[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
What partly recommends and partly handicaps The Omen, the latest entry in the horror film genre, is its old-fashioned quality. The film develops its tale of the modern-day birth of Satan’s son with a modicum of special effects and supernatural gimcracks, relying instead on tried and true methods of suspense such as not letting you see things too clearly (à la Val Lewton), mining the potential inhabitedness of any given space for its lode of ominousness, and allowing the implicit contrast between ancient horror and present complacency to breed an unsettling tension. On the negative side, the script too often takes tedious refuge in the old cliffhanger device that traditionally slogs up the action in soap operas and mediocre horror films. The paradigmatic example in The Omen occurs when Gregory Peck, inadvertent parent to devilspawn, is visited by a priest who possesses all sorts of crucial information that, we know, ought to be immediately and cogently communicated. But is it? Of course not. Instead the priest incoherently proselytizes Peck, marking himself at once as an irrelevant religious fanatic and getting kicked out of the busy man’s office for his pains. This ploy ensured several more encounters between the two men before Peck ever got the point. I had gotten the point some time ago and simply went away for awhile, to wait out this spurious method of generating suspense by unnecessarily retarding and prolonging narrative development.
The old-fashioned ambience of The Omen owes much to the eminently normal, dependable presence of Gregory Peck as a diplomatic comer (he’s close friends with the President), happily married to Lee Remick. Remick doesn’t get to do much more than be victimized in the film, but I found it nostalgically pleasant to reencounter the unique blend of vulnerability and sexiness that resides in her unusual physiognomy. The ideal quality of their lives is not even marred by the death of a much-wanted child, for Peck, with the connivance of a strangely insistent priest, presents a conveniently orphaned infant to his wife as their own. Five years later, our self-styled “beautiful people” (Peck is now Ambassador to the Court of Saint James) lay on a lavish birthday party for their beloved son Damien. Kids and clowns, news photographers, diplomatic staff, even a pretty English nanny mill about on a green English lawn that fairly radiates propriety and order. The nanny takes a long look at a strangely squat black dog that’s strayed into these protected environs, then goes quietly into the house and ensconces herself on an upstairs ledge with a noose around her neck. She takes time to call out affectionately to her charge, then drops into space. Outré enough behavior in this bastion of normalcy … but as his parents hold him away from the macabre display, Damien’s eyes fall consideringly on the black dog that watches at the edge of the lawn; after awhile, his hand rises from the bottom of the frame and pudgy fingers curl up and down over palm to make a characteristically childish facsimile of a wave.
The discomfiting contrast between those inhumanly expressionless grey-green eyes and the cute gesture, that little-kid greeting to a bestial concentration of malefic darkness at least visually complicit in the nanny’s suicidal performance, generates an authentic frisson. Predictably, this moment heralds the end of normalcy and the advent of satanic revelations and manifestations that are, in the case of The Omen, more fun to watch than read descriptions of. What’s problematic about unambitious, competent, occasionally right-on horror films like this one is the concept of evil or the supernatural that informs them. That zero-at-the-bone shiver produced by Damien’s wave originates in our apprehension of a visual or behavioral incongruity, not in a brush with the supernatural. That’s the rub when it comes to any contemporary film that deals with Evil: it’s practically a truism that we moderns recognize appearances but not absolutes. We’re comfortable with superficial symptoms and signs: coverups, payoffs, sexual wheeling and dealing in high places, the slow erosion of survival. Numbed as we are by the diffusely pervasive action of mundane amorality, how can we, except as a kind of escapism, turn on to the anachronistic polarities of good and evil locked in eternal battle for the soul of man?
What could Damien grown, Damien in politics, do to us that hasn’t been done or threatened? He and his father (unseen in The Omen) persist in rather antiquated forms of malignity: suicide, murder, violent storms, and retributive lightning bolts, and all-too-corporeal hounds of hell that look as if they’d make excellent suburban watchdogs. Aside from being dead giveaways so that even the conventionally obtuse heroes and heroines of the horror film genre finally twig to what game’s afoot, such publicly bad behavior strikes us as sort of silly and juvenile. Our current “villains” haven’t plugged into some timeless source of corruption and chaos, aren’t possessed souls so much as empty accidents of ambition married to mediocrity. The webs they weave are less nexuses of Mephistophelean choice than bureaucratic proliferations of mistaken judgments. Impossible to mark the exact moment of apostasy, because it has become casual and continual, not causal and catastrophic.
The Omen works best when it utilizes the surfaces of everyday existence for reflections of suspense and terror. The black bulk of a growling dog shaping slowly out of a window seat horizon of silhouetted stuffed toys; a community of scarlet-assed baboons, themselves dredging up memories of the Wicked Witch of the West’s minions, suddenly attacking a car in a drive-through zoo—these are evocations of the demonic that inhere in the mundane, like the ominous accumulation of crows on a jungle gym. Hitchcock, and directors as seemingly diverse as Antonioni and Pakula, are past and present masters at composing space in such a way that it takes on a reality and power of its own, falling into unexpected voids or closing in claustrophobically, literally defining or abrogating human identity. In The Omen, director Richard Donner and cinematographer Gil Taylor are clearly trying for similar, if less ambitious, effects. But again, the emphasis is on a supernatural manipulation that is transiently scary or unsettling, not on an epistemological unreliability that threatens the very equilibrium of autonomous identity and perception. God is invisible and impotent, except for a one-shot withering of an apostate’s arm, in The Omen: our intimations of disaster have outstripped anything that a conventional Devil might visit upon us, but we seem to have lost the ability, in art and life, to imaginatively resurrect an image of absolute Good.
Direction: Richard Donner. Screenplay: David Seltzer. Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor. Art direction: Carmen Dillon. Editing: Stuart Baird. Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
The players: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton, Holly Palance, Leo McKern.
© 1976 Kathleen Murphy