Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Omen (1976)

“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
Till man exists no more.”

…And no, that poem isn’t real, it was made up for the film.

I’m not really what you’d call the most suitable person to review a horror film like this. Yes, I’ve done a few camp Hammers and Universals, but this is the first time I’ve done one which is supposed to scare you witless. But the thing is that I just don’t believe in anything supernatural- I’m the ultimate sceptic. Plus, I’m as atheist as they come- not the Richard Dawkins kind, mind. I just wasn’t brought up to be religious, I live in a fairly secular part of the world, and I’m one of those people who are simply unable to accept the existence of a higher being without actual physical evidence. The upshot of which is that films like this, which are reliant on at least some belief in the Devil and in predestination, just don’t scare me. Now, slasher movies, on the other hand…

None of this means I can’t appreciate when this sort of thing is done well, however, and it’s done brilliantly here. And, although Gregory Peck is always the most straightforwardly decent and heroic of leading men, there’s still a bit of camp horror here in the wonderfully over-the-top deaths of Father Brennan (the wonderful Patrick Troughton, whom we Doctor Who fans know to be a first-rate actor) and Keith (a shockingly young-looking David Warner).Plus, watching the film now, the atmosphere is a little diminished by the sheer retro pleasure that is the extreme 1970’s-ness of it all.

It’s a superbly taut script, with the first few scenes establishing the situation very quickly and economically, and unapologetically giving us a cast with fairly superficial; personalities so that we can focus on the plot. We’re given an image of a supremely successful man, Robert Thorn, United States ambassador to the Court of St James, and his seemingly idyllic family life. It’s only when Father Brennan intrudes into his life for the first time that we begin to get an inkling that his adopted son, Damien, may be something evil.

It’s interesting to ponder on the conceit of a child being evil in the light of the recent novel We Need to Talk about Kevin (recently filmed, of course) by Lionel Shriver. I should emphasise that I haven’t read or seen it yet, but it’s central theme- what if you, as a parent, raise a child who goes on to do something terrible?- seems to be the subtext of this film too, except that the fantasy / pseudo-religious elements help to make it more palatable for the movie-going public. It’s a deeply shocking idea (and redolent of original sin, of course) that a young child could be in some way “evil”. That’s what gives the film its power. That and the pacing.

There are a couple of plot holes, perhaps. Would a mother really not notice that her child had been switched just after birth? And how come the US ambassador to Great Britain has all this free time to go gallivanting all around Italy and Israel? But the whole thing fits together so well that I’m prepared to overlook these little things. The set pieces are superb: the sequence where Father Brennan is pursued by gales and tempests before his grotesque death is probably the highlight, but all the deaths are memorable, and the mutilated monk is a highlight too.

I’m glad I’ve finally seen this film- I’m 34, but today was the first time I’d seen it- as it looms rather too large in popular culture for it to be a film that can go unseen. I can’t say that I was scared, but that’s simply because such things don’t scare me. I enjoyed and appreciated it, at least. And so did Windsor Safari Park, I expect, who must have been delighted with the publicity.

1 comment:

  1. It didn't scare me either - I found it hilarious.