Summer of '76: My Memories of 'The Omen' and Why it is Still a Great Horror Movie
NOTE: I'm reblogging a few golden oldies that I wrote when I first joined Steemit, as they were not read by many people as I had hardly any followers. Below is from two years ago:
I remember it clearly. I was in my mid-teens, eating breakfast before school while watching Rona Barrett on Good Morning America. I never missed the Hollywood report by Barrett, the reigning celebrity gossip queen of the 70s. That morning, draped in a campy black cowl and surrounded by lit candles on a darkened set, Rona reported on the scary doings that were happening on the set of an upcoming horror film called The Omen (incidents that are now collectively known as "The Omen Curse.") That morning must have been in late 1975, or perhaps very early 1976, as The Omen wrapped in January of 1976.
I wanted to see the film very badly. I had been too young to see The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby, but now I was old enough, in that Bicentennial summer, to see the last truly great Satanic horror film of the 70s in first release. And when I did go and see it, I -- of course -- loved it. (I always loved horror; even my favorite Star Trek TOS episodes are the ones written by horrormeister Robert Bloch, of Psycho fame.) It was a powerful thing to see The Omen on the big screen in first release, and I thought about it for months afterward.
Then I grew up, and I put The Omen behind me. The 80s came and Freddy, Jason, Chucky, and Michael ruled the big screen. Movies like The Omen were considered old-fashioned, finished. I still remembered it very fondly, but I never really thought I'd see it again. Even with the then-new technology of video tape recording, seeing old movies was relatively hard in the 80s; most video stores only carried newer films.
If you didn't catch an older film when it was broadcast on TV, or weren't willing to shell out for HBO and then pray for one of your favorites to show up, tough luck. For one reason or another, I didn't really revisit The Omen until the age of digital streaming. I recently watched both the original and the (terrible) 2006 remake back-to-back, and fell in love with the original all over again.
To my delight (and relief), The Omen still holds up, 42 years on from that memorable Bicentennial summer. Since then I've done a lot of thinking about what makes The Omen the great classic horror that it undoubtedly is? There are a lot of things you could name, but here are the major reasons I've come up with:
1.) Storyline. It's a cracking tale, expertly paced and told by script writer David Seltzer. As an adult re-watching it, I could see a few plot-holes/demands for suspensions of disbelief that I hadn't seen as a teenage kid, but I realized it hardly matters because the story moves along so well and the acting is so good (more about this later.) For one thing, The Omen is not just a horror film, it's a murder mystery and a conspiracy theory story as well, combining the best traditions of those film genres with the traditions of great horror. From the beginning, we know there's something wrong with little Damien, but the how and why of the strange events surrounding him are shrouded in a mystery that gradually unfolds, tantalizing the viewer. Just one example: when Father Brennan (Patrick Troughtman) visits Ambassador Thorn to tell him the real story of Damien's birth, he shouts at one point:"Its mother was a dog!" But a loud, clashing musical cue deliberately obscures the last word, leaving the viewer to wonder: What the hell did I just hear? Did he say DOG? I'd better keep watching to find out more!
2.) The Story World and Atmosphere. To watch The Omen is to revisit a lost film world in which big-budget movie makers spent their funds on people, instead of on computer graphics. The IMdB entry lists a cast of thirty-seven, but that can't be quite right; where is the credit for the guy who played the creepy clown at the birthday party? Or the arrogant, long-haired rugby player who looks back at the camera after the rugby match? The guy who buys coffee at the roadside stand in Italy? With bit players and extras added in, the real cast must have been well over 100, maybe 200. For The Omen is simply bursting at the seams with priests, nuns, policemen, doctors, nurses, zoo workers, servants, reporters, rugby players, photographers, birthday party guests, Arab villagers, Italian waiters, embassy staffers, drivers--and on and on and on. All of which makes the story world completely believable; it draws the viewer right into the story in a way that many modern films just don't do anymore. As for the atmosphere, it starts from the beginning and never lets up; dark, somber as an empty cathedral, relentlessly dread-inspiring, often paranoid. Note the way the camera lingers in closeup on the creepy birthday clown's face after the first big horror shock, when Damien's nanny hangs herself -- the viewer might well wonder, Why are they showing this creepy clown? Is he in on the conspiracy as well? Or what about that triumphant look from the rugby player, what does that really mean? What about the old nun who hands the infant Damien to Thorn? Anyone in this story world could be one of Satan's minions, dedicated to the survival of the anti-Christ. With little touches like that throughout the film, Director Richard Donner creates a rich stew of creepiness, dread and mistrust that keeps the viewer off-guard and at the edge of their seat to the very end.
3.) The acting. It's solid and dignified. The great star of Golden-Age Hollywood, Gregory Peck, is wholly believable as Robert Thorn, a wealthy, powerful friend of presidents and prime ministers, and a potential president himself. Beautiful Lee Remick is unforgettable as the elegant, fragile, much-younger trophy wife who transitions from being overly protective of Damian to wanting him dead. David Warner is convincing as the hip, obsessed photojournalist. Billie Whitelaw as sinister Mrs. Baylock is creepier than even Damien himself, with his evil little grin. The great British character actor, Leo McKern, does stellar work as Bugenhagen, the archaeologist. They all "sell" the plot so expertly and seriously that there's no sense that you get from some horror films of the actors winking at the camera, as if to say: Yes, I know I am participating in a totally fantastical supernatural plot; I'm just here for the paycheck. Take McKern as Bugenhagen, for instance: his character is really one of the biggest plot holes in the film. Bugenhagen clearly knows all about the Damien conspiracy, so why didn't he try to warn the Thorns from the beginning? But McKern "sells" the character so well that most viewers never stop to ask themselves that question. It's just assumed that there's a solid reason that the archaeologist kept mum for five years, without anyone actually explaining that reason.
4.) The Camerawork (and Editing.) Director of Photography Gilbert Taylor shot films for some of the greatest directors in film history, including Hitchcock and Kubrick. In fact, a year or so after putting The Omen in the can, he accepted a job to direct a little sci-fi movie called. . .Star Wars. His camerawork for The Omen is extraordinary: the hanging nanny scene, the red tricycle scene, the baboon attack, and most of all, the decapitation scene -- all meticulously story-boarded, staged and shot without CGI assistance, and seamlessly edited. Just brilliant.
5.) The Score. The prolific film composer, Jerry Goldsmith, won an Oscar for his score, and it's not tough to see why. The score of The Omen is so memorable and effective, it's almost a character of the film in its own right. It's nightmarish and chilling --- and a great example of how important a film's score can be, especially for horror movies.
6.) Last But Not Least, Direction. Richard Donner (still with us as of this writing) knows his way around horror and suspense. He directed six episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, including the legendary William Shatner segment about a paranoid airplane passenger who freaks out when he sees a monster on the wing of the plane. After graduating to the big screen, Donner helmed some of the most famous and iconic films of the 70s and 80s: the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke. With The Omen, Donner's at the top of his game; the film is so sure-footed, that there is hardly a single frame that feels awkward or forced. It's a solid, complete package, no loose ends or annoying hangnails to mar either the beginning, the middle, or the end.