Monday 9 November 2015

Movie Review: The Omen (1976)

A sophisticated devil-as-child horror thriller, The Omen is a wildly enjoyable romp through evil supernatural territory. A terrific cast and a ridiculously hammy but chillingly effective choral music score help the film on its way to classic status.

On a stormy June 6 night in Rome, American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) faces a familial crisis when his wife gives birth to a son who immediately dies. A priest at the hospital offer a surreptitious solution: another baby boy was born at the same time and his mother died. Robert accepts the switch, and does not tell his wife Katherine (Lee Remick). They name the child Damien. A few years later Robert is appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom and the family relocates to London.

With Damien around five years old, mysterious and violent events start to surround the child. His nanny commits suicide. Her replacement Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) is darkly committed to Damien to the point of disobeying Robert and Katherine's wishes. An evil-looking dog appears at the Thorn estate and Mrs. Baylock insists on retaining the animal as guard dog. Damien suffers a hysterical breakdown near a church. Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) stalks Robert, insisting that he has crucial information about Damien's birth. Diplomatic photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) starts to notice strange shadows on his prints when he takes photos of people around the Thorn family. When more tragic violence strikes, Robert teams up with Keith to investigate Damien's backstory, a horror-filled journey that will take them back to Italy with a brief detour to the ancient Middle East.

Directed by Richard Donner, The Omen arrived after Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) helped to establish the box office credentials of the devil when surrounded by A-list directors and acting talent. The Omen does not disappoint, and thanks to an existential end-of-the-world narrative, is the most horrifying of the three in terms of lingering impact. Damien's story is established early on as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies for the final apocalyptic battle between good and evil, and while Robert Thorn's anguish is personal, the confrontation carries overtones of a much more destructive showdown. The film mixes drama with creeping anticipation, and unleashes short sharp shocks of pure terror at regular intervals.

After a patient build-up to establish the premise, The Omen offers an unrelenting sense of foreboding, made all the more unsettling because a seemingly innocent child is the centre of the storm. The violence is unflinching and often quite shocking, launched with the spectacular nanny hanging in the most unexpected of settings. Anyone who represents a threat against Damien is then fair game, and Donner effectively builds up to a series of calamities that will befall Katherine, Father Brennan, and others. With a sense of helplessness seeping into Robert Thorn's life as tragic but foretold events come to pass, The Omen manages to shock because the worst that can be predicted nevertheless happens despite ample warning, and in the most dreadful way possible.

The film's power is dramatically enhanced by an Academy Award winning Jerry Goldsmith music score that positively drips with demoniacal intent. The main theme song Ave Satani may mangle proper Latin, but the insanely dedicated chants of Ave Satani and Ave Versus Christus curdle the blood, while the lyrics that translate as we drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan!, delivered with grandiose treatment worthy of the most ancient Gothic cathedrals, contribute immeasurably to the film's grim mood.

The lead performances from Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner are functional without necessarily breaking any new ground. It is left to Billie Whitelaw as the literal guardian of evil and Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan to add highly enjoyable and over the top shadings. Whitelaw never had a better screen role, and her tight smile and dark eyes hint at a ferocious will to serve her dark lord. Troughton is tortured as Father Brennan, a man desperately trying to make amends for his role in unleashing hell on earth.

The Omen deliver scares aplenty, and creates an impressively long lasting gloom-laden mood. Damien is here, evil is among us, and the future is uncertain.

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