The Omen (1976)

*. It’s entirely fitting that the DVD commentary for The Omen with director Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland begins by stressing the importance of landing Gregory Peck. Not that it’s a great performance, but Peck gives the proceedings a necessary gravitas, the “dignity” and classiness that Wes Craven saw as setting The Omen apart. I mean, we’re talking about the kind of guy who answers a telephone by saying “This is he.”
*. How did he end up here? According to Donner his (Peck’s) son had just died and he was desperate to get back to work. Plus he apparently saw something in David Seltzer’s script. Slightly more than was in there, I think, but his faith in the project helped.
*. Seltzer was honest about his motivations. “I did it strictly for the money. I was flat broke.” He follows this admission up, however, with something heartfelt: “I just wish I’d had this kind of success with something I personally found more meaningful.” You have to respect such honesty.
*. Some people think The Omen is a bad movie. It even has an entry in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss. I think this is mistaken. The Omen is trash, but it is, as Pauline Kael once categorized these things, great trash.

*. Like all great pop entertainment it’s terribly derivative (basically being the offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist) but nevertheless has moments that stick in your head. I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten the highlights: the first nanny hanging herself, Damien freaking out on his way to church, the baboons going crazy at the zoo, the priest being impaled by the lightning rod, the skeleton of the jackal in the grave, and of course the beheading of David Warner by a sheet of glass. As Kim Newman put it: “If there were a special Madame Defarge Humanitarian Award for All-Time Best Decapitation, this lingering, slow-motion sequence would get my vote.”

*. That’s actually quite a lot of highlights for one trashy movie. I call it trash because, as critics were quick to point out, the story is nonsense, tricked out with a bunch of humbug, and the whole thing was done on the cheap. A budget of only $2.8 million, which is shockingly low even by the standards of the day. Donner really knew how to stretch a buck. Apparently the ad campaign, which was brilliant, cost more, leading Gene Shalit to opine “When a producer spends as much money on ads and commercials for a movie as he spends on making the movie itself, perhaps audiences have a right to suspect that they are being sucked into seeing a piece of junk.”
*. I say the story is tricked out with humbug because the theology, history, and geography are total nonsense. The name of the town Megiddo, for example, doesn’t derive from Armageddon. It’s the other way around (and Warner’s character also mislocates Megiddo in relation to Jerusalem). And you have to slap your head at Europe being on “the other side of the world” from Bethelehem. But this is the sort of humbug that made critics guffaw at The Da Vinci Code and it didn’t stop people from buying books and movie tickets for that either. It seems to me that if Hitchcock could laugh at people who would tear his movies apart for their implausibilities we have to cut the same slack for popular entertainments that toss scholarship to the wind. Though I’ll admit I did wonder a bit at Seltzer’s claim that he spent three months doing research for the script.
*. It’s curious the way people take things more seriously when they’re put in bad verse. The poem that gets recited here, “When the Jews return to Zion,” is a pastiche of part of the Book of Revelation, but it’s totally invented. Why a snatch of doggerel like this should sound more impressive than actually reciting part of the actual Bible is a bit confusing to me. But I guess it’s the same principle that’s operating in The Wolf Man when we hear “Even a man who is pure in heart.” If it rhymes it must be true.

*. This was the arrival of Richard Donner as a feature director. He’d done a few movies previously, and lot of TV work, and would go on to do Superman and the Lethal Weapon series. All of which earned him one of the shortest entries in David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Mr. Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it’s over yet.” Actually, by the time Thomson wrote that Donner basically was finished. But the judgment I think is fair enough. The only question is how highly you rate being successful vs. being interesting. Personally, I think Donner does a good job here working with the trifecta of difficult directorial challenges: shooting on location, and working with children and animals.
*. The Omen was a very successful movie, spawning several sequels and a reboot. Coming back to it I found it held up pretty well. It’s very silly, but all the big moments are still fun. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is justly celebrated. I’d forgotten how good Billie Whitelaw is. She really takes over as Mrs. Baylock. And Harvey Stephens, who pretty much dropped out of acting after this, defined the role of the demonic tot moving forward, just as the name Damien would henceforward always be associated with the devil and Rottweilers would be commonly viewed as nasty-by-nature dogs (they’re actually not). For a movie to achieve all that on a shoestring is quite an accomplishment. Then ask yourself if you’d rather watch this than any one of the Robert Langdon movies. That’s the difference between great trash and trash. Which leads me to wonder if Hollywood is still any good at producing the former. Not so long ago it was the one thing you could depend on them doing well.

11 thoughts on “The Omen (1976)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    It’s a pretty good trilogy IMHO, the second and third films are thematically linked but dramatically different. It’s a well made and entertaining films that probably reaches people who barely look at horror.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’ll be working through the rest of the franchise the next few days. I agree that 2 and 3 have at least something to recommend them. 4 and the reboot are pretty bad.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        That’s exactly how I see it. II isn’t a straight remake, just a similar formula. And III is a film I’m fond of, even if it makes no sense, it at least propels the story to dizzy heights.

  2. Tom Moody

    In a memorably overwrought essay (even for him) Harlan Ellison describes the glass decapitation scene in second by second detail, as well as the audience’s laughing, nigh-on-orgasmic reaction, concluding that it was “the absolutely lowest point I’ve ever reached in my loathing of my species.” (An Edge in My Voice, Donning edition, March 1985, pp 127-8.) He refers to Donner as “Little Dickie Donner, famed far and wide as the director of the television kiddie show The Banana Splits and a movie about a superhero.”

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I find it hard to believe that Ellison was actually offended by that scene (which really is wonderful). I also find it hard to believe that it would have marked the lowest point in his loathing of the species. I think his loathing went pretty deep!

  3. Tom Moody

    Ellison was a horror writer but pretty much the opposite of a nihilist. He was writing at the peak of the slasher era and was repulsed by the whole concept of “knife-kill movies” (a term he attributed to Mick Garris). You use the term “kills” a lot in your writing, as in good kills or exciting kills — I’m probably with Harlan on whether that’s healthy (and I’m nowhere near as judgmental as he is). I would say death or murder or screen murder. When someone is stabbed in an Argento film there is a horrible finality to it. It feels like a tragedy and not a thrill, even though it’s both. Sorry to go all heavy but “kills” really does bug me.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      The expression “good kills” has become fanspeak for what a lot of these movies are about. In the Final Destination and Saw movies, for example, the producers know that these are their sole reason for being. Indeed, they speak of them as “gags” more than kills and they have an obvious comic-book quality. They also know that if they aren’t well done then they will have failed. I wouldn’t deny that this bespeaks a certain heartlessness and even cruelty, but I find it bothers me less than prolonged scenes of actual torture. Also with the franchises I mentioned there is at least some philosophical point being gestured at about the randomness of fate or the choices you make defining your moral values. Sheer nihilism, of the sort you get in something like Eden Lake, upsets me.

      I don’t know about Ellison’s nihilism, but I think he really did have a strong misanthropic streak, referring back to that loathing of the species you mentioned.

  4. Tom Moody

    It was almost a paradox. He loathed humanity because it wasn’t humane enough (to suit his high standards). Another thing about Harlan was once he made up his mind, he didn’t use half-measures or “on the one hand/on the other hand” reasoning. He did everything in his power to convince you. On the subject of Little Dickie Donner and glass, he took no prisoners. He might backpedal occasionally in a later essay but I’m not aware that he ever recanted about knife-kill movies.
    As for heartlessness, I can’t remember what critic said the problem with Last House on the Left (1972) was scenes that made you sympathize with the killer and/or laugh at the victims. Countless shades and permutations of that impulse have been explored since 1972 and I guess I take it on a case by case basis. When Henry and Otis are making fun of their victims in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I squirmed. In Man Bites Dog, I think the overall point about the co-option and complicity of the film crew justifies some of the brutality (although I saw the R-Rated cut of that movie first, in error, and kind of preferred it).

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Well, I can feel that paradox. I’m often called a cynic, no matter how many times I claim to be an outraged idealist.

      Henry definitely went with a more realistic look to its horror. I thought it was effective but unpleasant. I’ve made notes on Man Bites Dog but haven’t posted them yet. I thought that movie had a lot of humour in it, and actually liked it more the second time around.


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