That look. It’s unmistakeable.
Respected American diplomat Gregory Peck is reeling. His beautiful wife, Lee Remick, has just delivered a baby that “drew breath for a moment. And then breathed no more.” A priest has a potential solution. A mother just died giving birth to a newborn son. Why not adopt him as a replacement?
Peck is adamant. Remick wants a biological child. At the same time, he’s deeply concerned that trying again will kill her.
Then, he is shown this new baby. The priest suggests there’s a family resemblance. He proposes the following: adopt the child, but never acknowledge this to Remick. Pass the boy off as the son she just gave birth to. (She doesn’t know her own child didn’t survive.)
The expression on Peck’s face is full of doubt and guilt. Without saying a word, you know he has a bad feeling about going along with this. But he loves Remick. In the end, he keeps his deep reservations to himself.
He should’ve trusted his instincts.
So begins The Omen, Richard Donner’s creepily preposterous thriller that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Despite its flaws, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed horror films I’ve ever seen.
A few months after secretly adopting Damien, Peck gets a new job as the Ambassador to Great Britain. He is soon hounded by another priest who warns him of the bad deal he made in Italy (he was last stationed in Rome) on June 6 at 6 a.m. shortly after his birth. Peck, understandably, thinks the guy’s a kook and has him escorted from his office. But then media photographer David Warner (what is with his silly haircut?) takes a snap of the priest after he leaves the embassy. Later on in his darkroom, he notices something odd, a mysterious object that appears to be jutting out of the priest’s shoulder blade. It appears again, this time a bit more pronounced in a later photo of the man of God.
At Damien’s 5th birthday party, his young nanny suddenly hangs herself in his honour. Her eventual replacement (the excellent Billie Whitelaw) suddenly shows up unannounced pretending to have been called into action by “the agency” which temporarily satisfies the skeptical Peck & Remick. The guard dog that appeared to telepathically order the young nanny to take one for the team suddenly becomes Damien’s personal bodyguard. (This fucker means business, too. He never sleeps on the job.) Peck’s old reservations quickly resurface. He should’ve heeded that priest’s warnings.
Whitelaw informs the couple one morning that taking their son to church is a bad idea. We soon find out why. (How many clever kids imitated Damien’s freakout successfully, I wonder.) Later on, Remick takes Damien to a local safari where his very presence turns off the giraffes and aggravates a bunch of baboons. Growing ever more concerned, Peck reluctantly agrees to another meeting with that determined priest who immediately afterward gets impaled by a pole, the once mysterious object that photog Warner noticed in his pics of the man.
His journalistic impulses buzzing, Warner soon after gets in touch with Peck. Peck thinks he wants compensation for accidentally breaking his camera. Warner really wants him to see these photos.
Meanwhile, Remick is pregnant again and completely freaking about Damien. (She’s smart enough to realize instinctively that is not her biological son. As Peck notes at one point, the boy never gets sick.) She starts seeing a shrink. Peck learns she’s pretty much done with the whole mothering thing.
Now convinced that Damien is indeed the son of the devil and that he will soon lead an army of demons to conquer the Earth, he teams up with Warner to follow up on what the dead priest told him. (The priest who convinced him to adopt probably wishes he was dead, too. He’s in rough shape when the two visit him.) Warner shows him another photo, this one of the photog looking at his own reflection in a mirror. There’s something else in the shot. An ominous sign.
Watching The Omen again for the first time in more than 20 years, I’m struck by how much of an influence it had on the Final Destination franchise, particularly the use of foreshadowing horrific deaths through unexplained objects mysteriously appearing in photographs. In the film’s most infamous scene, a character gets beheaded by a huge sheet of glass. The set-up for that moment clearly inspired similar ones in the overly gruesome FD series. The Omen, however, makes it work. (Yeah, you can tell the head is fake. It doesn’t make it any less creepy.)
What also stands out for me is the incredible cinematography, especially when it focuses on Gregory Peck’s face.
Peck radiates decency in every scene, never more so than when he expresses serious doubt and anguish about his family crisis. After a man in Apartheid Israel gives him some special knives for the purpose of executing his own son, there’s a great shot set aboard a private jet. Peck, the only passenger, is stone-faced, staring straight ahead with the knives laid out on his lap, clearly uneasy about his mission. He doesn’t blink, he doesn’t move. He knows what he must do but he doesn’t like it. We feel for his dilemma. Peck always says more with his face than he ever does with his dialogue.
Horror films by their very nature are often ugly. Rarely are they allowed to be elegant. Because it’s set in the privileged world of international diplomacy, The Omen is a notable exception. The way that world is depicted in this film, most especially in the first act, nicely captures the rather idyllic tranquility of political immunity, an illusion that will be dramatically shattered. It helps the story that we like this well-to-do couple. Despite his wife’s cheeky hope that he’ll one day run for President, Peck is perfectly happy being as far removed from the electoral firestorms of his home country. But the sly arrival of Damien is one domestic firestorm he can’t escape.
The cinematography is so good in The Omen I even love the transition shots. A car driving Peck up to the front of the US Embassy to an awaiting pack of photogs, all done in one uninterrupted take. A car driving around the curve under the bridge to the family’s new UK mansion. Peck walking towards the anxious priest in the park. Peck walking down that staircase in the Rome estate. Or how about when the camera imitates an elevator as it moves from the second floor of a Catholic hospice in Italy to the first as Peck opens up about his family crisis.
It’s hard to believe lensman Gilbert Taylor didn’t get an Oscar nod for this exquisite work. (My favourite shot: the last scene in the Catholic hospice. The use of intense facial reflections in the window is very effective.) Even the graveyard scene, which was clearly shot on a sound stage, looks great. (Too bad those unhospitable hounds spoil the party. By God, they’re freaky.)
Speaking of the Academy Awards, I hate to say it but Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score (which includes its nominated opening song) left me longing for John Carpenter’s superior Halloween theme. (If you want to hear Goldsmith operating at the top of his game, get the soundtrack to the original Total Recall. I had it on tape for years and am still looking for a CD copy, preferably the expanded deluxe edition.) My bones were decidedly unchilled.
Thankfully, because of a good script and strong performances, the film has enough of an uneasy atmosphere all its own to neatly compensate.
The Omen is by no means a great film. It’s not nearly as scary as Halloween or even the overrated Exorcist (only the scenes involving the war between the old priest & the devil are compelling). And at times, you really have to suspend your disbelief, especially if you’re a non-believer like me.
But watching it today in the unpredictable climate of the 2016 US Presidential campaign, you see disturbing parallels between Damien and Donald Trump. Both are prone to temper tantrums. Both have found sneaky ways to cozy up to the powerful. Both want to be powerful in their own right. And both are a serious threat to the natural order of things.
At the end of The Omen, Damien merely holds hands with power. By November, Trump hopes to attain it all for himself.
Both are disturbing.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, March 29, 2016