Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1976)
When I first saw “The Omen,” I was eleven years old. It scared the crap out of me. To understand why, I have to share some tedious autobiographical information. My parents gifted me with an odd religious heritage. My father is totally areligious. My mother’s beliefs are mostly Christian with a dash of New Age goofiness. Years later, long after I realized I was agnostic, I discovered I have some Jewish lineage, which I’m oddly proud of. My grandparents, however, were strict Southern Baptists. As a young child, my grandmother filled my head with stories about Revelations, the Apocalypse, the Rapture, and the Antichrist. I was called a heathen, a devil worshiper, and guaranteed eternal damnation in searing hell fire. When I saw “The Omen” as an impressionable young boy, I didn’t seen an occasionally spooky, somewhat silly horror film. I saw a documentary. Keep in that mind, as I discuss why I love this movie.
Robert Thorn’s newborn son has died. Determined not to upset his wife Katherine, the diplomat secretly switches the deceased child for an adopted baby. The couple name the child Damien and raise him as their own. For the first five years of his life, Damien acts like a normal little boy. On his fifth birthday, strange things begin to happen around Damien. A nanny commits suicide. Others die in increasingly violent, unlikely manners. A black rottweiler haunts the Thorn mansion. A seemingly mad priest comes to Robert, speaking of doomsday and demons. Katherine becomes paranoid that her son is not her son. Robert soon discovers they are both right. Damien is the Antichrist, the son of Satan, the boy who will bring about the end of the world.
The Devil was big business in the seventies. When “The Omen” came along, superior films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” had already exploited the public’s twin fascination with and fear of Satan. (Not to mention hordes of cheaper, cruder devil movies.) Instead of possession or Satanic paranoia, “The Omen” focuses on the Antichrist. The Biblical concept of the Antichrist is widely misunderstood and “The Omen” holds a lot of responsibility for that misconception. All the prophecies and foreboding prose “The Omen” attributes to Revelations was entirely invented by the filmmakers. Yet this pseudo-religious chicanery perfectly captured the zeitgeist in 1976. Many felt the world was on the edge of the Armageddon already, that the birth of the Great Beast happening in this age seemed all too plausible. The Catholic Church notably condemned “The Omen,” not for its content, but because of its crass commercialization of religious matters. Which is an accurate description of the film. “The Omen” isn’t interested in the ramifications of faith or belief. Instead, it uses (loosely) Biblical concepts as the building blocks for an effective horror/thriller.
Another reason “The Omen” works is because it’s not too difficult to believe that a little child could secretly be the Antichrist. Small children, those around Damien’s age, haven’t yet developed the psychological tools necessary to feel empathy. There’s very little separating kids from sociopaths. “The Omen” plays into this fear as well. When faced with a church, little Damien goes nuts, scratching and attacking his own mother. Damien’s boundless, youthful energy is paired with a cold apathy about his actions. Such as when the boy stares blankly, indifferent, as his own mother falls from an upstairs banister. The worst part is little Damien doesn’t know about his dreadful heritage or the sway his budding demonic influence holds. It might as well be a game for him. Harvey Stephens’ pitch perfect performance is epitomized by the cute smile he gives in the final frame. The mischievous grin has no knowing, malicious intent behind it which somehow makes the greater connotations even creepier.
Something rarely displayed in Richard Donner’s previous films, but would become common in his future work, is an impressive grasp on tone. From its earliest scenes, “The Omen” feels appropriately ominous. Early scenes of Damien as a baby are almost light, reflecting the joys of early parenthood. Yet a sense of unease slowly creeps into the film. When baboons at a drive-through zoo go nuts and attack a car, the sequence feels genuinely dangerous. As Robert Thorn’s journey uncovers more unavoidable signs of evil, the audience is drawn into a spooky mystery, pulled along with the protagonist. Heavy shadows are frequently employed, especially in the second half, to further a tone of spookiness. Donner sprinkles the film with subliminal religious symbols, such as crosses reflected in flashes of lights or shadowy knife handles. Donner is so determined to make “The Omen” as creepy as possible that it occasionally borders on hokey. Such as a chase through a graveyard, set on a purple-accented graveyard set right out of a Hammer movie.
Ave Satani,” inverts the Catholic mass. The cries of “Hail Satan!” and “Hail the Antichrist!” stands besides proclamations to “drink the blood” and “eat the flesh,” drawing attention to the built-in oddness of Catholic rites. Thus, the music feels genuinely sacrilegious, bringing a power that seems authentically Satanic to the potentially silly material. Goldsmith’s score may very well be what stands between “The Omen” being a classic and being schlock.
Aside from the dynamite score and a general pop culture fever for devils, the gory death scenes is easily the next reason why “The Omen” was so popular. The bloody dispatchments such as these, often operating under a cruel Rube Goldberg logic, where unseen in a mainstream film in 1976. The death scenes successfully straddle the line between theatrically violent and somehow plausible. A priest impaled with a fallen lightning rod or a photographer decapitated by a rogue plane of glass resides just on the other side of possible. A stark sequence of the nanny hanging herself then cuts inside the house, focusing on the shattering glass. The priest’s impalement is built up with thunder, lightning, and wind, before his actual death comes bluntly. David Warner’s decapitation combines slow motion and graphic close-ups. Despite the movie’s reputation for violence, the blood is actually held back on. The constant back-and-forth between an almost documentary-like verisimilitude and operatic mayhem keeps the outrageous deaths grounded in reality while allowing them to hit with maximum impact. It’s horror movie murder done right.
What helped distinguished “The Omen” from other devil-sploitation flicks was the casting of Gregory Peck. An established, respected thespian like Peck lent a movie like “The Omen” a degree of prestige. Peck takes the material entirely seriously, helping to dispel most of the possible absurdity. Robert Thorn begins the film skeptical of the strange theories directed at his son. Slowly, the macabre things happening around him start to pile up. The evidence becomes difficult to deny. Up until very late in the film, Peck plays Thorn as unwilling to commit to murdering his own son. Even when he makes that decision, he struggles with his choice until the end. Peck’s combination of astute authority and relatable humanity is well suited to the part.
A talented supporting cast also helps elevates “The Omen.” My favorite is David Warner, already no stranger to genre work, as the photographer Jennings. Thorn has a personal investment in this mystery. Jennnings, meanwhile, is pursuing the truth more out of a sleuthing sense of fun. How he becomes involved – seeing ominous signs of impending violence in photographs – is one of the more ridiculous elements of the film. Yet Warner’s captivating performance helps the audience overlook this. Nearly stealing the show is Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock, Damien’s demonic nanny. Whitelaw imbues even the smallest, most innocent gestures with a sinister energy. Much like the film itself, the apparent evil is kept just under the surface, so it’s always deniable, until it’s too late. When Whitelaw lets that evil show, with a withering glare, it’s chilling. I also like Patrick Troughton as the unhinged Father Brennan, who also takes the material one hundred percent seriously.
“The Omen” has a downbeat ending. There’s no way it couldn’t. If Damien is slain and the impending Apocalypse prevented, that means a father has stabbed his own son to death. Of course, Robert Thorn fails. An irresistible hook the ending sets up, that the subsequent sequels bailed on, has the little devil child being adopted by the President of the United States. His position of power is secured. Because the devil won in the seventies. That finale is still chilling, a viewer exiting “The Omen” with a creepy cloud hanging over their heads. The film’s brilliant marketing – which asked viewers to consider their own bad luck – extended this, promising that audiences felt creeped out even after they left the theater.