Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Omen (1976)

Gregory Peck plays American Ambassador Robert Thorn who, while on a trip in Rome (and on June 6 at 6 a.m.), becomes the proud papa of a baby boy – or so he thought. The baby is stillborn, Peck is upset (the mother apparently doesn’t know!), and a Minister offers to switch the dead baby for one that’s perfectly alive (born on June 6 at 6 a.m.), saying “Your wife will be none the wiser!”. Reluctantly, Peck agrees, and so Peck and wife raise this boy as their own, naming him Damien Thorn. But mysterious deaths start occurring when Damien is 5, sending Peck on a journey of discovery and death that leads to the uncovering of a vast conspiracy. You see, some in the church believe that the boy is the son of the devil who has been sent to earth to destroy mankind, and will do anything to make that prophecy in the book of Revelations come true.

Despite some silliness in the premise, The Omen was a huge deal when it came out in 1976. In a time when studios still segregated their releases (big star-powered releases in white areas, blacksploitation in black neighborhoods, sexploitation in gritty, urban centres, and all movies cascading from limited release to wide release only if they were hits), The Omen was one of those few cross-over movies that was so successful, it attracted audiences of all types. Non-white audiences and rural audiences ventured to the rich urban areas to see what all the fuss was about, and as a result The Omen was a huge financial success for its time. Beyond that, Jerry Goldsmith’s score went on to win the Oscar for best original score, and is mostly responsible for all the choral chanting you hear in most scores today (especially in trailer music). As well, and most importantly to me, this is the movie that landed Richard Donner the gig to direct Superman.

Watching The Omen 34 years later, it hasn’t aged terribly well. The movie really picks up steam an hour in (it’s an hour and forty minutes), but I’ll get to that in a bit. First off, as I said before, the premise seems odd. Why would Peck’s character agree to switching his baby for some strange newborn he doesn’t even know the medical history of?? Audiences in 1976 apparently didn’t seem to care. Also, I’ve seen many films where someone is supposed to be some sort of prophesied anti-christ, destined to destroy the world, and then nothing happens beyond a few “accidental” murders here and there immediately around said anti-christ. Nothing on a global scale. Humanity doesn’t suffer, is not enslaved, and is never in any real danger. That’s my problem with these Omen movies. You know, there are four in this series before they remade it. In The Omen II, the kid is a little older, some deaths heppen, and the movie ends. In the The Omen III: The Final Conflict, an up-and-coming Sam Neil plays a grown up Damien Thorn who still doesn’t do much. In The Omen IV: The Awakening, the devil is apparently disappointed with Damien’s performance in the last three movies becaue a new anti-christ is born, this time as a girl. She only lasts one movie, so I don’t think she was terribly successful either.

Aside from all of that, I really liked the second half of this film. That’s when Robert Thorn teams up with this photographer who sees visions in his photos of foreign objects slicing and dicing the subjects in his pictures, foretelling their deaths. There’s a neat impaling death, a cool decapitation, and Damien’s adoptive mother suffers not one, but two very high falls. Damien’s nanny turns out to be some sort of devil worshipper with a really mean dog (whom Peck fights in the final act). Robert and this photographer travel to the Middle east to uncover the truth about Damien, revealing that he is in fact the anti-christ, born under a comet that appeared on the opposite side of the world from where the Star of David appeared (and there’s other stuff about Jews returning to Zion, a Roman empire of sorts building, etc.). Robert, after a lot of coaxing, is then convinced that he must kill his five-year-old son. As you can see from the next three sequels, he doesn’t succeed.

Those final 40 minutes did a good job in setting up an atmosphere of foreboding and really saved this movie for me. Plus, Gregory Peck as the conflicted Robert Thorn is awesome. Just his face and old-world no-nonsense male attitude are cool (nowadays, we have frickin’ Michael Cera and his ilk, representing the wussification of the male in cinema).

The Omen is worth a peak nowadays, if only to glimpse at 70’s era apocalyptic paranoia, coming from a time where people really thought the world was coming to an end (the nuclear arms race, cold war tension, the oil crisis of the 70’s).

3 out of 5.


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