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Dissecting the Classics – The Omen

June 8, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Omen

Wide Release Date: June 6, 1976 (England)
Directed By: Richard Donner
Written By: David Seltzer
Produced By: Harvey Bernhard
Cinematography By: Gilbert Taylor
Edited By: Stuart Baird
Music By: Jerry Goldsmith
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn
Lee Remick as Catherine Thorn
David Warner as Keith Jennings
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan

What Do We All Know?

The Omen is a supernatural horror film released in the summer of 1976 and is considered one of the best of the era. Released in the zeitgeist of films obsessed with the devil and the occult such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, it combines elements of both to tell the story of a young Antichrist. But it’s also following in the footsteps of Jaws, which proved that horror could have a major presence in the summer season. Like that film, The Omen had a strong marketing campaign with a novelization and sneak previews to create hype for the film’s release.

The film was the fifth highest grossing film of if 1976 (one of the best years ever for quality American cinema) and was also critically successful. Gregory Peck won a Saturn Award for his performance, while Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar for his score. It also proved to be the breakout film for director Richard Donner, who would make an even bigger splash at the box office in 1977 with Superman: The Movie. That a pretty fascinating collection of influences, but is The Omen just a curiosity, or does it hold up as a classic in its own right?

What Went Right?

The Omen is a high-concept film whose basic premise would have almost guaranteed some level of financial success. 20th Century Fox was looking for a solid hit, and a film about the young Antichrist terrorizing his human family was always going to play well in a post-Exorcist climate. But it’s also easy to see how it could have been a reasonably successful film of moderate quality instead of a really good film that made a huge impact. Instead, the film got several exceptional talents who did the most they could with the material, creating a movie that holds up really well. Not every horror movie acquires the acting talents of a screen legend like Gregory Peck, who was good in everything he was ever in and legendary in at least one movie (To Kill a Mockingbird/a>), and he’s great here as well.

The real get for this movie though is Richard Donner. Donner is kind of a fascinating director, someone with an eclectic filmography that includes Superman, The Goonies, Scrooged and the Lethal Weapon franchise among others. He’s a director who isn’t limited by genre and instead makes movies he’s interested in with as much skill as he can. The same verisimilitude he brought to the Superman movies is present in The Omen, though obviously in a totally different tone. But both movies are about the reactions of normal people reacting to something unbelievable and world-changing. How does one respond to a seemingly stable woman hanging herself at a child’s birthday, or a priest telling you that your son is the antichrist, or some old man in Jerusalem explaining the ritual to kill that same child? It’s a chilling, disturbing film.

While The Omen is definitely a horror movie, most of the film is structured as a mystery movie, with Robert Thorn and Keith Jennings uncovering the conspiracy to replace Thorn’s child with Damien, the son of Satan. It’s an interesting take, since the film is upfront with the audience about Damien’s true nature with the audience. I mean, that scene where the priest gets hunted down by supernatural forces? Pretty unambiguous. And yet Thorn in particular is more or less doing everything he can to find someone who will tell him that his son is not the antichrist. In some sense, this makes the movie a discussion about ethics. Just how much proof does one need that a person is a monster for you to justify killing that person? Is there any amount of proof that can justify it? I really respect the movie for being a psychological thriller above all else, even though it has moments of hard R violence, such as the infamous decapitation scene that still holds up pretty well.

But if I had to single out one thing in particular that elevates this movie, it would have to be Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible score. He masterfully switches from ominous and creeping background music to unsettling, almost awe-inspiring notes punctuated by a Latin chorus that is even more terrifying if you know what the words mean. It almost feels like something you should not be hearing, which really sums up the mood of the entire picture. The Omen is so effective at creating a sense of foreboding “This should not exist and you know it!” feelings in the audience, and as somebody who almost stock in religion… that’s a sign of good movie making to me.

What Went Wrong?

Honestly, The Omen doesn’t have any major flaws that stick out to me. While I have previously expressed my thoughts on how harmful this period of time was to certain viewers in the past, I’m going to choose to play nice and not get into that right now. Suffice to say that The Omen is a very strong movie that doesn’t quite reach unassailable territory. Richard Donner made a lot of great movies, several of which have stuck in the popular culture, but he rarely made perfect ones.

And In Summary…

The Omen is, if you’ll excuse the pun, one hell of a good horror movie. It’s well directed, has a solid screenplay and terrific actors to deliver it, a masterful score, and has such a distinct atmosphere. The idea of raising the antichrist is a great concept that would have likely made a good, profitable movie under any circumstances, but The Omen does it so well that it’s hard to imagine another movie surpassing it. While not quite in the same rarified air as Jaws, Alien or The Exorcist, it is without a doubt one of the defining horror movies of the 1970s and holds up excellently today. If you’re a fan of the genre, especially supernatural horror and psychological horror, this isn’t one to miss.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws

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