Monday, April 25, 2011

The Omen (1976) & Damien: Omen II (1978)

          A massive box-office hit exploiting the post-Exorcist craze for supernatural horror but opting for cartoonish violence over gut-wrenching realism, The Omen is fabulously entertaining nonsense. Producer Harvey Bernhard saw dollar signs when a clergyman acquaintance pondered what might happen if the antichrist emerged in modern times, so Bernhard commissioned a pulpy script by David Seltzer and hired promising director Richard Donner, who had not yet become an A-lister. The story they tell involves American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), who adopts a mysterious infant when his own son is stillborn. The ambassador unwisely hides the truth from everyone, including his wife, Kathy (Lee Remick). But once young Damien (Harvey Stephens) reaches his seventh year, things get messy—people around the child die gruesomely, and a crazed priest tries to convince the ambassador that his “son” is an inhuman beast sired by a jackal.
          The plot crumbles under scrutiny (the antichrist’s bodyguard is a small middle-aged woman?) but the movie’s supernatural deaths are appealingly preposterous. Peck grounds the picture with anguished determination, and Billie Whitelaw is all kinds of creepy as Damien’s nanny. Gangly British actor David Warner adds an enjoyable presence as a doomed photographer, and Leo McKern is memorably kooky as the dude who says Damien’s gotta die. The real knockout element is Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score, which uses eerie chants like “Ave Satani!” (Latin for “Hail Satan!”) to infuse scary scenes with palpable menace. All in all, The Omen is fun stuff.
          The picture’s first sequel, Damien: Omen II, actually makes more sense from a narrative perspective than its predecessor—teenaged Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) accepts his destiny while being raised by his uncle (William Holden), a corporate giant whose empire the antichrist stands to inherit. However, Damien is less exciting and far less novel than the previous picture. Having said that, the perfectly cast Scott-Taylor is quite disturbing as he grows more and more comfortable in his unholy skin, plus Holden is always watchable, and the death scene involving an icy lake is memorably frightening.
          The original Omen series concluded with The Final Conflict (1981), a grim installment featuring Sam Neill as grown-up Damien trying to prevent the Second Coming, although a quasi-related telefilm called Omen IV: The Awakening followed ten years later, and the original film was pointlessly remade in 2006.

The Omen: GROOVY
Damien: Omen II: FUNKY

No comments: