Monday, September 8, 2014

THE OMEN 1976

On the topic of the durability of certain horror films/suspense thrillers, a defining factor for me has always been whether or not the film in question continues to “work” long after its employment of the genre’s raisons dˈêtre (suspense, shocks, twists, surprises) have become well-known and anticipated.

For all its considerable merits, I don’t really regard The Omen as a classic horror film in the vein of say, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) — it’s a tad too silly and market-calculated for that; however, I do consider it a classic “scary movie” in that it skillfully and stylishly makes good on its dominant purpose: to provide audiences with a rollicking good scare.
Gregory Peck as Ambassador Robert Thorn
Lee Remick as Katherine Thorn
David Warner as Keith Jennings
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Harvey Stephens as Damien Thorn
A characteristic of a great many of my favorite horror films, certainly those I consider to be classics, is the sense that they emerge out of a larger social unease or cultural anxiety. That they are able to translate the vulnerability which lies at the core of fear into a narrative that serves as the cathartic expression of of vague, unarticulated unease. The  kind of unnamed dread that can lie just below the surface normalcy of calm. Rosemary’s Baby found its scares in the cultural instability of the 60s; Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the emphasis on postwar conformity and the threat of communism; The Stepford Wives – gender role reevaluation in the wake of feminism. These films understand that merely scaring an audience is to elicit a temporary reaction: a fleeting sensation akin to making them laugh at the unexpected. For a film to inspire real fear, it has to draw upon something infinitely more complex and deep-rooted. Films which understand this basic principle manage to enthrall and engage audiences years after the “spoilers” of their scare gimmicks have become common knowledge.
Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan
A lapsed Catholic about to get the point
Like that other favorite scary movie of mine, The Exorcist, The Omen is one of those rare horror films which rely heavily on shock effects, yet still manages to play fairly well the second and third time around. The over-the-top excesses of The Exorcist benefit significantly from the seriousness of intent and absolute conviction of its filmmakers (both director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty see the film as an earnest  treatise on the mystery of faith). The Omen, on the other hand, in spite of publicity-friendly lip-service paid by self-serious screenwriter David Seltzer and co-creator/religious technical advisor, Robert L. Munger, never convinces that it actually believes in its own pseudo-religious hokum. Rather, it feels like a scare-the-pants-off-America project dreamt up by a sophisticated William Castle (if one can imagine such a being).

Borrowing liberally from all that came before it while inventing a few tricks of its own along the way; The Omen is a skillful cut-and-paste of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Bad Seeddesigned to cash-in on the post-Exorcist interest in the occult, the trend toward increasingly graphic depictions of violence in films, and the universal suspicion that all bratty children are likely the spawn of Satan.
Fans of religious supernatural horror will note that while there are no witches, tannis roots, or yellow cat eyes in attendance, The Omen, for all intents and purposes, narratively begins where Rosemary’s Baby ends: with the birth of the human antichrist into an unsuspecting world.

Through a suspiciously serendipitous coincidence of tragedies, American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck) is granted an orphaned infant born at the very second his emotionally fragile wife, Katherine (Remick), has given birth to a stillborn child. At 6am on the 6th of June, no less.
Displaying a curious lack of concern with paper trails for a politician, loving husband Robert decides to pull a Folgers Crystals switch on his wife and present the bouncing baby boy bundle as their own without telling her (she’s emotionally fragile, y’know), whom they christen Damien, a name even Minnie Castevet might find a tad Satan-y. 
Katherine's escalating belief that Damien wants to kill her might be traced to this haircut
As a still-photo montage illustrates, life is rosy for the Thorn family until Damien turns five, when, it must be assumed, all hell literally breaks loose. At this time I’d say violent death begins to follow little disaffected Damien around like a puppy, but he already has one of those. A rather king-sized, vicious-looking Rottweiler capable of devouring several puppies in one gulp, in fact, courtesy of one Mrs. Baylock (Whitelaw): mysterious replacement nanny and possessor of the least-huggable name in live-in childcare.
The previous nanny, about to give notice
That's Holly Palance, daughter of actor Jack Palance
It takes time, a little persuasion, and a rising body count, but Robert Thorn eventually comes to learn and  believe that his adopted son was indeed born of a jackal, bears the mark of the best (that dreaded 666 area code), and is the living antichrist. Will he be able to avert Armageddon and carry out the requisite ritual execution that will save mankind? Well, two sequels and a remake should give you a clue.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Being raised Catholic and coming from an extravagantly dysfunctional family has given me a leg-up in appreciating horror films which use specious religious scripture as the catalyst for familial turmoil. In fact, newcomers to The Omen, familiar only with its reputation, are often disappointed to discover that director Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), following in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and eventually paving the way for The Shining, has made The Omen just as much a psychological thriller about the emotional and mental disintegration of a family as it is a horror film about the unleashing of the Ultimate Evil. The questionable scenario of a father surreptitiously swapping his newborn child is made credible by the implication that Kathy is in some way emotionally and psychologically unprepared for the truth. The parental, almost caretaker attitude Thorn adapts toward his wife, plus the ease with which he's persuaded to take the orphan child, is an indicator of an underlying stress present within the marriage before the film even begins. 
Kathy: "We're the 'Beautiful People, aren't we?"
A significant part of The Omen's drama concerns itself with the internal erosion of a family deemed to "have it all." Although contemporary audiences may be disappointed by the film's pace and relatively low body count, most appreciate that the film takes the time to establish an atmosphere of normalcy before the introduction of chaos
Although nowhere near as subtle as Rosemary's Baby in casting suspicious events in such a light as to leave open the possibility of their malevolence being merely a manifestation of the fragile mental state of its protagonist; The Omen does manage to wring considerable tension out of Kathy's can't-quite-put-her-finger-on-it unease around her child by effectively refraining from having Damien behave in any manner that can be deemed overtly sinister (not true of the heinous 2006 remake, which had its Damien affect a perpetual evil scowl, which, in a child, only looks like persistent tummy trouble).
For the Thorns, a wealthy political couple with their eye on the Presidency, a child represents the realization of an idealized "perfect" family. And indeed for a time, the three enjoy an idyllic, picture-perfect bonding period. But, rather provocatively, Damien's true nature doesn't manifest itself in the performance of devilish deeds, but in a devoted mother having to confront the disquieting notion that not only is she afraid of her child, but perhaps doesn't even like him. The cracks in the Thorn marriage begin to show, unspoken tensions arise, and the end of the world is harkened by a family being emotionally and mentally being torn apart at the seams
Little Devil
I've always felt that one of the main reasons The Omen doesn't play out as preposterously as it does in summary is because the supernatural horror is kept within human-scale (an early script draft had Remick’s character admitting that her burning desire to have a child was rooted in the politically-motivated desire to project an image of a perfect family). Few horror films today seem to understand that without the firm establishment of the value of something human being placed at risk - that without getting audiences to appreciate what is being put at stake for the characters - no amount of high-tech violence or CGI explicitness is going to make a film genuinely frightening. Gross, repugnant, or gory, perhaps, but not frightening.
I don't do windows
PERFORMANCES
Legitimacy has always been the elusive, snobbish scourge of horror films. Regardless of the quality, attach Joan Collins or American-International Pictures to it and you’ve got yourself the cheapo half of a drive-in double bill; bump up the budget, sign Hitchcock or some arthouse favorite as director, and you’re looking at possible Oscar bait. In the wake of The Exorcist and Jaws, the horror film was riding a crest of mainstream legitimacy, making it possible for a film whose subject might otherwise have been considered best suited to Vincent Price and Beverly Garland, to attract the likes of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
Having to go from no-nonsense pragmatism to possible insanity as a man who slowly comes to believe he must kill his child in order to save mankind, Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) has, arguably, the role in The Omen with the broadest character arc. But as it capitalizes on the same qualities of stolid authority and compassionate strength which typified much of his film work since the 1940s, it's really not much of a stretch for the actor. Still, Peck's innate stability contrasts effectively with the regal fragility of Lee Remick, with whom he shares a tender and believable chemistry. 
The solid, rather old-fashioned performances of Peck and Remick are two of the main reasons why The Omen hasn’t been regulated to that slush pile I reserve for films I still adore but find impossible to take seriously anymore (Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure, The Great Gatsby,Towering Inferno). Both bring maturity, intelligence, and a considerable amount of old-Hollywood gravitas to their largely reactionary, underwritten roles. A quality I'd not fully appreciated until I saw those blank slates Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles in the remake and realized how ludicrous the whole enterprise feels without actors capable of conveying an appropriate emotional maturity.
Yanks Lee Remick and Gregory Peck get solid UK support from Royal Shakespeare Academy alumni David Warner and Billie Whitelaw. Understated and natural, Warner's photojournalist gets my vote as the film's best performance, but Whitelaw (who grappled with Elizabeth Taylor in 1973s chilling Night Watch) can't help but evoke a few unintentional camp laughs in a role that posits her nefarious nanny as the anti-Mary Poppins.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
After the headline-making excesses of The Exorcist, audiences were no longer satisfied with run-of-the-mill violence and death in movies. Fanned by the 70s "disaster film" craze and the escalating depiction of violence on television (I remember 1975s The Legend of Lizzie Borden and 1972s The Night Stalker both being taken to task for their content) America ghoulishly attended certain films in the express hope of being treated to ingeniously gruesome and spectacular deaths.
The Omen became one of the Top 5 boxoffice releases of 1976 in large part due to word-of-mouth over its then-shocking violence and faint-inducing tension. While (mercifully) not on par with even the level of violence you can find in a PG film today, The Omen's talked-about setpieces still manage to pack a punch. In line with what I mentioned earlier, one fully misses the point if it's assumed public reaction was due exclusively to the technical skill and ingenuity of the action sequences themselves; the violence in The Omen (which is surprisingly bloodless) got under people's skin because, in the context of the film, the deaths had the emotional weight of real jeopardy and loss. And Jerry Goldsmith's magnificently ominous score didn't hurt either. 
I saw The Omen on opening night (June 25, 1976) and while I can't vouch for anyone passing out, I can certainly attest to the many screams; the patrons who chose to sit out much of the film in the theater's lobby; and the fact that my sister (who really should have learned her lesson after The Exorcist and The Day of the Locust), at the occurrence of a particularly startling, now-iconic moment, burst into tears and had to be taken to the restroom to compose herself.
Love how the newspaper obligingly supplies a gruesome photograph of the corpse on the front page.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Time, too many parodies, too many awful sequels, my own lapsed Catholicism, and the swiftness with which its plot points became camp pop cultural clichés has softened The Omen a bit for me over the years, but I’m forever grateful that I first to know of The Omen in the most ideal manner possible: through its ad campaign. 
1976 was an amazing year for film. So amazing that all of my attention was taken up with the more high-profile, hype-attendant releases of the day: Hitchcock’s Family Plot, the US/Russian collaboration on The Blue Bird, Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, the remake of King Kong, Dustin Hoffman teaming with Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, and Michael York in the sci-fi adventure, Logan’s Run. This was also the year that saw the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth, nostalgia-based films about both Clark Gable and WC Fields, Fellini’s Casanova, Liv Ullman’s return to Ingmar Bergman with Face to Face after her inauspicious shot at Hollywood stardom, All The President’s Men, and Network. Horror was coming on strong with the release of Carrie, The Sentinel, and Burnt Offerings. And I haven't even brought up the heavily-anticipated features by Altman, Bertolucci, Polanski, and Vincente Minnelli that also came out that year. As I said, 1976 was a particularly amazing year for a film fan. 
My mind and imagination was so wrapped up in these films that (strange as it seems) I had absolutely no foreknowledge of The Omen. So one day I was taking the San Francisco BART train to college school and I was confronted by this massive billboard in the terminal…this completely stark, black sign with white lettering:  “Good Morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world.” That was it! Nothing else. It stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea it was an ad for anything at all...it was just his creepy, eye-catching sign (T-shirts emblazoned with quotes and slogans were popular at this time). In the ensuing weeks, more and more posters began showing up all over San Francisco. Each just as cryptic, just as foreboding: “If something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It may be The Omen,” “You Have Been Warned,” and inevitably,“This is your Final Warning.”
It felt as if an entire month had passed before the signs began to include the 20th-Century-Fox logo in the corner, then eventually, written in blood red, the words, “The Omen,” with what I then thought were bowling ball finger-holes in the ‘”O” which of course I’d later discover were three sixes. 

By the time these teaser ads gave way to graphic art featuring a little boy casting the shadow of some kind of beast, ads divulging the cast (real, honest-to-god Hollywood movie stars!  Not straight-to-Drive-In nobodies!), I was like a fish on the hook. The movie I had known absolutely nothing about beforehand had become the film I HAD to see.
I was too young to remember the groundbreaking "Pray for Rosemary's Baby" ad campaign that launched the film that still remains my #1 favorite horror movie of all time, but I'm grateful that the creative minds behind the marketing of The Omen gave me my own personal 70s version of the experience. Happily, once it was released, The Omen more than lived up to the hype and was quite the goosebumpy thrill-ride I thereafter sought to re-experience time and time again that summer. Indeed, a good deal of the goodwill I currently harbor for this film is due in large part to the pleasant memories I have of being young enough to allow myself to get so thoroughly caught up in the whole groundswell of excitement that accompanied the release of The Omen in 1976.
"On this night, Mr. Thorn, God has given you a son."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

28 comments:

  1. I recall Donner saying in a much later interview that the original script was a pretty full-on horror movie, but he decided that the best thing to do was put a line through all the obvious stuff and film it as though it were a thriller. The publicity department played on the 'curse' that was supposed to have dogged the making of the movie. Donner pointed out that if he had been making a romantic comedy, a few pieces of bad luck during the film making would not have even been noticed.

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    1. I've heard pretty much the same thing. As he demonstrated so beautifully in "Superman," Donner has a real knack for tapping into the (his favorite word) verisimilitude of the genre of the fantastic, and in "The Omen" I think he does a remarkable job of grounding the preposterous in a realism that makes the film work after the "horror" elements have been played out.
      And indeed, as you point out, the making of every film is fraught with accidents, but after "The Exorcist" got so much mileage out of its "The Devil doesn't want this film to be made!" production hysteria, i guess the marketing people behind "The Omen" couldn't help but follow suit. Thank you very much for your comment!

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  2. Fun! I never saw this at the time of release because I was nine years old and terrified of everything, but I recall some high school friends holing up and watching it (while babysitting!) around 1984 and the girls being freaked out and petrified even on square TV and commercials. When I finally got around to seeing it myself I loved it. Lee Remick's incredible eyes have stuck with me ever since (love her scene with the goldfish bowl, though nothing can top her face in the first photo you have of her clutching her son.)

    Like you, these types of religious/satanic movies used to get under my skin tremendously, but now I can watch them with a sense of detachment (which means they'd better be entertaining for other reasons - and this one is, though I confess to liking the second one even more! That one's costar, another Lee, Lee Grant, is a lifetime fave.)

    I feel incredibly old when I see that films of my youth (just this one year!) like The Omen, Carrie and King Kong have been remade, but I know that has happened to previous generations many times over. I just don't have any desire to see them myself (and it sounds like I'm not missing much!)

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      I'm convinced that when it comes to certain horror films, a good deal of their initial impact depends on circumstance. in the case of "The Omen" it helped a great deal that I saw it for the first time with zero knowledge of the plot or premise, thus EVERYTHING came as a major shock. Secondly, as I had just graduated a Catholic high-school, all the religious mumbo-jumbo was still fresh-enough in my psyche to have at least a partial Pavlovian response of dread.
      The special effects were rather top-drawer for 1977, so there was that, and then of course, seeing it with an audience already amped-up in those pre-internet days when people went to movies with little to no foreknowledge of what was in store.
      because of this, like you, I tend to find remakes of films I was exposed to during this time to be weak-weak-weak. maybe that's how it is for everyone who sees films when they're young.

      Although I'm pretty good at suspending my disbelief when I want to, a movie these days has to be pretty special to actually scare me. I'd hate to think that 1999s "Blair Witch Project" was the last time a film scared me, but unless i'm blanking on something, I think it was.

      By the way, I love that you're a lee grant fan and prefer the 2nd installment! You might be the person to check with, but did she really keep that same hairdo she has in "Valley of the Dolls" throughout her career? I think she has it even in "Shampoo"...I can't picture her with anything else!

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    2. LOL at both Poseidon and Ken regarding Lee Grant. Same hairdo for 50 YEARS...also in Defending Your Life in the 90s, and in a recent CBS This Morning interview, she is still rocking that flip and bangs...and Poseidon, YES, one of the unforgettable moments of schlock cinema is the fiery climax of Omen II, as Ms. Grant wails in unrestrained Actor's Studio splendor for "DAAAMMMMIENNNNN!!!"

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    3. What's funny about what you note is that Lee Grant's scream of betrayal is the single strongest image I have of "Omen !!" ...it's practically all I can remember of the film!
      Love Lee Grant. I had a friend who says her psychoanalyst for 12 years is the spitting image of Lee Grant...with that haircut.

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  3. Grant was into the same color and (basically the same) style wig for a looooonng time from the early-'60s on. Barbara Parkins makes mention of it in the VOD extras, but I love it, so I never cared! LOL As the 1960s and early-'70s gave way to less stiff and big styles, she sometimes went with her own (I think!) hair or else they were very real-looking, lighter wigs and "Damien: Omen 2" is one of those times. I cannot wait to get my hands on her recent auto-bio, but I keep forgetting to buy it! I doubt she goes into her hair, but perhaps... In her (Lee's) tribute at my site, I offer evidence of how Bridget Fonda stole Lee's iconic look for part of "Point of No Return!" Ha! There's also a glimpse into Damien:O2 if you're so inclined. Thanks!! :-)

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    1. Reexamining my own stuff on Lee, I already have to retract what I said and say that she has a wig on in Damien also! I think it's around the time of the TV-miniseries Bare Essence that she went with her own hair.

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    2. I just finished her book, I Said Yes to Everything, and it's great. Grant lost so much of her career to the Hollywood Blacklist (she was still being blacklisted into the mid-1960s) that she really had to play catch-up once she was free to work again.

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    3. I remember Fonda's Lee Grant hair in "Point of No Return." Maybe some wig manufacturer or beauty parlor somewhere pays tribute to Ms. Grant and calls that hairdo "The Lee Grant"...someone certainly should. Much like ifyou named a wig "The Jane Wyman", few would have any doubt about what it looked like.

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  4. Ken, what a great essay on one of the most fascinating and enduring classics of modern horror. I love this film genre, from The Bad Seed to The Ninth Gate and even The Devil's Advocate...True, Omen is not an artistic masterpiece like Rosemary's Baby (that is my all-time fave, as you know) but I do find it as good in many ways as The Exorcist. Though it does rely on shock and gore (and does it well), Donner did mount a stylish production with a literate script by David Seltzer (who was a guest lecturer at Northwestern U when I was an undergrad) and great performances by talented "old Hollywood" stalwarts Remick and Peck, and Brit geniuses Whitelaw and Warner, as you've noted.

    For me, the scariest moment is when Lee Remick is trying to escape the hospital, and pulls her blouse over her head, only to encounter the fiendish eyes of Billie Whitelaw!! I still scream every time.

    Must also point out the eerie Gregorian-chant-like score of Jerry Goldsmith, which takes the film to another level of mounting anxiety and terror. That adds so much to the film. In fact, it is the only element that carries over into the schlocky sequels...oh, OK, I kind of like them too, especially Sam Neill as a very hot all-grown-up Damien in The Final Conflict. But the more recent remake of the original with Liev Schreiber (and Rosemary herself Mia Farrow as Mrs. Baylock) was pointless and had no dramatic tension...

    Again, Mr. Anderson, I am so delighted to read your blog. Your film library and mine bear so many similarities, it's always a treat to see what you will want to write about next.
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris!
      You're always so nice in your comments to me. I too have a kind of weakness for the genre, but after so many years of weak knock-offs, I tend to stick with the ones I fell in love with from the 60s and 70s.
      You're so correct in saying that "The Omen" is a stylish production. Something that goes a long way toward giving its scares an added heft. It certainly was a fun film to see with an audience...so many yelps and screams (like that hospital moment. By this point you're really feeling they couldn't do one more thing to poor Lee Remick, and Boom! there's Mrs. Baylock!)
      And yes, Goldsmiths score is like The Exorcist's "Tubular Bells"- contributing as much to the film's effectiveness as a horror film as the actors, script, and direction.
      And as for the sequels, they are indeed schlocky, but I totally get that they are entertaining in their own right. Lee grant in #2, Sam Neill in #3 - each had their pluses! Thanks again Chris! I wonder where our film libraries differ? If you own even one Kung-Fu film...

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  5. I remember being completely freaked out by the scene where David Warner shows Gregory Peck a photograph that appears to foretell his death--in it's way, I thought that scene was even scarier than the actual event.

    But, by far, the scariest scene to me is the one inside the car as it drives through an animal park (do they still have those drive-thru zoo places? I haven't seen one in years) and the apes (chimps?) go bonkers, screeching and jumping on the car, leaving in inhabitants helpless inside. Scary and claustrophobic.

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    1. Hi Deb
      That scene you cite is very like the Scrabble reveal in "Rosemary's baby" in being a scene of visual innocuousness that can be more frightening than the most explicit violence. I remember being really freaked out by that part myself - the way it introduced this suspense element surrounding Warner's character you almost forget about until...
      the first time I saw this iI remember almost leaping out of my seat at the scene where Peck is checking his sleeping son's hair for signs of the "666" birthmark. The reveal was chilling, but Mrs. Baylock appearing out of nowhere really sent me (and the rest of the audience) off!
      That animal compound scene is indeed scary, and although I've never been to one myself, if one is to go by videos submitted to "America's Funniest Home Videos," there must be a lot around. They always feature some creature breaking off an aerial or rear-view mirror. After "the Omen" I'm surprised they didn't all go out of business!

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  6. Ken, thank you for another outstanding piece. You are absolutely one of my favorite film writers, bar none.

    I was five when the movie came out so I had to catch up with it much later. But I do remember having somehow seen the zoo/baboon scene as a small child, then going to an actual drivethru zoo soon after that in the late 1970s and being scared out of my mind!

    The set pieces are extremely memorable in this one, like the "It's all for you, Damien!" hanging, Lee Remick and the tricycle, and the beheading scene too. I really notice the intrusion, as you note, of the desire for more explicit violence to satiate audience desires, and sometimes it feels at-odds with some of the film's more stodgy old-fashioned elements. But in a fascinating way!

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    1. Hi Chris
      I"m very flattered, thank you! And I'm happy you enjoyed this piece.
      I personally would consider one of those drive-thru animal compounds terrifying even at my age, let alone as a child and following having glimpsed that scene (frequently shown on TV during Oscar time or when promoting a broadcast)...well, I would have passed out from fear.
      "The Omen" more than any movie I can recall, seemed to one where people have strong memories of particular scenes.
      I can't say that “The Omen” or “The Exorcist” started the trend, but it seemed soon after that EVERY horror film thereafter worked overtime trying to have at least one watercooler moment setpiece to help build word of mouth. I’ve been present when a couple of (hack) screenwriters were working on a horror film, and if truly seemed as if they tried to come up with the BIG moment stuff first, and then attempted to build a story around them. Maybe that’s why so many modern horror films suck (I’m not sure if I've ever used that word on this blog before, but it came to mind rather naturally in thinking of the state of horror films today…all effects…no brains).
      Thank you very much for sharing your kindertrauma memory and commenting!

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  7. Great piece, Ken.

    As a fellow lapsed Catholic with a fear of nuns, I was always drawn to religious-themed horror and this one made such an impact I can still remember where I was sitting.

    And all hail Percy Rodriguez, the trailer voice-over icon of the 70s: The Omen, The Exorcist, Jaws...

    His voice very nearly made me seat vibrate.

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    1. Hi there, Max
      I appreciate it! Yes, a background in Catholicism and a healthy fear of nuns really helped make movies like "The Omen" all the more chilling.
      And a special thank you for paying tribute to handsome actor Percy Rodriguez, whom I had absolutely no idea was the voice behind those movie trailers! Boy! Talk about putting the fear of God into you!

      Here's a link to the trailer to "The Omen" with Rodriguez's voiceover:
      http://youtu.be/vVK42hD9IaY

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  8. Hi Ken,

    Nice review of this old warhorse. I'm not a big horror fan but this, excepting a few brutal bits, is really more of a suspense thriller. I have vague memories of it coming out but didn't see it in the theatres since it was built up as a horror flick.

    I did catch up with it later because of my liking for Gregory Peck and abiding love of Lee Remick and found it better because of their participation. It's not something I revisit often but compared to the dismal junk that's thrown out there today it almost a masterpiece of its type.

    It must be something about the name Lee because I share the same kind of devotion to both Remick and Grant and that lead me to watch Omen II....which was not a rewarding experience. I still enjoyed Miss Grant though. I recently saw her on TCM speaking to Robert Osborne about her bio, the blacklist and other subjects. I'm not certain but she might have been the guest programmer. And her hairdo is still the same!!! I suppose like Angelica Huston she found a style that suits her and stuck with it. She doesn't seem to be working any longer, I think her last role of note was a wonderful performance as Eric Roberts mother in It's My Party, which is a pity but there's a great deal of work she put out there for us to enjoy.

    Back to the original Omen it was marketed brilliantly. The posters, both the one with the grave Peck and frightened Lee behind the figure of a boy and shadow of a wolf and just the boy and shadow are studies in the simplicity of less is more with just that splash of red for the words The Omen against a black background and a few pithy words. It's an art that seems in short supply nowadays.

    Anxious to see what you'll cast your eyes on next.

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    1. Hello Joel
      I know folks who really love horror films, but I think I really only gravitate to those which crossover a bit into the suspense thriller genre. They seem too rote too me otherwise.
      "The Omen" is really beloved by some, but to most I think it is a pleasant enough "fun" film remembered fondly by those who saw it when they were young.The contributions of Remick and Peck really help to raise it above the norm

      And it seems like there's quite a groundswell of Lee Grant support (and her durable hairdo)in these comment posts!

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  9. Love this piece, Ken.
    I wasn't crazy about 'The Omen' when I first saw it because, as you say, it was so derivative of 'The Exorcist' and 'Rosemary's Baby' but over the years I've come to admire it more, especially for the performances of the two leads.
    I don't think Gregory Peck was ever more moving on screen than in the 'Omen' scene where he learns of his wife's death on the phone. The horror and tragedy of the man's situation at that point is SO powerful as played by Peck.
    You're right to praise the brilliant teaser campaign. I used to love those clever ads often far in advance of an opening. I still remember in the weeks before Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 production debuted there were little, bumper-sticker-sized ads plastered all over Philadelphia that just said, 'The birds is coming!' The bad grammar was part of the fun (and mystery) of the ad. I was only 11 at the time but they sure did tickle and intrigue me.

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    1. Hi Joe
      Very flattered, thank you! Love your thoughts on Peck's reaction to his wife's death in the film. I agree. The effectiveness of so much of what follows hinges on us believing in the devastation that was her loss. I think Donner is a pretty sharp director in gleaning from sometimes simplistic material, ways to emotionally engage the viewer.
      And yes, the golden days of movie promotion. I was 6 at the time and have no memory of the pre-release stuff for "The Birds" but everything I've read about it makes me think it must have been a great deal of fun and generated considerable anticipation. It would have scared the heck out of me.

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  10. Like you, I saw The Omen when it first came out and I still recollect the feeling of shock (throughout the theater) when David Warner was decapitated. (I recently re-saw the film and it's still a nasty scene, even in the CGI age.) That the studio cast 2 major stars in what was basically a schlock-horror flick seems, in hindsight, a precursor of the major status now granted the horror genre. What used to be the low-budget 2nd feature is now big money and stars and major FX.

    Perhaps the other precursing (is that a word? anyway...) element about The Omen - and maybe it began with Rosemary's Baby and/or The Exorcist - is how so much horror today is bound up with Catholicism. It's no longer a matter of people turning into vampires or werewolves (though we still have those); it seems so much horror is about demons and demonic possession and Satan swaggering about the edges of our fragile little existences. I've recently gone through a spate of watching films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Conjuring and The Haunting in Connecticut and Paranormal Activity (that last one is a brilliant and genuinely frightening film, and I recommend it), and they all seem to focus on the devil making us do it. The reason I find this aspect noteworthy is because we're supposed to be living in a secular, non-believing age, where Western Civilisation has shorn off its roots in Christianity and has based itself on science and the here and now. Actual church attendance, particularly through Europe, has fallen off dramatically; and organized religion is thought of as something only for redneck boobs. So why are the sophisticated millenials now so focused on literal devils, or even THE literal Devil? Especially in popular entertainment? It makes me wonder what's going on in what I would call the Western collective unconscious - maybe a variant on the quote about creating an all-powerful deity: if the Devil doesn't exist, we need to invent him.

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    1. Hi GOM
      Although I can't say I'm really a true horror fan, ever since Rosemary's Baby I've been fascinated by the genre's zombie-climbing-out-of-the-grave struggle for legitimacy. As you note, horror films have become very mainstream, but back in the days of Drive-Ins and B movies, The Omen stood out as an A-List example of what usually constituted Grade-Z material.

      So fascinating too, that you bring up the whole Catholicism angle of horror and why it has become such a mainstay today. It's a provocative topic. In a world where real-life, reality-based horrors should be terrifying enough, what makes us clamor for vampires, zombies, and religious superstition to scare us?
      this would make for a fascinating discussion in a film class!
      Thanks, so much for the food for thought!

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  11. I've probably mentioned before, Ken, that when "Rosemary's Baby" was new in theaters I saw it several times in quick succession. Loved it. An absolute masterpiece. For me, "The Exorcist" was a let-down by comparison and I was even less impressed with "The Omen," much as I admired Gregory Peck and was a fan of Lee Remick. I didn't hate "The Omen," just too much schlock and not much going on beneath the surface. Worthwhile horror requires a seriously great director, in my book - "grade A" great - like Hitchcock, Polanski, Park Chan-wook ("Stoker"!).

    I recently watched Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" again (it's making the rounds on one of the premium channels these days). Totally underrated, I think, and thanks again for the recommendation. I've been urging others to take a look at one of Polanski's unsung greats.

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    1. Hello Eve
      I don't recall your telling me that you saw "Rosemary's Baby" so many times in succession when it was released. I certainly can understand it.
      Although I am not sure how conscious I have been of the fact, but I think I have always gone to horror films holding "Rosemary's Baby" as my gold standard. It is always the film others have to beat, and in all honesty, even as much as i enjoy "The Exorcist" and "The Omen", and even "The Stepford Wives," no horror film I've seen measures up to its excellence.
      Like you, I consider it a masterpiece and no one coming to the genre (as yet) seems to respect the genre, material, or audience enough to "get" what Polanski did...tap into what people fear inside...not just through scare tactics.
      I've never seen "Stoker", but I think I'll put it on my Netfix list based on your "grade A" rating.
      Oh, and I'm pleased you enjoyed "The Ghost Writer" as much as I did! I had the opportunity to rewatch it just last month, and I agree...a marvelous film that is quite underrated. Great to hear from you!.

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  12. Another great post, Ken, and one which made me want to sit down and re-watch the movie immediately, which through the happy coincidence of finding it streaming on NetFlix, a long holiday break in the country with very little else to occupy us, and the husband's having actually enjoyed my suggestion of Rosemary's Baby a week ago, we did!

    The Omen was for me what Rosemary's Baby was for you -- the last time I was young (innocent?) enough to have the bejeezus scared out of me in a movie theater. While in hindsight I realize that the poem ("When the Jews return to Zion...") is a load of screenplay claptrap, I totally bought into it as Holy Scripture at the time, backed up as it was by quotations from the book of Revelations (which I now regard as a load of claptrap itself), and it was something as simple as the "prophesy" angle that hooked me.

    Much like the anagram moment in RB, the single most frightening part of The Exorcist was, for me, the tape recording of Regan that revealed she had been speaking Latin -- backwards yet! And like The Exorcist, where the terror for me was wholly dependent upon believing Ellen Burstyn's reactions to the events, it was Peck's dawning belief that fed my own. Never one of my favorite actors, he does, as you point out, bring a whole pile of gravitas and credibility just by showing up.

    Watching the film again reinforced your point about the importance of the set-up -- we have to be invested in these people if we're going to be scared. (It's what directors today seem to ignore in stage farces -- if you don't take the time to create a believable world, we're not gonna go with you when it begins to spin out of control.)

    What struck me most this time around was the score. While I had considered it one of the films greatest assets in past viewings (and yes I ran out and got some Gregorian chant recordings to alternate with Tubular Bells), I find it now works against the film, in as much as Goldsmith is telegraphing every scare about half a mile before it arrives -- even first time viewers will be tipped off that a (terrific) set piece is about to unfold.

    That said, the set pieces still retain their power -- the beheading (sans CGI) is as effective as ever, even though I'm (gleefully) anticipating it. I then embarked upon the sequel (by myself, alas -- I know when not to press my luck), and wonder why they traded the Rottweiler for the crow(s) -- particularly post-Hitchcock, that's not a well chosen limb for another director to crawl out on.

    Thanks for spurring me (us) to watch it again with your beautifully written post -- and a Happy New Year to you!

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    1. Hi Neely
      So fun (not to mention flattering) that you can be moved to revisit a movie from one of my posts. Thank you!
      That loss of innocence when you can never be fully sucked in by the gibberish premise of a horror film is a sad thing. It's so much fun to be really scared at the movies, I always resent the intrusion of reason that replaced my wide-eyed suspension of disbelief.
      Until you mentioned it, I forgot what a genuine shocker it was in The Exorcist when that tape was played backward. Always amazes me how frequently it is the small stuff that chills us. I wish more directors actually knew that..
      I'm thinking too you might have something there about the musical score. I recall when I first saw the film, the music starting so early gave me time to "brace" myself for something coming. Now I wonder if that is such a good idea. It truly causes you to perk up your ears when you might otherwise find yourself startled by something.
      I haven't seen the sequel in some time, but i laughed at your nifty turn of phrase in relation to the crow and the limb.
      In addition to being a very thoughtful film fan with intriguing observations to share, I really like how you express yourself. It reads like the kind of conversation i love having with a friend after seeing a movie: not much talk about the technical side of things, but lots of talk about how a movie made us feel. Thanks for sharing that, and for your always kind words.
      Happy New Year to you and yours as well!

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