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The Omen (1976)
~Review by Grawlix (January 2019)
Starting in the late 60s, the Devil was in high demand in Hollywood. Depending on who you ask, show business might be considered his home away from home anyway, but it was then that he became more of a breakout star and The Omen, along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were at the vanguard, carrying the standard ahead of dozens of lesser efforts.
On a dark, gloomy night, a diplomat’s wife miscarries their son. A priest at the hospital offers to swap in a different newborn, whose mother died giving birth, as a means of sparing the wife the grief. In desperation, the diplomat agrees. The couple raises the child as their own, mom blissfully ignorant of the switch, but starting at about five years in, strange things start to happen around the boy. Lethal things. When the diplomat is contacted by a seemingly deranged priest with an ominous warning, he uncovers portents and prophecies that suggest Satan may be his son’s true baby daddy.
I often find myself pleasantly surprised by these classic, big studio horror films. The Exorcist, for instance, still holds up amazingly well after over forty years. Unfortunately, The Omen has aged less gracefully. The raft of satanically themed movies that The Omen helped to usher forward in the 70s clearly fed into what became known as the Satanic Panic of the 80s, in which a few horrific real crimes mixed together with a whole lot of moral hysteria, causing measurable percentages of the population to spend a few years clutching their rosaries while watching for the stars to fall. Ultimately the panic came to nothing, as panics often do, and is mostly remembered as an amusing pop-cultural sideshow by those people who once indulged in such soul endangering activities as playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to Judas Priest. So, too, did biblical prophecy become much more of a mainstream cottage industry thanks to things like the Left Behind book series which, regardless of your opinion of them as literature, at the very least, definitely produced some objectively horrible movies.
A full discussion of these topics, while fascinating, is well beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that watching The Omen in the aftermath of them doesn’t do it any favors. While certain scenes hold up well enough – the vicious Rottweilers, possible avatars of the big D who pop up occasionally to menace the heroes, always produce some welcome tension (though the movie reportedly helped do for the dogs’ reputation what Jaws did for sharks’) – but when characters start spouting pseudo-Biblical prophecies, in poem form no less (One, Two, Freddy’s coming for you…), it can be tough to keep from rolling your eyes.
At other times, The Omen shows its age for more mundane reasons. For most of the first half, before the supernatural plot threads really start kicking in, the movie often plays like the misadventures of a spoiled child and his laughably indolent parents whose idea of hands-on child rearing is barking orders at the nanny. But for the dramatic music and ominous camera angles, it could practically be a reality show pilot.
Another thing that’s worth mentioning, at least in passing, is that, although the boy, Damien, is a prominent fixture in parodies and the pop culture surrounding the film, he’s off screen for a large amount of the running time. At around halfway through, he just about disappears completely until the final reel where he figures into a wild finale that would be exceedingly tough to make in today’s socio-political climate.
Despite the story issues, the movie is remains technically impeccable. The action is well shot and the kills, when they happen, are given just the right amount of dramatic weight, with effects that still look pretty good. Gregory Peck, who plays the diplomat, essentially came out of retirement to star, and the film reaps the benefits of his staid and assured presence.
I can only imagine what it was like to see The Omen on release, before time and modern cynicism robbed it of a lot of its power. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which sounds overly bombastic for the material today, ended up winning him his only Oscar, and the entire package, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, was enough to leave some theatergoers legitimately freaked out. I don’t say this often, but I’m genuinely curious to check out the remake (from 2006) to see how, or if, the story was updated. As it remains today, the original is still a solid movie, it’s just that your mileage may vary with the story.
Oh yeah, and the director went on from this to make Superman two years later, so there’s that.
Final Score: B-
I hate to hold a movie’s age or the generation gap against it, but in The Omen these factors are a little too much to ignore. It has good bones, just a very outmoded fashion sense. Watch it with that in mind.
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