who have been instrumenting Damien's coming and that Kathy is in danger back in London, Thorn tries to arrange for her to be brought over to Rome but is unable to save her from being murdered by Mrs. Baylock. Thorn hits absolute rock-bottom upon hearing of his beloved wife's death, with Peck giving another moving bit of performance when his eyes well up with tears, he hangs up the phone, and collapses on the bed, sobbing. Unfortunately, this leads into the only discrepancy in Thorn's portrayal. When Jennings returns to their Rome hotel room upon learning about the town of Megiddo, Thorn tells him about Kathy's death and says, "I want Damien to die, too," but when he meets up with Bugenhagen in Megiddo and learns that he must kill Damien with seven daggers, he's not suddenly appalled by what he must do. What's more, he now doubts that Damien is the Antichrist, despite everything that has happened, saying, "I won't have anything to do with murdering a little boy. He's not responsible. I won't do it!" This has always confused me, especially given what he said a couple of scenes before. You could say that it's because he didn't know that he was going to have to kill Damien in such a gruesome way but, one, what was he expecting the method for killing the Antichrist to be, and two, if he now wants Damien die, what difference does the actual method make? I guess the gruesome nature of the killing and the fact that, having bathed Damien, he hasn't seen the 666 that Bugenhagen claims he has anywhere on his body, snaps Thorn out of his vengeful daze but I still find it jarring for him to now doubt that Damien is the Antichrist after everything that he's been through. Maybe he's in denial since his son is now all that he has left. Whatever the case, Jennings' unexpected and gruesome death prompts Thorn to travel back to England, where he discovers that Damien is indeed the Antichrist upon finding the birthmark beneath his hair. From then on, nothing deters him from what he must do: not Mrs. Baylock, whom he gets into a violent struggle with before finally killing her, not the police, whom he probably knows will kill him one way or another before the night's over, and certainly not Damien himself, whom he drags screaming into the church where he must perform the ritual. When he's about to stab Damien, he hesitates upon looking at the face of this boy whom he's loved as his own for the past five years and pushes his face to the side, quietly saying, "Don't look at me," and asks God to help him in what he knows he must do. Unfortunately, this hesitation ultimately gets him killed by the police, who arrive right before he can stab Damien, and although both he and Kathy are given a military funeral back in the United States, he's likely declared as having lost his mind in those last moments of his life (which is confirmed in the sequel).

Lee Remick gives the film's saddest and most pitiable performance as Robert Thorn's beloved wife, Kathy. Like her husband, Kathy very much wanted a child and was undoubtedly going to be crushed upon learning that their son died right after he was born, which is why Thorn decided to secretly adopt Damien and pass him off as their son. Their first five years with Damien are very happy for both Kathy and her husband and you can tell from their interactions that they are as close and loving a couple as you can get, exemplified when Kathy becomes pregnant later on. However, the frightening events that begin to plague the family really take their toll on Kathy, who becomes so terrified for reasons she can't bring herself to explain to her husband that she asks him to find a psychiatrist for her. However, her sessions with him seem to drive her further into despair, to the point where she becomes absolutely intolerant of Damien and tells Thorn that she wants to abort the baby that she's currently pregnant with. When he has a talk with the psychiatrist, Thorn learns that she believes that Damien is evil and also suspects that he's not really her child, with the pregnancy now having plunged her even deeper into turmoil since she knows how much her husband wanted children. Despite the psychiatrist's insistence that he agree to an abortion, Thorn becomes determined not to abort the pregnancy in order to avert Father Brennan's predictions, but that very moment is when Damien knocks Kathy over the stair railing, leading to her miscarrying as well as being hospitalized. This is a turning point for Kathy, where she makes it clear to Thorn that she's utterly terrified of Damien, asking him in a dazed voice as she lies in the hospital bed, "Don't let him kill me." But, try as he might, Thorn is unable to save his wife, whose worst fears are confirmed when Mrs. Baylock, whom she probably suspected was a part of the whole thing, pays her a visit when she's trying to get ready to leave for Rome and pushes her out the window to her death.

My personal favorite character in the film is Keith Jennings, the photographer who is the first one to learn that there's something supernatural going on. One reason is because David Warner is an actor who I always enjoy seeing and another is because I like how Jennings starts out as a side-character and is only gradually drawn into the story. At first, he's just one of many photographers who covers various events that Thorn is present at, like Damien's elaborate birthday party and a rugby match, but the more involved with Thorn he becomes, the more he starts to notice strange marks in his photographs, marks that precede and correspond to gruesome deaths suffered by the subjects in the photos. After Father Brennan is killed and Kathy is hospitalized, Jennings contacts Thorn and not only shows him the photographs but also strange clues that correspond to Brennan, particularly some that are tied to Damien's birth five years before. When all of this compels Thorn to find out whose son Damien really is, Jennings exists upon helping him, showing him a photograph that reveals that the strange forces have marked him for death as well, no doubt because of his prying into the events. This scene and their journey across Italy shows that not only is Jennings an expert photographer but he's also a great investigator, finding out information and interpreting the poem that Brennan told Thorn, which helps lead them in the right direction to where they discover the unsettling truth about Damien. While Thorn still has moments of skepticism about Damien being the Antichrist, after everything that they've been through, Jennings has no doubt about it whatsoever, and when Thorn tosses away the daggers, exclaiming that he won't kill a child, Jennings tell him, "If you won't do it, I will." And he means it, as he walks over to the spot where Thorn tossed the daggers and began gathering them, although that's when the omen of his death is fulfilled when he ends up getting decapitated.

The creepiest character in the film is Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), who appears out of nowhere to take the place of the nanny who inexplicably hanged herself during Damien's birthday party. That's one of things that's so unsettling about her: she just shows up unannounced and moves into the house, making it quite clear during her first scene with Damien that she's more than just a new nanny: "Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee." From that moment on, there's nothing complex about her as a character. Her motivation is quite clear: she's a Satanist who's devoted to protecting Damien so that the prophecy of the Antichrist can come to pass and is willing to do anything she has to in order to succeed. At first, she comes across as just a little overzealous in how she tries to keep the Thorns from taking Damien to church and brings a strange dog into the house without permission but, as the film comes on, she becomes much more sinister and intent upon dealing with those who begin to suspect Damien's true nature. She hones in on Kathy in particular, seeing to it that she gets knocked over the railing, which causes her to miscarry the child she's pregnant with, and eventually kills Kathy before she can join her husband in Rome. Plus, when the Thorns' servants, Mr. and Mrs. Horton (Robert MacLeod and Sheila Raynor), suddenly disappear, with Mrs. Baylock saying that they simply left without any explanation, you can't help but wonder if they fell victim to her as well. And what's more, the presence of the dog, which is very possibly the same one that seemed to influence Damien's original nanny into hanging herself, and his connection to Baylock suggests that she, or at the very least, her cult, had instrumented it so she could become Damien's guardian. In any case, during the climax, Baylock proves Bugenhagen's assertion that she would die before allowing Damien to be killed to be very accurate with how she viciously attacks Thorn, grabbing and struggling with him, clawing him, biting him, and trying to stab him, all the while with a wild, evil look on her face and in her eyes. She almost does manage to kill Thorn but he's ultimately able to turn the tables and kill her instead by stabbing her in the side of the neck with a kitchen utensil.

Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) is both a very interesting and tragic character given what you eventually learn about him. Initially, he seems like a raving, overzealous madman of a priest, going on about how Thorn must accept Jesus Christ as his savior in order to defeat the son of the devil and warns him that his own son is the Antichrist and that he will eventually kill all of them in order to use the Thorn empire to gain power over the globe, but it's also clear that he's a frightened man who himself is looking for forgiveness from God. It's only after his sudden death in what could be interpreted as a freak accident that the full extent of his suffering is revealed. He's been connected to Satan since birth, having been born with the 666 birthmark, which Bugenhagen later tells Thorn marks the followers of Satan as well as the Antichrist himself. This strongly suggests that he was once part of the cult who orchestrated Damien's adoption by the Thorns, which is given further credence by how he revealed that he witnessed Damien's birth and almost told Thorn that his mother was a jackal, but broke away from it and became an actual priest in order to redeem himself and warn the family of what they were raising. Whether he was truly out to save the world or simply wanted to be forgiven by God, which he felt was only possible by saving the Thorns, is never made clear but, regardless, he was so frightened of Satan's wrath for this betrayal that he lived in an apartment near a church, an apartment whose walls he covered with pages of the Bible and in which he kept 47 crosses. The devil, however, saw to it that Brennan didn't live long after his treachery, first by afflicting him with a deadly cancer and then orchestrating his death once he finally revealed to Thorn that Damien was the Antichrist. Brennan seemed to have lost all hope after Thorn, again, didn't believe him anyway. After Thorn tells him that he never wants to see him again, Brennan says, "You'll see me in hell, Mr. Thorn. There, we will share out our sentence."

Father Spiletto (Martin Benson) is another corrupt priest with connections to the Antichrist, most significantly in that he's the one who talks Thorn into adopting Damien after the death of his own child, setting in motion the beginning of his rise to power. Not only that but it's quite possible that Spiletto himself was the once who killed the Thorns' son right after his birth; if not, then he's most certainly the one who orchestrated it. Regardless, Spiletto pays a heavy price for his having abandoned Christ and becoming an apostle of Satan. You learn that, not too long after Damien's adoption, the hospital suffered a devastating fire and, although he survived, Spiletto was left horribly burned, unable to speak, and almost unable to move, only able to scribble with his just barely functioning left hand. As he's being cared for by an order of monks at a monastery (monks who believe he is going through a penance for his sins), he's visited by Thorn and Jennings and is just barely able to write the name of the cemetery where Damien's biological mother is buried. While Father Brennan wanted God to forgive him, it's never made clear whether Spiletto was truly remorseful for his actions or if he was just biding his time at the monastery, waiting to recover. He seemed to have a mournful expression on his face as he was writing the name "Cerveteri" with his last bit of strength before expiring and came across like what had happened to him made him regret what he'd done and hoped that pointing Thorn towards the truth would be enough to complete his penance before he died. Speaking of the monks who were caring for him, I kind of wonder if, despite how saintly he seemed, the one in charge (Robert Rietti) was maybe in on it since he really tried to dissuade Thorn from going to Cerveteri, insisting that he wouldn't find anything there. That, plus the fact that he was the one who was seeing to Spiletto's recovery, made me wonder, although nothing more is said about him after that one scene.

Even though he's only in one scene, I really like Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), the exorcist-turned-archeologist who's an expert on the Antichrist and whom Father Brennan tells Thorn to visit. I always like wise, old experts like him who know everything there is to know about what's going on and who knows what must be done in order to stop it. He's so awesome in how he knows who Thorn is as soon as he meets him and declares that Megiddo is the place where Christianity began. I also like how no-nonsense he is in telling Thorn what must be done, how and where he must stab the daggers into Damien, that he must look for the "666" birthmark if he needs to be absolutely sure, and, most importantly of all, that he must be devoid of pity in order to carry the task out. A small role but a significant one, and McKern conveys a great air of knowledge and authority in his brief, uncredited appearance.

I've waited until now to talk about Damien (Harvey Stephens) himself because, character-wise, there isn't much to talk about. While he's certainly the figure the story revolves around, he doesn't have many scenes, barely says anything and what he does is nothing significant due to how young he is, and the film is mainly about the strange things happening around him and his father's journey to learn the truth about him. In fact, even though it's revealed during the third act that he is indeed the Antichrist, Damien doesn't kill anyone or do anything really evil. Even when he knocks Kathy over the stair railing, it's played out like an accident that Mrs. Baylock orchestrates when she lets him out of his room while he's riding his tricycle and he's so focused on his riding that he doesn't see his mother until he's almost on top of her. It does look like he tries to stop right before he hits the stool Kathy is standing on and while he does watch her lose her grip and fall with a completely emotionless face, to me he just comes across like a little kid who doesn't quite understand what's going on. And yeah, he doesn't do anything to help Kathy either but what could he really do, honestly? It's also never made clear whether he 100% knows or understands who he is, although there are definitely moments where you can see the evil within him, which he may not comprehend but instinctively sense, like when he waves at the evil Rottweiler that influenced his nanny into hanging herself, the way he smiles at Mrs. Baylock when she says that she's there to protect him, the fear he shows towards the church and the violent tantrum he has when they try to take him inside, the evil look he gives to the giraffes at the zoo, and that last smile he gives at the very end, where it feels like he knows that he's beginning to fulfill his destiny. Damien would become much more of a character in the sequels but in this first film, he's more of a peripheral figure that everything else just happens to revolve around.

One thing that Richard Donner has to really been commended for is making the movie very believable and grounding it in reality. Originally, it was going to be filled with a lot of over-the-top, Satanic imagery, like cloven hooves and the like, but Donner and Alan Ladd Jr., who was head of production at 20th Century Fox at that time, decided to eliminate all of that and make it real. Most notably, Donner went for the approach that everything that happens could be nothing more than a bunch of coincidences adding up, like when you've had the worst day of your life and you feel like nobody's going to believe you when you tell them. This is makes the film both more palpable and intriguing in that you could view it as such: that Damien isn't really the Antichrist who came out of a jackal, that there's nothing supernatural going on, and that it could all be a bunch of massive and tragic coincidences that make Robert Thorn completely lose his mind, which is how Donner himself views it. For the most part, it works. You can look at the deaths as nothing more than a bunch of freak accidents (like the sudden storm that led to Father Brennan's death and the parking-brake slipping on the truck carrying the pane of glass that beheads Jennings), Father Brennan, Mrs. Baylock, and the first, suicidal nanny as nothing more than crazy people who are severely deluded in what they believe (dangerously so, in the case of Baylock), the animals at the zoo just being unpredictable in their behavior as animals always are, the Rottweiler that shows up simply being a stray, and Thorn having completely lost his mind due to everything that's happened that he simply imagined the "666" on Damien's scalp. I can even look at Damien's freaking out when they try to take him to church as a little kid simply being frightened at the prospect of going to some large, intimidating building that he's never seen before. I know when I was a little kid, big, old-fashioned churches like that made me uneasy for reasons that I can't explain. Does that make me evil? (Don't answer that.) And the jackal bones in the grave? There could be a number of reasons as to how they got there, like them being put there as a nasty practical joke after someone removed the real body or the jackal could have just crawled in there and died and somebody could have simply closed the grave without realizing the remains were in there. For me, though, this coincidental way of looking at the film holds water up to a point. Those photographs of Jennings' are one of the things that derail it for me. Flaws in the film are one thing but I find it hard to believe that it could be just a coincidence that all of the marks on those pictures so accurately predict those people's deaths. Something is obviously creating those omens. Plus, stray or not, that Rottweiler does clearly have some connection to Mrs. Baylock, and it's also a little too convenient to me that Thorn and Jennings would be ambushed in the cemetery where Damien's mother supposedly is by a bunch of similar, evil-looking dogs. And speaking of which, despite my theory on those jackal bones, Thorn himself makes the greatest point: why would they bury Damien's real mother in such an old, creepy cemetery? Ultimately, this makes me feel that, in the end, the devil is behind what's going on.

That leads into what I feel is the movie's most striking aspect: its atmosphere. The people behind 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die described it best when they said that in this world, it feels like Satan is the dominant force rather than God. Except for those fleeting moments after the opening where you see the Thorns settling into their new, prosperous life, it feels like evil and darkness is everywhere. Not only is it due to Jerry Goldsmith's intensely creepy score (which, as I'll elaborate on later, is what really makes the devil feel omnipresent throughout the film) but also in how Satan seems to eliminate those who've either displeased him or threaten the safety of his son, doing so in ways that make them look like freak accidents, and how his servants and hell-hounds seem to be around every corner, in the benevolent guises of priests and nannies, seeing to it that his will is fulfilled and his son's rise to power is unhindered. Those who try to help God prevail are either unaware of what's going on (the monks and the other religious figures), inexorably tied to the devil and will fail no matter what (Father Brennan), are in no position to do anything themselves and can only try to guide those who can (Bugenhagen), gather evidence apparently supplied by Satan himself but are killed before they can do anything (Keith Jennings), or disbelieve what's happening until it's too late (Robert Thorn). Even the police unknowingly help the lord of darkness succeed when they stop a seemingly maddened ambassador from killing his own child. And most disheartening of all is the fact that this cute little kid is the Antichrist, meant to bring about the end of all humanity. For me, that's the most disturbing thing about Damien himself, especially when you see him as a crying, helpless newborn. The idea that this helpless little thing is going to grow up to become the largest force of absolute evil the world has ever seen really gets to me and makes me squirm during that scene where Thorn brings Damien to Kathy for the first time and they're both so happy to finally have a child. It also taps into the film's terrifying, basic idea: what if the Antichrist is already here, walking among us, and we don't know it yet? No matter how religious you may or may not be, there's no denying that's a frightening prospect.

Nowhere is the devil's presence felt more than in the scene in the Cerveteri cemetery where Thorn and Jennings discover the final resting place of Damien's jackal mother and Thorn's actual son. The minute you see that place, it reeks of evil and, in fact, is the most overtly diabolical-looking location in the film. Everywhere else looks and feels like places you would see in real life but this looks like every creepy cemetery in every Gothic story ever, with the dark, overcast skies, the wind blowing, and ancient, overgrown graves, one of which contains the devil's hideous, inhuman concubine and another the tiny skeleton of Thorn's real son (when I first saw the shot of that infant's remains with that hole in the skull, my jaw dropped). However, instead of clashing with the rest of the film's air of realism and believability, for me this location drives home once and for all that there truly are evil forces at work, exemplified by the sudden appearance of and attack by a pack of Rottweilers that look eerily similar to the one Mrs. Baylock brought into the Thorn household (a sequence that I think makes the baboon attack earlier look mere dress rehearsal). In my opinion, that's too much of a coincidence and I feel that it's Satan attempting to kill them for finding out the truth about Damien by unleashing his hell hounds on them.

Richard Donner has said that it's up to the viewer decided whether or not evil wins in the end but, while I can appreciate him being such an optimist, I don't see how you could think anything but given how unabashedly downbeat the ending is. By the the final frame, a prominent, loving couple has been wiped (one of whom died after having suffered the loss of his beloved wife and discovering that his son is the devil incarnate, whom he died trying to kill in order to save the world), except for Bugenhagen, everyone else who discovered the horrible truth and tried to help stop it has been killed as well, and the Antichrist is now in the company of the President of the United States, well on the way to fulfilling his destiny, which is punctuated by that passage from the Book of Revelations before the ending credits. The 101 Horror Movies book I mentioned earlier summed it up best: "Evil wins; end of story."

While not a splatter-film by any means, The Omen does boast some pretty graphic and well-remembered deaths that would become a trademark of the series as a whole. They're accomplished by pretty simple means without any real elaborate makeup effects or gore but they still manage to be quite shocking when you first see them. The first death, the suicide of Damien's nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack Palance, which could be why he narrated that Omen Legacy documentary), is simple but effective in how random and unexpected it is. One minute, she's walking around, taking care of Damien during his birthday party, like normal and then, when she spots that Rottweiler nearby, she climbs to the top of the house, tells Damien in a cheerful voice and with a big smile on her face, "It's all for you!", and jumps, with her body crashing through the window down below and horrifying a maid as the rope around her neck tightens and hangs her. Just as disturbing is the aftermath, with the shot of her body swaying back and forth as most of the kids look up at her (one is so traumatized, though, that a clown is holding her to keep her calm), the only sound being the cheerful melody of the nearby carousel. The death of Father Brennan is much more graphic and elaborate but just as effective and, unlike the nanny's death, has a long build-up to it. You know from those strange photographs that Keith Jennings has been taking that something's coming for Brennan and, after his ill-fated final meeting with Robert Thorn, the wind suddenly picks up and a storm begins to brew as Brennan walks towards his church. When lightning strikes a nearby tree-branch, Brennan knows he's in danger and runs for the churchyard, just barely managing to avoid getting struck by lightning himself as he climbs over the gate, which to me shows that the devil is trying to kill him any way he can. He tries to make it inside the church but the doors are locked and he's trapped outside as the storm intensifies, culminating in lightning striking a spear off the roof and sending it plummeting right for Brennan. Of course, he could try to get out of the way but, no, he just stands there yelling until the spear impales him, making him into something of a grisly lawn decoration in the churchyard as the storm dissipates as suddenly as it started. (I used to think that the spear went through his shoulder but, now that I've seen the kill in sharper quality, I'm pretty sure that it went through his middle instead.)

Besides the deaths, there are some simple but effective makeup effects in the film used to illustrate injuries that various characters have suffered. The burns on the right side of Father Spiletto's face are pretty ugly and nasty when you see them in close-up but the one that gets me is when Thorn's arm gets jammed on one of the spires atop the gate when he and Jennings are trying to escape from the evil dogs. Stuff like that always me squirm and the way he's stuck there, screaming in pain and unable to escape until Jennings climbs over and helps him by pulling his arm loose adds to the skin-crawling nature of it. In any case, getting back to the deaths, Kathy's death is interesting in that the most famous scene involving her isn't her actual death but rather the lead-up to it. While riding his tricycle, Damien crashes into the stool that Kathy is standing on and causes her to fall over the railing. She manages to grab onto it but eventually loses her grip and falls to the floor with a very loud thud, all while Damien watches from above. Aside from the shock and the expectation of her to be dead, the thing that's most interesting about this scene is that, because Lee Remick refused to do an actual stunt, they had to use some camera tricks and make the wall look like the floor and dolly Remick away from the camera and into the wall to make it look like she hit the floor. It's a pretty inventive piece of filmmaking. Kathy's actual death isn't as famous as that scene but, regardless, it's straightforward and hard-hitting. She's trying to get ready to join her husband in Rome when Mrs. Baylock shows up and Kathy, unable to defend herself because of her injuries, can watch as she approaches and, in the following shot, you hear glass smashing and Kathy screaming as she's thrown out the window to her death, smashing right through the roof of an ambulance down below. Following that is the film's most famous death next to Father Brennan's impalement: Jennings' decapitation by a big pane of glass in the back of a truck. I had never heard about this scene before I first saw it in the Omen Legacy documentary so, needless to say, I was quite unprepared for it. Looking at the effect itself, you can easily tell that it's a dummy head (it's not the only bit of effects failure in the movie; you can tell that some of the dogs in the cemetery scene are fake in certain shots) but the scene is still effective in how sudden and unexpected it is and how they edited it so you see the head spin from six different angles, ending with the window behind Jennings smashing and a shot of the head looking at itself in a big piece of glass, with Thorn completely horrified by what he's just seen.

Jennings' death prompts Thorn to return home, which leads into the climax, which is possibly my favorite sequence in the whole movie. It starts out nice and slow, with Thorn creeping into the house and finding himself being stalked by that Rottweiler, which he lures down into the basement and traps, before heading upstairs to his and Kathy's bedroom. For a moment, he laments the recent loss of Kathy (which was punctuated earlier by a shot of her picture on the dresser when he first pulled up to the house) and then gets himself a pair scissors in order to try to find the birthmark underneath Damien's hair. The build-up to the reveal of the "666" is nicely handled, with the close-ups of Thorn's hands gently rustling through Damien's hair and his cutting it being filmed in slow-motion, and then you actually see the birthmark, followed by Thorn standing there and looking straight ahead with an empty look, his worst fears now confirmed. Then, all hell breaks loose when Mrs. Baylock jumps him from behind and attacks, clawing his face and struggling with him, all while the Rottweiler, sensing what's going on, barking crazily down in the basement. Damien, instead of running like Baylock tells him to, hides behind a nearby chair, while Thorn manages to shake Baylock off and knock her unconscious before grabbing the kid and dragging him downstairs, struggling and screaming. Even this little kid makes it hard for Thorn, as he grabs a light and pulls it out of the wall as Thorn tries to drag him downstairs, causing him to tumble. After a few seconds, he gets back up and tries to drag Damien outside but Baylock jumps him again and they have a struggle in the kitchen, with Thorn falling and knocking down a bunch of utensils, one of which Baylock grabs to try to stab him. Thorn is able to grab an icepick and hold Baylock at bay until he forces the long fork she has into the lower part of her neck while stabbing the pick into the side of her face, killing her. Thorn then gets out, puts Damien in his car, and drives off to the nearby church, with the Rottweiler howling mournfully upon sensing that Baylock is dead. Of course, his erratic driving attracts the attention of the police, who follow him to the church as he drags the screaming Damien inside. He's just about to stab Damien with the first dagger when the police arrive and fire when he refuses to drop the dagger.

Jerry Goldsmith won the only Oscar of his career for his creepy as hell score for this film and, while it's a shame in that he deserved to win so many more since he did so much great, classic movie music, it's nice that the Academy recognized his accomplishment, especially for a horror film. This is one of the scariest, most utterly evil-evoking scores ever and it, more than anything else in the movie, gives off the feeling that the devil is everywhere in this bleak world, with how the music is so often intermixed with the distant sounds of people chanting in Latin. The film immediately begins with a creepy vibe as the shot of the 20th Century Fox logo is completely silent and as the opening credits begin, we hear this quiet, eerie piano piece that leads into the main theme, Ave Satani, which is basically the sound of a black mass singing about how they worship Satan, with Latin cries of, "Hail Satan!" and, "Hail Antichrist!" heard here and there, as a drawing of Damien's silhouetted body whose shadow forms an inverted cross appears off to the side. This main theme is played in full at the very end of the film and during the credits, making it more apparent in my opinion that evil has most definitely one in this story, especially when it's juxtaposed with that last shot of Damien smiling and that passage from the Bible. Like I said, you often hear the distant chants of that black mass throughout the film, be it very loudly and in a way that emphasizes the idea of evil overriding good, which is many scenes like the lead-up to Father Brennan's death, the dog attack in the cemetery, and Mrs. Baylock slowly approaching Kathy before she throws her out the hospital window; starting out low and then rising to a crescendo, like in the lead-up to the opening of the grave of Damien's real mother; or distant but steady, like when the giraffes at the zoo run away from Damien in terror. The creepiest use of it is during the scene where Thorn arrives back home and is stalked by Baylock's dog. It's so quiet that you can just barely hear it but, if you listen closely, you can hear some people chanting, "Antichristo, Antichristo," in tune with the dog's panting, highly suggesting that he's just as evil as everyone else who follows Satan in this film. I really like the music that plays during the climax as it emphasizes the chaos and the desperation of what's going on, with those chants coming in here and there. My favorite part is when Thorn tumbles down the stairs and, as he gets back up, Goldsmith plays the same tune three times in a row, adding more to it in each go-around to get across a sense of quickly mounting menace.

Not all of the movie's music is so dark and foreboding, though. Goldsmith also wrote some very nice, lush and loving music for the scenes of the Thorns' initially happy home life, which starts when Thorn brings baby Damien in to Kathy at the hospital, continues when the couple have a look around their new home in England, and reaches its peak during the scene where they take a walk across a field with their son as the sun sets beautifully in the background. It's really lovely, pleasing to the ear, and is so indicative of how nice their life is now that it makes the horrible turn that it takes later on all the more impactful. Another powerful piece that Goldsmith creates is this really sad theme that you hear when Thorn returns home after Kathy has been placed in the hospital and he goes up to the spot where she feel and he looks over the railing, down to the floor. It's played again during the scene near the end where Thorn carries Damien into the church and prepares to stab him with the daggers and both times, it emphasizes the tragic hell that his life has descended into, especially during that second time where his wife is dead, the police are after him, he's probably going to either die or be locked away as a madman even if he does succeed, and, most affecting of all, he's learned that this child that he did love as his own is the spawn of Satan and he must now kill him in a grisly way. Again, it just makes you feel like God is nowhere to be found here.

Despite its not quite having the same iconic status as some of its peers far as I'm concerned, The Omen is a bonafide classic and is the superior horror film dealing with Satan. It's a classy, well-made, well-written flick with a talented director, a superlative cast headed by a legendary icon of cinema, a slick look that makes good use of a pretty low budget, a nice mystery aspect to it, interesting different ways to look at it, memorable death scenes and sequences, and a truly chilling score by the great Jerry Goldsmith. Some may feel that the movie is too Hollywood for its own good and prefer more confrontational, edgier fare like The Exorcist but in my opinion, this is one of the best examples of how a horror film can have big talent and studio backing thrown it and still be as effective as it possibly can be. I think it's high-time that people reevaluate this film and give it just as much praise as the infinitely more lauded The Exorcist because it also deserves it... and perhaps even more.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I was lucky enough to get an access-all-areas exclusive interview with Damien himself recently. Learn what life is really like for the son of the devil, and so much more.