Saturday, October 5, 2013

Monster Serial: THE OMEN, 1976

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


There's a moment in THE OMEN where director Richard Donner tips his hand and reveals the film to nothing more than a sophisticated grand guignol contraption. Robert Thorn and his scruffy sidekick Keith Jennings (played by Gregory Peck and David Warner) have had a violent disagreement on how to resolve the film's conflict. Thorn's son isn't merely possessed by "the devil," as was that upstart Regan MacNeil ... he's the very opposite of Christ, evil incarnate and poised to one day cast the world into darkness. Or something. It's all a little esoteric and vague, but dragons are supposed to be involved.

Thorn is presented with just one solution to the problem: Plunge a handful of antique dagger's into the lad's skull. He wouldn't be much of a hero if he accepted this mission with a glad heart, so he throws the daggers into the street and storms off. Jennings runs after the daggers and is decapitated by a pane of glass that slides off the back of an unmanned, rolling truck.

Now, there are a series of circumstances that need to be in place for something like this to happen. The truck must be moving fast enough to propel the glass once stopped, and an obstacle in the road needs to be sturdy enough to halt the movement of a heavy work truck. Before any of that can happen, though, an "accident" needs to take place to set the truck in motion, and this is where the movie fucks up. The vehicle's brake is knocked out of place by an unseen hand, presumably that of a demonic force. And, if demons can take such direct (if unimpressive) action in the world, why not go a step further? Why not take the wheel of the truck and drive like Mr. Magoo through the busy streets of Israel? Surely a few dozen additional casualties wouldn't hurt Satan's feelings.

By this point in the movie, though, logic is worthless. It's not that THE OMEN is a stupid movie, or even that it takes a low view of its audience. The film is simply content to be a sideshow of technical expertise, the kind of movie that runs against the currents of traditional drama. It's a movie where the craftsmen lurking behind the scenes prompt the biggest emotional response. The actors are mostly window dressing, selected more for the personality they bring to the film than anything else.

Peck, doing is best Gregory Peck impersonation, plays a stoic politician on the verge of a big career. At the start of the movie, he's manipulated by a chaplain into adopting an orphaned child after the death of his own in childbirth. His wife leaves the hospital thinking the child is hers, which is no more true than the story Thorn is told.

Through the power of montage, we see the child grow from infant to toddler in a surprisingly unexceptional manner. Shit takes a turn for the worse during his fifth birthday party when his nanny hangs herself in front of the guests. It's the most bloodless kill in the film, but also the most gleefully bananas. The nanny, played by Jack Palance's daughter Holly, announces "It's all for you, Damien!" before leaping out of a window with a noose around her neck.

Not long after, a defrocked priest (played by one-time DOCTOR WHO star Patrick Troughton) visits Thorn at work to warn him of the child's infernal origins. He's soon impaled on the falling spire from a church, which is dislodged by a bolt of lightning during a sudden storm. A tabloid photographer played by Warner snaps photos of the priest before his death, all of which bear shadows that seem to predict his death. Meanwhile, the Thorns replace perky Holly Palance with the significantly less perky Billie Whitelaw, who has a sinister agenda all her own.

More people die before Thorn embraces the truth about his son's creepy family tree. Leo McKern shows up to momentarily steal the show as craggy-faced archeologist Carl Bugenhagen, all of which leads up to Warner's famous death scene. Of course, all of this is fairly meaningless.

THE OMEN is a sly film, but one probably worth less than the sum of its parts. Constructed like an Agatha Christie mystery, the various cast members slowly drop away as a mystery assassin picks them off from the shadows. But, save for the willful ignorance embraced by the main characters, the killer's identity is never really in question. There are a few weak nods to the possibility that Thorn is insane -- that the bizarre series of coincidences that has plagued his family are nothing more than that -- but these implications are never taken seriously.

But I come here to praise the movie, not to bury it. While ROSEMARY'S BABY is sharp satire, and THE EXORCIST is a troubling, even humbling statement about the nature of evil, THE OMEN wants nothing more than to show you a good time. It's a movie less concerned with the question of "Whodunnit?" than with "Howdunnit?" We know Satan is toying with the rapidly dwindling cast of characters. And, after a certain point in the film, there can be no happy ending for Peck's character. Like a cat playing with its prey, the movie constructs a Rube Goldberg Device of special effects tricks to keep us entertained. Peck's name might have received top billing for marketing purposes, but director Richard Donner is the real star of the show.

WALLACE McBRIDE is the editor of The Collinsport Historical Society.

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