The Cinefessions crew loves sharing their opinions on films, but not every movie can get the attention it deserves with a full review. Enter the Cinefessions’ Capsule Reviews. These capsule reviews cover five of the most important aspects of a film, which allow the crew to deliver their opinions on any movie clearly, decisively, and with brevity. These are not our full thoughts on any film, just a highlighting of the major pros and/or cons.

The Omen 1976Title: The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Runtime: 111 minutes

This is the second of my ’70s horror film reviews for October this year. I grew up on a healthy dose of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s horror and sci-fi, but like everyone, there are older films I’ve missed. This is one of the films I picked that I hadn’t actually seen before. Look for more ’70s horror reviews from me this month on Cinefessions!

Story & Script
Robert and Katherine Thorn seem to have it all. They are happily married and he is the recently appointed US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want nothing more than to have children together. When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital in Italy who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth. Without telling his wife, he agrees.

After relocating to London, strange events start occurring around their home. Their nanny commits suicide at their son’s birthday party. Their son, Damien, has a complete freak out when they try to go to a church, and then there’s the ominous warnings of a strange priest that their son has something terribly wrong with him. The strange deaths surrounding his son and the other clues lead Robert to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate and he begins looking for a way to combat it.

I wasn’t actually expecting a lot from this. Unlike The Exorcist, this one doesn’t build slowly, and instead goes for shock value throughout with the events surrounding Damien and Robert. They chose to go with a more subtle route where things could be explained as being accidents or the actions of a deranged mind, and that not only helps build up that Robert’s falling into the delusions of a priest, but it works the other way in that it’s really hard to prove that Damien is actually the son of the devil. Wonderfully played here, although a little bit more subtlety would have gone a long way to selling this more.

I went into this cold so I was pleasantly surprised to find Gregory Peck starring. His portrayal of Robert Thorn and his devolving mental state surrounding the events and his son are really the driving force of the film, and raised it far above what I would have thought given the film’s description. Peck is fantastic in this. I was even more amused when some of my sci-fi mainstays showed up as other characters in the film, with David Warner playing a photographer that’s stumbled into more evidence of the goings on. My first experience with Warner was back in Tron, and it’s great seeing him as something a little more normal instead of the over the top villain or complicated Klingon. Patrick Troughton, better known to me as the second actor to play the Doctor in Doctor Who, plays the ominous priest here, and is really convincing in that at least he believes what he’s telling Robert. The one that kind of stands out to me, though, is Billie Whitelaw, who plays the replacement nanny, Mrs. Baylock. She’s equal parts sweet and can turn instantly creepy whenever she needs to, and it works wonderfully.

Richard Donner had only directed TV shows and films before he got the directing gig for The Omen, which really launched his career. He followed this up with Superman, as well as a string of hits through the ’80s. This isn’t his first time directing, though, so a lot of the mistakes you might see from a first time director aren’t present. It doesn’t feel like a made for TV film, either. Donner goes less for horror build up, though, and leans in more for the quick build up and scare throughout the film. It speaks more to what he’d end up directing later with action films, but it works for this and how they chose to tell the story. Downplaying the supernatural elements only helped the film, and he’s credited with taking the film in that direction while still in the script stages, which has made the film stand the test of time quite well.

While this is nowhere near The Exorcist in terms of excellence, it manages to do quite a bit right with not only its storytelling, but the way they chose to cut the film together and the way it was shot. There’s so many things that it does right, but it just fails to be creepy throughout, and instead goes more for the shock horror which is OK, that kind of horror film just doesn’t have quite the same effect long term for me as one that builds up the dread or keeps you on edge throughout. It’s solid and worth a look. The other thing, the score by Jerry Goldsmith, the only one to win him an Oscar, which is a travesty, is amazing and really makes the film work so much more. While a film score can almost be overlooked these days, this one had a huge impact on how The Omen worked.

To be honest, this isn’t one I’ll probably pick up and watch again, even though I enjoyed it. It was terribly predictable, and while I enjoyed most of the acting throughout, they used Damien very little, which makes this film more about Robert’s devolution from a sane man into someone who’s willing to kill his child because a dying priest and a series of nasty events has led him down that path. It’s an interesting prospect, but considering where they went with it in the sequels, he was right. While I enjoyed this, though, it’s not one I’ll pop on regularly. It’s decent, and holds up well, just not my thing. The Exorcist handled faith and religion much better, and it’s not something I go looking for in my horror.

The Verdict
Made more for the quick jump scare than any actual dread or build up, The Omen is interesting in that if you take it for what it is, you have two separate films: one detailing the slow mental breakdown of a well off ambassador whose life has hit a series of terrible events, or one that has his son as the actual spawn of Satan, and all these events are his fault. I liked that they keep it ambiguous throughout and even the parting shot of the film doesn’t really leave you going one way or the other. A solid outing with an amazing score, The Omen works and holds up after almost forty years, just don’t expect the impact to last.