Thirty years of horror: The Omen (1976)

Chris: From the very beginning of the film, you can visualize the pitch meeting that created The Omen. It feels like the kind of movie created by clueless studio execs who thought the credits rolled on Rosemary’s Baby just when it was getting good, or who felt like what The Exorcist really needed was more quasi-religious mumbo jumbo. Everything about it feels like a derivative idea we’ve seen executed more skillfully before. I was ready to snark this movie up and down the street.

After the jump, the sincerest form of flattery

Chris: The thing is, I felt this stupid, goofy movie drawing me in and pulling me along. I felt helpless, because despite all my misgivings, I was unable to stop watching a film that my rational brain was telling me was really rather insipid. I think I actually enjoyed myself. What the hell’s going on here?

What I think might be an explanation is that The Omen is that oddest of all things, a movie where the individual parts are much better than the sum they make up. Those parts make this silliness compulsively watchable. I think that’s a credit to Richard Donner. Until he was handed this project, he’d made his career directing episodic television. Unwittingly, the execs at Fox had picked the perfect director to take over a project that should’ve been doomed from the word go.

Tom: I’m disappointed at how poorly this holds up. I suppose you’re right about the parts, but I can’t think of many of them that work. David Warner is a delight, as always, and his death scene is every bit as gruesome as I remembered it, with a really nifty bit of suspenseful staging that reminds me of the Final Destination movies at their best. But so much of the rest of the movie feels either tedious or silly. The skewered priest? The baboons in the park? That soundtrack? And there’s so much research that happens in The Omen, even though we know all along that, yeah, he’s the spawn of Satan. We’re just hanging out, waiting for the cast to catch up.

Chris: Imagine that you’re Donner here, though. You’re stuck with a script and marketing campaign that’s going to give away the reveal of your movie before anyone ever walks into the theater. You’re stuck with two big name stars, neither of whom is a good fit for the role they’re asked to play. Given the big budget and location shoots, you’ve been set up to fail completely.

What Donner does with The Omen is about the only course available to him to get this Titanic through the icebergs. Rather than focus on the ludicrous, copycat script (the made-up bible verses from Revelation that conformed to English meter were particularly funny), instead he makes his movie one of memorable set pieces. He gives us a marvelously chilling scene with the nanny hanging herself (I thought it was a great detail that her body goes through the glass window). The imagery here is the kind of thing that shocks and frightens. I actually kind of like the buildup to the priest-kabob with the well-placed lightning strikes and chilling winds. He gets every mother in the audience with Lee Remick’s tumble over the balcony. Heck, we even get one episode in mid-season where no one gets killed, but boy are those dogs in the graveyard surly. If he shot his wad here on the David Warner decapitation…well, at least he waited until the last 20 minutes for that.

Donner basically breaks this movie down into little miniature TV episodes then, and does them with the kind of reliable technical flair he’d show throughout his career. He ties each sequence together by keeping us just vaguely interested enough in the ludicrous story arc. In the end, no one really remembers the ridiculous hoops the script makes us jump through. We remember David Warner and plate glass.

Tom: One of the biggest oversights, for me, is that’s there’s no sense for the emotional struggle of a father having to kill his own son. How could the movie have skipped over such a powerful theme? How could it have been absent any sense of tenderness or regret when Gregory Peck comes to his sleeping son’s bed with a pair of scissors to cut the boy’s hair? It doesn’t help that Peck so gruffly harumphes his way through the movie. But I guess the biggest problem with The Omen is that there have been so many “evil kid” movies since then, done so much better, such as Joshua and Orphan. Oddly, Vera Farmiga is in both.

Chris: Yeah, the weak script makes bad choices early on that I think make it tough to have an Abraham-Isaac moment at the end. At any rate, I guess for me this works not because of being part of the “evil kid” genre. Instead, you nailed it before — this is our forerunner of Final Destination style movies, and manages to do it’s fate-inspired kills with a bit of panache that’s missing from the more recent examples. This is junk food presented as a movie, the cinematic equivalent of scarfing down a whole bag of Funyuns at once. It’s the Tommy Boy of 1970’s horror films.

Tom: Unsuspecting readers show up to read about The Omen and they find you spewing hate-filled bile about an inspired work of comedic genius like Tommy Boy? What’s next, Hornbostel, a Macgruber diss? For shame.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)