Monday, September 16, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Omen (1976)

Cody helps the Final Girl Film Club check for triple six birthmarks.

"When the Jews return to Zion
And a comet rips the sky
And the Holy Roman Empire rises,
Then You and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
'Til man exists no more."

Before he made audiences believe a man could fly with 1978's Superman, director Richard Donner convinced viewers that the birth of an adorable little boy could signal the end of the world in '76's The Omen.

Inspired by passages and prophecies in the Biblical book of Revelation, the film begins in Rome, Italy at 6am on June 6th (6/6/6), as a man named Robert Thorn arrives at a hospital with heartbreaking news echoing through his thoughts - his wife Katherine went into labor and gave birth to their son, but the baby only "breathed for a moment" before passing away. Katherine doesn't yet know that their baby has died, and Robert fears how she'll take the news. She has always wanted to have a child... so the hospital's chaplain suggests a bit of subterfuge. They have a newborn baby boy in the hospital, born at 6am just like the Thorn child, whose mother died in childbirth. There are no known relatives, it's an orphan. If Robert were to secretly adopt this baby, Katherine need never know that their biological son passed away. To save his wife from heartbreak and grief, Robert goes along with this idea.

Things go very well for the Thorns from then on... for a while. A diplomat, Robert is soon appointed to be the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, with talk that he may have what it takes to be a future President of the United States. Aside from the fact that animals act very strangely around him and that he has a screaming freak-out the first time his parents attempt to take him into a church, their son, who they named Damien, has a rather nice and peaceful childhood, he never even gets sick.

Things at the Thorn household take a horrific turn on Damien's fifth birthday, which is being celebrated in grand style with an extravagant outdoor party... a party that comes to an adrupt end when the mood is killed by Damien's nanny making a spectacle of her suicide. Standing on the roof of the house with a noose around her neck, the nanny calls out to the child, and when she's got everyone's attention, having a yard full of children and adults looking up at her, she speaks her final words with a big smile on her face: "Look at me, Damien! It's all for you!" Then she steps over the edge of the roof, the rope snapping her neck, her corpse smashing a window as it swings backwards. It's a shocking moment, and perhaps the most remembered scene from the film. Her line is definitely the most quoted one.

That event really opens the floodgates of weirdness. The nanny's replacement, who shows up with no forewarning, is an icy, odd woman named Mrs. Baylock, who the Thorns accept into their home despite her air of creepiness. Soon after, Robert begins getting visits from a obsessed, terminally ill, morphine-addled priest, Father Brennan, who claims to have information on Damien's real mother and delivers warnings about the Thorns' adopted son, taking the unpriestly stance that "The child must die."

As freak occurrences and deadly accidents pile up around the Thorns, Robert begins to believe Father Brennan's warnings that Damien is dangerous, evil, may perhaps be the prophesied Antichrist himself, and teams up with a snoopy photographer, whose pictures may contain hints of how the victims of the supernatural force that seems to be surrounding Damien will die, to go on an international search for information on his son's true identity.


Horror has largely been absent from Richard Donner's lengthy career; while he did some genre work on television (episodes of The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt), The Omen is his only film that belongs in the horror section. But with his one feature foray into the genre, he delivered one of its most popular classics.

The Omen is a very creepy film, especially for a viewer who was raised in and around the Christian faith, as I was. Its atmosphere is unnerving, its subject matter is something many people believe is really going to happen. It seems like I was being terrified by people talking up end of the world predictions throughout my childhood, so when I first watched The Omen as a youngster, I did take it as a version of a future truth... and to watch it did disturb me. It felt like something I really shouldn't be watching.

This subject matter doesn't freak me out so much anymore, but the film remains very effective at getting under the viewer's skin and is masterfully put together, from the script by David Seltzer to the wonderful images that Donner and his cinematographer Gilbert Taylor captured to bring the story to life with, to how editor Stuart Baird cut those images together, and the memorable score Jerry Goldsmith composed to put on top of it all.

Donner also assembled a very impressive cast - the legendary Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and Harvey Stephens as the Thorns, David Warner as the photographer Jennings, Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock, Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who) as Father Brennan, and Holly Palance (daughter of Jack) as the suicidal nanny.

Like other films that have dealt with the supernatural, The Omen was plagued by strange events during and after production, including plane crashes, lightning strikes, auto accidents, people involved dying at young ages, and even a bombing... There are some who would say those events were a clear sign of a curse, that there are forces at work that did not approve of this movie being made. But while most viewers take the film at face value and accept that Damien is the Antichrist, which is the approach the film's sequels took, Donner actually had a different explanation in mind.

As far as Richard Donner is concerned, he did not make a movie about the Antichrist. To him, Damien is just a normal little boy who happens to be surrounded by accidents and people who either have evil intentions or have gone mad. It's an interesting thought to have in mind while watching it, and yet the movie presents everything as if there is something supernatural going on, suspicions appear to be confirmed... The idea that we're only seeing things from the point of view of crazy people doesn't really come across in the film itself.

Still, viewers can draw their own conclusions. However they choose to take the events within, The Omen remains an exceptionally well made film that is definitely deserving of its enduring status as a horror classic.

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