Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—The Omen (1976) ***½

R, 111 min.
Director: Richard Donner
Writer: David Seltzer
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson

Even during the second Golden Age of Cinema in the 70s the studios often pursued successful trends in the box office. In 1973, Warner Bros. hit it big critically as well as with audiences with their Best Picture Oscar nominated “The Exorcist”. Other studios realized the horror format could contain serious dramatic entries; and in 1976, 20th Century Fox released “The Omen”, the first in a trilogy of films about the Antichrist rising to power to become President of the United States.

“The Omen” is a taught and serious thriller, but I’ll admit that since I first came to know of its story through the Mad Magazine parody of it, “The Ominous”, I have trouble keeping the Mad drawings out of my head when watching it. David Warner’s head bouncing along the pane of glass that holds his ultimate fate always has that goofy Mad artwork expression on it to me.

This doesn’t really diminish the movie too much in my mind though, as it is fairly well made under the direction of Richard Donner before he moved on to “Superman: The Movie”. There are some questionable details, like why do people so freely stop for pictures taken by Warner’s photographer when he has no apparent reason to take them. The priest’s death is also a little overwrought and probably led to the need for the sequels to one up the foretold deaths with more elaborate and unlikely devices.

The thing I notice the most about watching this film today is that there never seems to be any chance for the heroes to triumph since the forces at work are so clearly out of their scope of control. This isn’t a sense you get much from horror movies these days. Even though the format dictates that only a select few will survive any given ordeal, everybody seems to approach any threat with a sense of indestructibility, and then… “Ooops, I guess I was wrong. I have an axe through my head.” In “The Omen”, there’s no sense that Gregory Peck’s character even seems to comprehend what he is up against until the moment when he discovers the 666 birthmark on Damien’s head about five minutes before the end credits roll. At that point, everything is so far gone it all seems futile to the audience. We know how it’s going to end, and that dread is unlike any shock or sudden scare to be found in any modern horror flick.

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