Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Omen: Relying on suspense rather than gore and special effects

The Omen (horror, mystery)
Directed by Richard Donner
Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and Billie Whitelaw

20th Century Fox | 1976 | 111 min | Rated R | Released Oct 07, 2008

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French, Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono

English SDH, English, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

The Film: 4/5

Modern horror movies are very different from films such as The Omen. Released 35 years ago, the movie wasn’t gory and certainly wasn’t a slasher movie. It relied on creating suspense and tension and was in the tradition of Hitchcock. The characters have proper motivations for their actions and we are shown what those motivations are. It justifies some of the difficult choices made by Robert Thorn (Peck) as he learns the truth about his son.

Director Richard Donner’s next movie was Superman, but The Omen, was easily the biggest project of his career at that point. Peck’s involvement proved to be a huge draw and the remainder of the cast was happy to join the project.

The story opens in Rome. Thorn is the American ambassador and his wife, Katherine (Remick), is giving birth in hospital. The doctors tell him that his baby has died, but offer him another baby who lost its mother during the birth. Thorn reluctantly accepts, but hides the fact from his wife. Thorn is made ambassador to Britain and the family relocates to London. Things seem normal until Damien is five years old, when his nanny commits suicide at his birthday party.

Father Brennan, a priest from Rome, pays Thorn a visit. He claims that Thorn must take communion and accept Christ if he is to fight the son of the devil. Thorn dismisses him as a lunatic.

A new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Whitelaw), shows up at the house to take care of Damien, but the Thorns realize that neither of them arranged it. She is allowed to keep the job and tells Damien in private that she’s there to protect him. He smiles. The Thorns take him to church against the wishes of Baylock, but he throws a fit and they abandon the trip. He’s visibly shaking at the thought of entering the church.

Thorn realizes that Damien has never been ill for a single day in his life and considers it odd. Baylock starts to take over the running of the house and allows in a black dog which seems to be another guardian for Damien. Thorn tells her to get rid of it, but she never does.

Nothing has really happened up to this point. Donner gives us clues that there’s something weird about Damien, but it’s all speculation. We don’t actually see him do anything, but things happen to others around him. This is developed when Damien and his mother visit Windsor Safari Park and the animals act scared and run away from the boy. Now both parents are suspicious of Damien.

Father Brennan sees Thorn again and insists that Thorn’s wife will die if he refuses to hear what Brennan has to say. He only wants five minutes. Thorn reluctantly agrees to listen, but Brennan sounds crazy once more, insisting that Damien isn’t human and must die. Thorn still isn’t convinced, but reads about Brennan’s mysterious death in the newspaper the following day. Katherine is convinced that Damien is evil and that he’s not her child.

Brennan claimed before he died that Katherine was pregnant again, and that she would lose the baby and then her own life. When Thorn learns that she is in fact pregnant, he begins to think about everything that Brennan has said. He teams up with a local photographer who has more information about Brennan and the two begin to look into Damien’s origins.

It’s incredible how little action there is throughout the movie. Donner relies on the audience’s imagination and keeps building suspense. There’s very little blood in the story and Damien hardly does anything to suggest that he’s evil. Any problems he causes could be genuine accidents. Baylock is a more sinister character and does take direct action when she thinks that Damien is threatened.

The one thing that doesn’t quite ring true is how quickly Damien’s parents come to consider him evil. The bond between parent and child is usually strong enough for parents to love and forgive their children. Imagine telling any parents that their child is evil or the son of Satan. The likely reaction would be anger and the parents would defend their child against such a crazy accusation. In this instance, both parents come to the same conclusion. Why are they able to see that Damian is evil? Robert does eventually question the logic when he’s ultimately tasked with killing the child, but it seems too late to be authentic.

The journey to uncover the truth sees Thorn visit two other countries as he tries to piece together Damien’s past. We meet some unusual characters along the way and there’s a little more action when he searches for the identity of the child’s real mother.

The story has a resolution of sorts, but The Omen eventually became the first part of a trilogy. The other two movies never matched the suspense of the first and didn’t attract any actors on Peck’s level. Peck was excellent as Thorn and the most interesting part of the story was seeing how he approached the problem.

Video Quality: 3.5/5
The opening shots are weak and lacking in definition. Some shots are intentionally soft, but the movie is grainy and the colors subdued for the most part. Things pick up in the second half when we see more outdoor scenes. It’s hard to pin down the quality because it varies so much. Some shots seem barely above DVD standard, while others border on impressive considering the age of the film. It's obviously as good as it has ever looked, so worth picking up if you are a fan.

Audio Quality: 3.5/5
Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar for best original score and the demonic singing adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. It sounds impressive on the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, as do some of the more subtle sounds such as gravel crunching underfoot. The track is front-heavy and a little quiet, but it does the job. I did watch it at a slightly higher volume level than most movies, but clarity was good once I had the level sorted out.

Special Features: 5/5

With over three hours of special features and three commentary tracks, you can satisfy your curiosity about the movie. It's a comprehensive package. 

Commentary – Three different tracks.

Isolated Score Track (5.1 Dolby Digital)

Richard Donner on The Omen (14:36)

The Omen Revelations: Bonus View with Trivia Track

Introduction by Director Richard Donner from 2006 (1:55)

Deleted Scene: “Dog Attack” (1:26)

666: The Omen Revealed (46:34)

Screenwriter’s Notebook (14:51)

An Appreciation: Wes Craven on The Omen (20:17)

The Omen Legacy (1:41:37)

Curse or Coincidence? (6:19)

Jerry Goldsmith on The Omen Score (17:41)

Theatrical Trailer (2:19)

Still Gallery

The original part of the trilogy remains one of the best horror movies ever made, but it won’t appeal to everyone. The pacing will seem slow by today’s standards and the story relies on suspense, characterization and acting ability, rather than gore and special effects. Well worth seeing if you want to see how the genre has developed over the past four decades.

Overall score 4/5

Click here to see where The Omen ranks among my Top 10 horror movies.

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