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So, the winners of the 2021 poll of Summer Blockbusters of the Past were Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), and The Omen (1976). These were originally supposed to be reviewed while theaters were shuttered for Covid, but… life happens.
I’ll start with The Omen (1976), a movie I had already addressed here. This is a slick, predominantly good film that has still always frustrated me to a degree (we will not discuss the execrable shot-for-shot utterly pointless remake). It came on the heels of a series of films in which the Devil was making a comeback. In 1968, Old Scratch asked for a bit of sympathy (via the Rolling Stones) and so that year he got his big screen opus, Rosemary’s Baby (the first and best of the lot). This was followed by The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen. The Omen is, overall, a better film than The Exorcist (yes, I said that), with Richard Donner directing at quicksilver speed.
It innovatively plays with all that 70s apocalyptic fear like putty: and who would have thought of portraying the Antichrist as a tyke? Of course, it’s preposterous, and revels in that narrative.
The Omen features excellent character performances, but a dreadful lead in Gregory Peck. The producers originally wanted Charlton Heston for the role of Robert Thorn, but he had just signed up for the godawful all-star Midway (1976). That’s a loss, because his over-the-top acting would have suited The Omen far better than Peck’s wooden snooze-fest work. When Peck learns of the death of his wife (Lee Remick, who is almost as miscast) he exclaims that he wants Damien to die too, but says it so devoid of emotion that it barely registers and is not at all convincing.
With the male lead on life support, that leaves it to the rest of the cast, who fortunately deliver in spades. First up is the inimitable scene-stealing Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan. Troughton, still the best Dr. Who to date (yes, I said that, too), so effortlessly registers wild-eyed crazed desperation that even though we know from the outset he is telling the truth, we don’t blame Ambassador Thorn for his skepticism.
Next up is the recently deceased David Warner as the photographer Jennings, in desperation mode, and he equally excels. He just wants to live. Father Brennan wants to escape damnation. Good luck with that, gentlemen.
Harvey Stevens as Damien doesn’t have to do a damn thing to send chills down the spine. He burns a hole just looking at you from the screen, so that when mommy and daddy are trying to get to the church on time, you know that Hell will hath no fury like Harvey unleashed. Chucky has nothing on Damien.
Leo McKern (amazingly uncredited) as Antichrist expert Bugenhagen is perhaps best known for “Rumpole of the Bailey” and #2 in “The Prisoner” (he was so good in it that he played the part in three episodes). He’s no less authoritative here. Unfortunately, when he tells the ambassador to “have no pity,” we know it will fall on deaf ears (because then we wouldn’t get the awful sequel).
Lastly, there’s Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock, who convinces us of that old adage, “the Devil is a woman.” She is slimy filth incarnate, and leaves an unnerving aftertaste long after the credits. She’s so damned animated, I really was hoping she was going to put Peck out of our misery. Her death leaves a lump in the throat. You almost feel as much heartbreak for her as you did Margaret Hamilton getting melted in Oz. Mia Farrow, wisely, made it a point not to imitate Whitelaw in the remake and delivered a very different, albeit good performance (the only good thing about the remake).
The diverse locations help the film considerably. There are so many, it sometimes feels like it’s going to segue into a James-Bond-goes-to-hell story.
Naturally, The Omen made a gazillion bucks at the box office, which lends credence to the adage that the Devil is indeed the owner of the almighty buck.
Jerry Goldsmith wrote the classic Academy Award winning score, which has ferocious echoes of Bartok and Herrmann, with Gregorian chants thrown in for good measure . He had previously composed the music for Planet Of The Apes (1968) and Patton (1969) and would go on to score Chinatown (1974), Star Trek (1978), Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), and Total Recall (1990), among many others.
The film is also expertly edited by the still active Stuart Baird, who had previously cut for Ken Russell‘s The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), and Lisztomania (1975) and would later edit Valentino (1977), Superman (1978), Outland (1981), Lethal Weapon (1987), Gorillas In the Mist (1988),Casino Royale (2006), and Skyfall (2012).