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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Omen

In the wake of the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, there was a short period when A-list horror films were made. The first of these kind of copycat films was The Omen, released in 1976, directed by Richard Donner. The makers of the film confess in the "making of" extras that the film couldn't have been made without the presence of Gregory Peck.

Peck was then an eminence grise of Hollywood, sixty years old and making interesting choices (he would a few years later play a Nazi fugitive in The Boys from Brazil). In this film he was a high-placed diplomat, who is told by a priest in a Roman hospital that his baby has died at birth. Unable to face telling his wife (Lee Remick) the news, the priest offers a deal--another infant, born at the same time, to an indigent mother with no family. Peck takes the child. The time of birth? June 6, at 6 A.M. They will name him Damien.

The Omen has been around now for 40 years and most of us know it, but I had fun remembering the first time I saw it, which must have been on HBO. My friend Bob remembers that he saw it late on night on TV while babysitting, and it gave him a bit of a chill. The film does not have the overall gore of The Exorcist, but instead arrives slowly and stealthily, like the Rottweilers that serve as Satan's guards. A nanny hangs herself at the boy's birthday party. A priest shows up spouting nonsense, so it seems, but gets skewered by a lightning rod trying to get into a church. And then, in a memorably shot scene, when Damien, aided by her Mrs. Danvers-like nanny (Billie Whitelaw), trikes past his mother standing on a table, who falls, along with a goldfish bowl. Something is definitely wrong with Damien.

Peck, who is by now the Ambassador to England, starts to believe the priest, and then is helped by a photojournalist (David Warner), and the third act is a kind of Dan Brown thriller, as they hop from city to city, tracking down who the boy's mother was, interpreting Revelations, and finding other disturbing news. In perhaps the film's most "wow" scene, Warner loses his head to a pane of glass (the devil, it seems, has a sense of humor and we can see the inspiration for The Final Destination films, along with Rube Goldberg). The climax, with Peck wresting Damien away from Whitelaw and then...well, if you haven't seen it, I'll stop there. I will mention the eerie last shot, with Damien with the President of the United States, turning and giving us a sly smile. It made me think what's going to happen on January 20th, and whether Donald Trump has a 666 birthmark under his comb over.

The Omen was a hit, but sequelitis killed the prestige horror picture. I think the last blow was The Amityville Horrror, and then fright films went back to where they belong, to B pictures. But The Omen is a genuinely creepy film. I don't know if Peck and Remick thought they were slumming, but they are stalwarts, and the music by Jerry Goldsmith, full of choirs and church organs, won an Oscar.

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