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Monday, October 20, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 15: The Omen (1976)

Written by David Seltzer
Directed by Richard Donner

Gregory Peck:  Robert Thorn
Lee Remick:  Katherine Thorn
Billie Whitelaw:  Mrs. Blaylock
Harvey Stephens:  Damien
With David Warner as Jennings and Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan

One of the best things about watching two dozen-plus horror movies in alphabetical order is that I get to catch up on some of the influential hits of decades past. Believe it or not, I'd never actually seen The Omen before HubrisWeen 2014 rolled around. I'm glad I saw it because I like to tell myself I'm well-informed about pop culture but really it's a pretty ridiculous movie and for the most part failed to raise any goosebumps, hackles or hairs on the back of my neck.

Much like the same year's God Told Me To, this is a horror movie that knows how awesome it is to start with a bunch of chanting Catholic monks busting out the Latin. A child's form is outlined in red, with his shadow taking the form of an inverted cross (which looks great until you realize that by moving the light source around you could turn the kid from Antichrist to Second Coming). Robert Thorn is being driven to a hospital in Rome while a voiceover skips around in time, informing Thorn that "the child is dead". Thorn says that it's going to kill his wife when they notify her, out of sheer despair, and wonders what he can tell her. The priest says that adoption is always a possibility but Thorn says his wife was invested in having her own child. The priest turns out to have a spare baby that looks more than a little like Thorn, and that nobody has to tell Katherine Thorn anything if they don't want to.

Robert does the wrong thing for a very good reason, and is at least a good and considerate enough person to ask the priest if the substitute infant has any relatives, because he's willing to do just about anything in order to keep his wife's heart from breaking (and he's got to be feeling more than a little stunned and raw himself at this point). The priest says the new baby's mother died at the same time as the Thorn infant that didn't make it, which is a sign from God. Robert adopts the child and brings it to his wife, who was kept secluded in the maternity ward and never informed of any of what's going on.

Time leaps forward three or four years, and Robert Thorn has been appointed the ambassador to Great Britain, which retroactively informs the viewer that he must have been some kind of diplomat when he was in Italy. Their new residence is a massive estate and Katherine's in love with it to the point where Robert Thorn is also won over. They both refer to Robert as a future President, so his posting in England must be a stepping stone on his political career path. And since Robert's former college roommate is the President now, it can be safely assumed that this posting is a way for an old friend to try and help Thorn move forward on that path. Lucky him--my old college roommate Andy helped me move to a new apartment once but never got me appointed to an ambassadorship.

They go for a walk on the vast, forested grounds of the estate and briefly panic when they lose sight of their little boy, Damien; it's one way the movie demonstrates the genuine love that both of the Thorns have for their child. We get a montage of happy times together that terminates at Damien's fifth birthday party, which is being held on the vast front lawns of their estate. The Thorns are influential enough that there are several news photographers at the party (and the guests include military officers in full dress uniforms, which looks pretty incongruous next to the children having fun on carnival rides on the lawn). Oh, and one of those paparazzi? DAVID WARNER, playing vastly against type by not being the Antichrist. But he is a sleazy tabloid photographer named Jennings, so there's that.

Jennings sure as hell has a newsworthy photo soon enough--while the kids are playing on the lawn (in, among other things, a bounce castle with no walls--I cannot imagine the insurance hassle with letting someone on that for even a minute) strange things are afoot. First, a large black dog starts prowling around the edges of the party. Second, the score gets all weird and electro-skronky--I wondered if Goblin had followed the Thorns from Italy or something. Third, Damien's nanny walks out onto a roof ledge and tells the boy "It's all for you!" before hanging herself. The suicide is filmed from a long shot and without slow motion or a massively overdubbed neck break, which makes it nastier for its realism than it would have been if things were overamped. The kids at the party are fascinated and traumatized in equal measure and Jennings makes sure to get plenty of photos.

The next day, Robert Thorn has to walk a gauntlet of paparazzi as he goes to work. He accidentally bumps into Jennings and breaks the man's camera. He apologizes--genuinely, I might add--and offers to reimburse the journalist for the damages. Instead we get to see David Warner's greasiest smile and he tells the ambassador he'll just assume that he's owed a favor now.

Around the same time a priest arrives at Thorn's office to talk to him; the ambassador assumes that it's some kind of charity putting the touch on him. Instead it's a stream of near-gibberish coming from Father Brennan, where he tells Thorn that he must immediately take communion and accept Jesus as his savior in order to defeat Satan. If he doesn't, the priest warns, the Antichrist will kill his family and take control of his considerable wealth. As anyone would do in these circumstances, Thorn calls for security. Brennan, knowing he's about to get thrown out of the building, gets even more desperate but no more clear. He tells Thorn that he was at the hospital when Damien was born (but since it's the first act still, he's vague about what exactly that means). Although when he says "I saw its mother," to Thorn it's probably telling that he calls Damien "it" instead of "him". Thorn decides that he's being blackmailed and the embassy guards haul Brennan out in mid-rant. He says that Damien's mother was a ja(cut off by the guards), by the way. No way that isn't coming in to play later.

Jennings happens to be outside the embassy and snaps a few photos of Brennan as he's being escorted out under guard. Later, when he's developing the shots in his own darkroom he sees a flaw in one of the pictures--a dark shadowy line going through Brennan. Oh, and in the second picture he took. And the third. Whatever it is, it'd have to be affecting three frames of film exactly the same way but positioned slightly differently each time. And that's impossible, isn't it? But it's happening nonetheless.

Back at the Thorn estate, Mrs. Blaylock has shown up. She's from "the agency", a replacement nanny for Damien sent in quietly to avoid all the fuss after the previous nanny's very public suicide. In a blackly funny sequence, both Robert and Katherine find out that they thought the other person hired Mrs. Blaylock--and they find it out seconds after she leaves to see Damien alone. She seems almost hurt by the Thorns' understandable freakout when they ask where exactly she came from, and offers written references if it'll put their minds at ease. Then, after Damien's parents relax and leave, Mrs. Blaylock goes into her charge's bedroom and says "Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee," which is not quite what one expects a nanny to say.

The Thorns are going to a wedding, with Damien dressed in a suit for the occasion. Mrs. Blaylock issued several protests, saying that the child would be bored and wouldn't understand the ceremony, but it seems likely that she has another reason for wanting to keep Damien at home. And the audience gets to see what that is when the Thorns' car comes into sight of the church. Damien gets fixated on the angel statue on top of the building and throws a screaming fit. He refuses to go into the building and the Thorns return home. It's the first time either parent can remember anything like this happening--Damien's never had so much as a cold or an earache before, let alone a full-on panicky breakdown. While they're back home, Robert sees that creepy dog that was skulking around outside. It's sitting outside Damien's door and growling when Thorn walks by. Mrs. Blaylock says that she saw the dog outside and figured it would be a perfect addition to the household. Thorn disagrees and says to get rid of it.

In a creepy interlude, Katherine and Damien go to a drive-through safari park (in England, where I assume most of the African animals would find it cold, damp and irritating). The herbivores flee from Damien's presence while the baboons first flee, and then mob the car in a frenzy. That night, both Robert and Katherine discuss feelings that something is wrong with their son. Katherine thinks that she needs to see a psychiatrist (and Robert chooses to continue keeping her in the dark about what happened the night Damien joined their family).

Father Brennan makes another attempt to contact Robert and he's switched to the hard sell. He says that if Robert doesn't talk with him, Katherine will die (although not at Brennan's hands). He also sweetens the deal by saying that after one meeting, he will leave the Thorn family alone forever. Thorn decides to go ahead with the meeting and gets directions to a place to meet the priest. When he gets there, Brennan starts with a poetry recital about the Antichrist taking power to rule the world and then tells Robert where to go in order to meet a person who can give him a specific weapon that will kill Damien. He also drops another bombshell:  Somehow, he knows that Katherine is pregnant and predicts that Damien will kill his sibling in the womb. The boy will follow that murder up by killing his adoptive mother, then his "father", and inherit the Thorn fortune. He mentions a man named Bugenhagen at Megiddo and wraps things up. Robert tells him never to contact him again and leaves (and there's a fantastic shot of Thorn walking away as a storm brews, leaves blowing over about a quarter mile of space behind him in the frame).

During the storm, lightning hits a tree that Father Brennan is walking by; he runs away as lightning strikes closer and closer. He tries to get inside a nearby church but the door is locked and nobody's inside. When one more bolt hits the lightning rod on top of the church, the metal piece is knocked loose from the roof of the church and falls to the ground, impaling Brennan--watch the totally boss closeups on Patrick Troughton's face in this sequence. There's some great editing in this film.

Back at home with the Thorns; Katherine is frazzled and says she doesn't want to have any more children. Robert says that's all right, and then she surprises him with the news that she's pregnant (and only found out that morning). She needs to have an abortion. At the same time, Robert sees a photo of Father Brennan's body, impaled with the lightning rod, on the cover of a British tabloid (it's the Daily Mail, notorious for being pro-Hitler during the 30s and 40s, and still known as the Daily Heil in the UK today). The gears start turning in his mind--too much weirdness, too many things happening that can't quite be coincidences.

The therapist, discussing Katherine's session with her husband (which seems SUPER UNETHICAL to me), says that she has "fantasies" that Damien is evil and not really her child. The shrink does say that a second child would be a terrible idea at this point and that Robert should agree to the abortion. Robert refuses--he's convinced that the end of Katherine's pregnancy was foretold and he wants to fight the prophecy (and almost certainly convinces the therapist that Katherine isn't the only one in the family who needs to spend some time on the couch). He bails on the therapist and returns home just after another "random" disaster befalls the family. Damien, riding his tricycle in the house, bumped into a table that Katherine was standing on while fussing with a hanging plant. She falls fifteen or twenty feet to a hardwood floor and is horribly injured.

There's more photographers at the hospital; understandably, Robert says nothing to them as he walks past. Katherine's badly hurt and a doctor informs Robert that his wife miscarried as a result of her injuries. When she wakes up in the hospital, the first thing Katherine says to her husband is "Don't let him kill me," which isn't quite what most husbands would expect to hear. When he returns home to a dark and empty house, the dog--which Mrs. Blaylock never did get rid of--growls at him menacingly. He gets a phone call from Jennings, who uses up that favor by having the ambassador meet him for another exposition drop.

Jennings shows Robert several photos that he'd taken and developed himself--ones from Damien's birthday party show odd flaws in the film around the neck of their first nanny and shots of Father Brennan have that flaw running through his body as well. It was as if an occult hand had drawn some kind of premonition of the two doomed peoples' deaths on the film when the photos were taken. Jennings also has photos of Father Brennan's tiny apartment, which was wallpapered over every surface--including the windows--with Bible pages; as an additional protective measure, four dozen crucifixes were hung on the walls. Brennan was keeping tabs on Robert Thorn and kept records of the ambassador's movements with a stalker diary and had a stack of old newspaper clippings that listed various signs and portents, all of which dated back to Damien's birth, which turned out to be at exactly 6:00 AM on June 6, or 6/6 if you prefer.

There are two other pieces of information that Jennings provides--first, Father Brennan had terminal cancer, and it had advanced to the point where the priest was using morphine to control the pain. There was no way the man didn't know he was dying when he contacted Thorn. The second piece of information shows why Jennings was so bent on contacting Robert--he accidentally wound up catching his own face in a mirror in one of the shots in Brennan's apartment, and there's a familiar flaw in the developed photo, a line about an inch under his chin and all the way to the back of his neck...

The two men are in Rome, pursuing an investigation that is complicated by the fire that destroyed the records room in the hospital where Damien was born--in fact, that's where the building-wrecking blaze started. The head priest at the time did survive the conflagration and is in a monastery recovering from his injuries. Incidentally, there's a great visual pun in the hospital-investigation scenes. The continually-advancing open elevator in the background is called a paternoster, named because the cars are similar to a set of rosary beads on a string. This scene also displays Thorn's competence as a diplomat; he speaks perfect Italian and translates for Jennings while they're trying to figure out what's going on. The pair of men put together some "Bible prophecy" stuff that Hal Lindsay and other "experts" spun into multiple best-sellers (predicting the End of All Things is paradoxically a growth industry, even though every single person to do it has been demonstrably wrong).

At the monastery, the priest has a bad case of Harvey Dent face. He hasn't spoken since the fire but laboriously writes the word "Chervet" with a piece of charcoal before dying when Thorn and Jennings show up to question him. It turns out that there's an old Etruscan cemetery named Chervettia about thirty miles from the monastery. Jennings and Thorn set out for it immediately but get there at night. Of course. The film's atmosphere in the ruined old graveyard is ethereal and dreamlike; the crumbly old ruins look great on the screen. Jennings finds a flat stone on the ground covering a grave with the right date and Robert dreads what they're going to find as they pry up the massive slabs of stone. While a POV shot stalks the pair, the mother's grave reveals the skeleton of a jackal (which means Damien was born in some kind of Beastmaster ritual, but to a scavenger rather than a cow). And worse than that, the smaller grave has a tiny human skeleton with a crushed skull. Robert now realizes that his true son did die at birth, but not from medical complications; instead, he was killed in order to make a place for Damien to be adopted.

He doesn't have any time to grieve just yet, because a pack of snarling evil dogs attacks the pair; Jennings helps Robert get off a fence when he slips and spears his arm on an iron post. From the hotel room, Robert calls his wife in the hospital and won't explain exactly what's going on but tells her to leave London and flee to Rome as soon as humanly possible. Katherine believes him, but while she's getting dressed Mrs. Blaylock shows up in her room and pitches her out the window. Robert gets the news of his wife's "suicide" over the phone and is devastated, and when Jennings returns to the hotel room with news of an excavation at Meggido Thorn says that he has to kill his adopted son in order to save the world.

One jump cut later, we're watching the pair of allies talk with an uncredited Leo McKern in the Middle East--he says he was expecting Thorn and wondering if Father Brennan has been killed yet. He lays the last pieces of the puzzle out for Thorn--in order to kill the young Antichrist he has to use a particular set of sacred daggers (which get handed over to Thorn during the speech), and Damien must die on a church altar on consecrated ground. The archaeologist tells Robert that Damien is not a human child, and the proof of this will be a birthmark that looks like three sixes linked at the top. When Thorn finds that on Damien's body it'll be the last piece of proof he should need to do the deed. Thorn says he's bathed his son before and never spotted that mark; the other man says it'll be under the child's hair, then.

Walking away from the dig, Jennings and Thorn talk about their task, and wonder who can kill a child. R throws the bundle away, still not capable of committing such an evil act even if it's to save the world. When Jennings goes to pick up the pack from a building site, the final horror setpiece of the movie happens, and it's a doozy. Thanks to a careless construction worker bumping the parking brake accidentally, a bumpy downward slope and a poorly secured sheet of window glass in the bed of a truck, Jennings exits the film in one of the most unforgettable film deaths of the last half century.

And that's the last straw for Robert Thorn. He picks up the bundle of daggers and returns home to his estate. In a long silent sequence, the hellhound stalks him in his home but Thorn manages to trap it in a staircase under some heavy boards (and the hollow booms when they hit the floor is pretty wonderful). He sneaks into Damien's room and cuts the boy's hair, revealing a 666 birthmark, and well, that's just it. Time for the man who played Atticus Finch, the best dad in all of fiction, to ritualistically murder a child in order to save the world. First he must kill Mrs. Blaylock, who is utterly devoted to her mission (and it turns out that the humble olive fork, symbol of upper-crust cocktail mixing, is Thorn's improvised weapon in this scene).

He drives Damien to a church but blows past a traffic warden sent to monitor the road to the ambassador's estate. The policeman follows him to sacred ground and shoots Thorn just before he's able to sink the first dagger (of seven--this is one thorough ritual!) into Damien. Which is the first time in the movie that a secular authority does the inadvertent will of Satan; all the other bad guys were servants, Catholic priests or demonic familiars. Robert Thorn is laid to rest next to his wife, and the President of the United States steps in as a final favor to one of his best friends, adopting Damien. Who turns around and gives the camera a great big smile at the graveside of his "father", because everything's finally in place.


I wish I could say this one actually scared me, because everyone involved really does bring their A game and the talent in front of the camera is just as skilled as the people working behind it. But it's just so silly. The whole thing plays out like a multi-million dollar A-list adaptation of a Jack Chick tract. Especially when you consider the use of Catholic priests as the main conspiracy to bring the Antichrist to power--they aren't defrocked priests secretly working to serve Hell; they're all still in positions of authority in that church while working in the shadows. It's like the John Birch Society got script approval. It's a filmed slapfight over who has the best way to interpret a life manual for Bronze Age goatherders.

I just can't get scared about Bible prophecy horror movies because I've been hearing about how the world is in its End Times every week since I was five or six years old (NOTE:  Growing up somewhere other than Wheaton, Illinois might have led to me liking the movie more). I've heard that the signs and wonders are upon us and the end of the world will be happening any minute now since the time I could make my own PB&J sandwiches and it just never pans out. As I write this review now, the panic du jour is Ebola in Texas. There's a massive list of things people tell other people to be afraid of because it's the end of the world before that and there will be another one after it just as long if not longer.

And when I'm looking for something to raise my hackles, I guess I need something more realistic. Like a zombie apocalypse, or angry ghosts, or three film students looking for the unknown. If you're less of a feckless heathen, you'll like this one for the story, not just for the undeniable filmmaking skill on display.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Oculus

Yes, I Know:  Orgy of the Dead


  1. Hmm, I've always wanted to see this. Exorcist was the scariest thing I've ever seen. Since I'm not from Wheaton I might give it a try.

  2. If you're not me, you will almost certainly be more affected by THE OMEN than I was. And I hope I was fair to everyone's talents being put to use in this movie--they're all good actors, directors, cinematographers, etc. It just didn't do anything for me and I found it to be silly verging on ridiculous.

  3. I'm hoping for an Exorcist-like experience, obviously. Did you find Exorcist to be silly/ridiculous? If not, then I'll have lower expectations of The Omen.

  4. The only scene in The Exorcist that really does anything for me is the nightmare / vision Father Karras has of his mother descending into hell via the metaphorical subway station entrance. The rest of it is hugely influential and well made, but its shock value has been quite diminished with the passage of time and religious horror isn't my flavor (other than the original "The Wicker Man", which is just brilliant now as it ever was).