Harvey Spencer Stephens
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
The Omen March 22, 2018
he majority of the Rosemary’s Baby (1968) cash-ins of the 1970s missed the point. That film, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ira Levin and written and directed by Roman Polanski, was arguably the horror smash that it was because it would have worked just as well without its elements of terror. Before ultimately getting suffocated by an overflowing of Satanic effluvium, it was a convincing marital drama – an emotionally limpid character study that thoughtfully depicted the woes of a young marriage and the fears that frequently consume a woman in the midst of her first pregnancy. Because we felt as though we knew its
characters long before things started devolving into the fantastical, part of us felt as though its storyline could exist somewhere in an uncinematized world, which made it all the more frightening.
Subsequent occult-centric features, which undoubtedly tried to best or at least commercially imitate Baby, never quite understood that these ingredients were key. Pictures like The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and Beyond the Door (1974) exemplified the idea that many of these knockoffs thought the reason why the movie they were copying was so popular was because of its pulpier tendencies. This is partially true – the entire giving-birth-to-the-antichrist concept is still excruciatingly scary. But overlooked was a debatably necessary device: deriving multidimensional characters and situations before all the antic shenanigans began. I cannot think of any other reason why Rosemary’s Baby hasn’t stopped haunting audiences since its initial release 50 years ago.
One of the more well-known Baby epigones, The Omen (1976), is almost as good (in terms of procuring terror) as its counterpart and nearly as effective as The Exorcist (1973). But like Mephisto and Beyond, it sacrifices dramatic nuance – and believability in general – for histrionic horror showcases. This does work a lot of the time: the film efficaciously develops a Fulci-reminiscent mephitis of terror and contains a number of excellent horror set pieces.
Missing, though, is the gravitas of Baby and The Exorcist. We grew to care about the characters in those films so much that the scares had weight. In contrast, The Omen is dominated by flash and ambition, making for a phantasmagoria of fear that never quite cuts through the surface.
The casting is all wrong, too. The film stars the 60-year-old Gregory Peck and the 41-year-old Lee Remick as the married couple Robert and Katherine, who, at the beginning of the film, have seemingly become parents for the first time. I suppose we’re meant to incorporate the ages of these actors into our respective interpretations – perhaps this is a second union for both; perhaps this child is a last-ditch effort to save a plateauing coupling. But either way, I was convinced the film might’ve been more efficient if this couple were young and naive, excited about the prospects of becoming parents only to have the situation warp.
We’re made to go along with it – there’s no other option. And there isn’t time to argue, really: the storyline resembles something of a nightmare right off the bat. Unbeknownst to her, Katherine has given birth to a stillborn baby and has also become the focus of a corrupted plot on the part of hospital workers. Knowing that the woman’s baby has just died, they have plotted to switch hers with a recently birthed child nearby, whose mother passed away during childbirth.
Rather unexpectedly, Robert is supportive of this plan when he finds out about it. Katherine can only remember that short period when her child was still alive, and Robert doesn’t have the heart to break the news to her when she wakes up. The swap goes without any consequences, and the next couple years go on without any evident offness. Robert and Katherine name the child Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens), and it’s accepted that he’s theirs.
Then things start to shift around the time he turns 5. A rottweiler, ghostly but aggressive, has begun stalking the premises of the family home. Damien’s nanny publicly hangs herself at the tot’s birthday celebration and is instantaneously replaced by a mysterious figure named Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) who was never invited in the first place. Damien shrieks in terror whenever he’s near a church. Animals scurry away from him whenever he’s so much as a few feet away.
Warnings from Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), a local Catholic priest, and a nosy photographer named Keith (David Warner) start mushrooming – and soon we come to realize that this cherub with the enigmatic origins might not be so innocently precocious after all. Damien might not even be human.
We see the big reveal that Damien is the antichrist coming from a mile away. That’s either because the movie’s been out for four decades and the plot twist is well-known even by people who haven’t seen it. Or because there’s no way a kid could be this sinister without having some connection with that vicious, underground-dwelling coxcomb.
Screenwriter David Seltzer effectually builds the dread and director Richard Donner knows a thing or two about building macabre atmospherics. And Peck and Remick, despite being ill-fitted for a movie of this caliber, satisfactorily portray people who slowly come to understand that they’re living in a hellacious reality from which they cannot escape.
Yet The Omen is strictly creepy, a couple jolts here and there adding energy to the ominous hoopla most of the time. Had the feature taken the Baby route, emphasizing the characters more than the scares, we’d possibly be in the presence of a masterpiece. But all it turns out to be is a well-made knockoff that gets away with a lot of its inferiority because of how competently produced and acted it is. That works – sort of. B-