Scary Movies: The Omen

Damien’s such a nice little boy

Woohoo, October again, and that means it’s time for the annual Halloween film festival, when I force my kids to watch scary movies! This year the theme is “Creepy Kids,” and we’re starting off with one of the creepiest, Damien, child star of The Omen, from 1976.

I hadn’t seen this movie since high school, but I remembered it as a reasonably scary movie with the production values of the major Hollywood film it was. Let’s see if that judgment holds up.

The Omen starts off with Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck), the US ambassador to Rome, in a hospital where a nurse informs him that the baby his wife has just given birth to has died. He laments that the bad news will kill her as well when she wakens. A creepy priest hovering nearby swoops in and tells him of a baby born that very day whose mother died in childbirth. Perhaps they could swap this replacement baby in, and Robert’s wife need never know? Robert, in his anguish, agrees to this dubious proposition.

Soon they’re back at home with baby Damien, and all seems well. Robert Thorn is reassigned to be the new ambassador to the UK, and his wife, Kathy, is thrilled to move to London. The ambassador’s residence outside the city is large and impressive, and Robert and Kathy enjoy long walks on the grounds. For Damien’s fifth birthday, they throw a huge party with all sorts of important guests. The party is interrupted, however, when Damien’s nanny jumps out a window with a noose around her neck, hanging herself.

A priest comes to the embassy to warn Robert that his son is actually Satan’s child, and he and his wife are in danger. Robert has a guard throw the priest out. Soon, other strange things start happening. A new nanny shows up, and Damien takes to her right away, though it turns out neither Robert nor Kathy hired her, each assuming the other had made the arrangements. On a visit to a church for a funeral, Damien throws such a fit as they near the church building that they have to turn the car around. And what’s the deal with that big black dog that’s started hanging around the house?

When the official photographer at the embassy, Keith, notices some strange things in the photographs he’s developed with Damien in them, he takes his concerns to Robert. Together, Robert and Keith decide to investigate further, only to discover that the priest’s warning of danger was all too real.

The Omen (1976)
Story/Plot/Characters— This is an odd one to rate. Enough care was put into it that it should be a good movie, but despite its polish, it feels empty. A review from the time period I read on Wikipedia holds the key–it points out that 20th Century Fox was trying to replicate the success of Jaws the previous summer with another big budget horror. The studios would soon learn with Star Wars and Close Encounters that SF and adventure were the path to summer blockbusters, not horror. But in any case, The Omen has A-list actors, sharp dialogue, expensive sets, and exotic on-location scenery.

Unfortunately, there is no character development whatsoever. We have no idea what sort of kid Damien is (except generically evil), nor what sort of relationship he has with his parents. We know that Robert comes from a wealthy family but have little idea of his or Kathy’s personality, and their marriage is presented in the most banal way. The movie devolves into little more than fancy set pieces for killing off its characters in elaborate ways, with no more emotional resonance than a slasher film. But if that’s all the studio was going to do with the movie, why’d they go to all the effort and expense? (1.5 points)
Special Effects— This is not a movie heavy on special effects, but when it does use them they are the best that mid-1970s studio money could buy. (1.5 points)
Scariness— Some moderately chilling scenes, though with no interest in the characters, the movie can’t build up any tension. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— A few atmospheric scenes, especially a nice one near the end when Robert and Ketih are in an isolated Italian cemetery trying to find out what really happened to Robert’s actual son. (1 point)
Total=5 points (Okay)

Well, my memories of this movie weren’t totally off, but it was still a disappointment. Far from the worst horror movie I’ve seen, but for all its glitzy production values and top-notch actors (Gregory Peck!), it doesn’t add up to anything particularly interesting or scary.

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