Donner: The Omen (1976)
One of the most beautiful and mercurial horror films of the 1970s, The Omen ushered in one of the most consistent and durable horror franchises of the 1970s and 1980s as well. Like most great horror films, its premise is disarmingly simple: an American ambassador to the United Kingdom is forced to contemplate the unthinkable when it turns out that his four-year old son, Damian, may be the Antichrist. Gregory Peck plays the ambassador, Robert Thorn, while Lee Remick plays his wife, Katherine, with most of the action unfolding at their palatial estate in the English countryside, punctuated by occasional visits to and from the Vatican, as well as to the archaeological site of Medigga, where an uncredited Leo McKern provides a biblical, historical and archeological commentary that continues into the opening scenes of the second film. Throughout the 1970s, religious horror was often a refuge from the burgeoning slasher and splatter aesthetics, and The Omen is no exception, with Richard Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer carving out more of a Gothic atmosphere than a horror atmosphere, which partly means adopting a peculiarly European arthouse aesthetic, full of vaselined cameras and contemplative tableaux, with most of the truly violent moments having a kind of photographic sheen and detachment, just as Damian’s horrific identity first manifests itself in and around photographs.
Like any classic Gothic story, then, The Omen is fixated by the decline of aristocratic lineage, since Thorn is not only the ambassador to London, but the heir to millions – his corporate interests become the subject matter of The Omen II – as well as the next major contender for the President of the United States. As a kind of common denominator between British and American notions of aristocracy – a future president housed in a former palace – it’s understandable that he is obsessed with Damian as the single cornerstone of his legacy, especially since his and Katherine’s age seems to suggest that they’re unlikely to have any more children. In fact, the first and most noticeable feature of the film is the presence of Peck and Remick, and their comparative age with respect to Damian, along with the age disparity between them as well, which often tends to align Katherine with Damian more than with Thorn. More on that in a moment, but for here it perhaps suffices to say that there clearly is a parable in place about the decline of a certain Hollywood aristocracy as well, with this heightened Gothic form of horror often feeling like a synecdoche for the kinds of star charisma that defined both Peck and Remick’s careers, but which is somewhat anachronistic within the aesthetic and ethos of disposability that defines the splasher and splatter worldview. Among other things, that means that The Omen is attentive to the gestures, gravitas and lineage of its two lead actors in quite a sustained and poignant way, even if it’s for the sake of finally imploding and discarding them, with a mercilessness that finally exceeds the disposability of even the most callous slasher exercises.
At the same time, there is another narrative of aristocratic decline here that exceeds – in some ways – both the political fortunes of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States and the recession of classical Hollywood for which Remick and Peck seem to stand. In large part, this third – and most powerful – aspect of the film is driven by another staunchly and classically Gothic trope – namely, the spectacle of Catholic ritual, which is here elevated into an object of morbid horror that is nearly as great as that of Damian himself. At one level, that’s evident in the highly stylised, cloistered, confessional tone that descends upon pretty much every space that Donner chooses to film for any length of time, as well as the incursion of crazed Catholic spokespeople in the narrative at critical junctures. For the most part, however, this more exploitative approach is discarded or at least displaced in favour of a bracing new vision of the Vatican’s role within the new economic world order that was coming into existence at this moment in history. For all that the occult, esoteric and apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelation plays a major part in Donner’s artistic vision, it’s increasingly used as a cipher for those economic transformations that can’t be seen, even in revelatory terms – specifically, the ramifications of the Treaty of Rome and foundation of the European Economic Community in 1958, which is here associated with the predicted return of the Roman Empire, in a kind of pre-emptive fusion of Catholic and neoliberal models of imperialism that positions the film as a kind of forerunner of what might be described as the Vatican noir of the 90s. Stretching roughly from The Godfather III to The Devil’s Advocate, this string of films emerged just as The Omen franchise came to a close (at least, until the 2006 remake) and often turned to the lush exoticism of Vatican wealth and power as a way of divining some occult force within the progression of late capitalism itself, forging a new kind of political-economic-apocalyptic potboiler that would arguably culminate with Dan Brown’s series of Vatican thrillers that galvanised the early 2000s.
Despite being set in the 1970s, then, The Omen has quite a millennial sensibility, and one of the most surprising things about the film is the way in which this lush, old-fashioned Gothic exercise gradually reveals itself as an apocalypse of the utmost urgency, to the point where you have to wonder whether Donner and Seltzer deliberately adopted such a historicised approach to make this compressed apocalyptic expectation all the more shocking. At the very least, there’s a disjunction here between the antiquated and the futuristic that increasingly approximates the dissolution of time supposed to precede the end times, just as it increasingly feels as if the last two millennia have somehow been dissolved to position the 1970s back within the original apocalyptic horizon of the earliest Christians, when it didn’t seem like such a big deal to turn against family members, friends or communities, since the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven was likely to occur within the span of a single lifetime. While Fredric Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping is – by virtue of its very metaphor – frequently understood in spatial terms, there is a sense in which this compressed apocalyptism performs something like a cognitive mapping by way of temporality rather than spatiality, as Donner draws upon the language of Gothic literature and apocalyptic expectation to gesture towards how it feels to experience time as the free market starts to come into its own, just as the Middle Eastern archaeological sites that pop up through the film gradually start to feel as if they are excavating the present, or even the future. It’s no coincidence, then, that The Omen II starts with one of these sites, since there is something to be said for how acutely Donner manages to prophecy the rest of the franchise as much as the future itself, which perhaps explains why The Omen also has one of the most teleological and focused trajectories of any 70s or 80s horror franchise serial, a sense of steadily building apocalypse unfolding in real time that must have been amazing to watch and follow at the time.
In that sense, there’s something quite incredible about rewatching The Omen in the light of the subsequent films, and especially the second and third, since while it may not be actually set amongst their deregulated corporate backdrops, it nevertheless sets in place the peculiar sense of time as well as the peculiar atmosphere of dread that comes to define those backdrops. In fact, part of the cinephilic pleasure of The Omen is the way in which it syncs up with the second and third films – which feel like something of a trilogy nested within the wider franchise – whether in the form of a newspaper headline (“Profit is no longer a dirty word”) that looms on the fringe of one of the most critical scenes, or in all the little glimpses and encounters with animals that – in retrospect – form part of the esoteric apocalyptic bestiary that is one of the franchise’s most iconic touches, as well as one of the deftest way in which the rotation of directors and screenwriters maintain continuity with what has come before them, just as William Holden’s presence in the second film beautifully continues and even consummates what it was that Peck stood for in the film, no small feat given that this turns out to be one of the most remarkable performances of Peck’s career, even if it doesn’t seem to have quite made the canon.
In fact, one of the first reactions I had to the film was surprise that Peck hasn’t become better known as this actor, this character, this presence. Of course, the fact that he hasn’t partly comes down to the way in which late work tends to be overlooked. But I also think it’s to do with the way in which the film positions Peck’s character and screen persona, which is bound to be somewhat distasteful or at least distressing to anyone with a vested interest in his particular brand of paternalistic sentimentality. For the great paradox at the heart of the film is that the Antichrist arrives as the culmination of a lineage that putatively represents the very finest achievements of Western civilisation, an apotheosis of democratic and diplomatic refinement. What should be the image of utter security, continuity and durability – let alone the sanctity of both Britain and the United States, a perfect fusion of the aristocratic past and democratic present – instead becomes the harbinger of apocalypse, and there’s something very powerful about the way in which this esoteric invocation plays out against such a cultivated, preened environment. More specifically, it feels as it’s the very notions of security, continuity and durability that this Antichrist has arrived to rupture, to effect something like a return to the original apocalyptic horizon of the Christian religion before it was contained by the Catholicism in the name of this very security, continuity and durability. In that sense, Catholicism and aristocracy are aligned, in the film, by virtue of their commitment to a rhetoric of lineage and longevity that itself becomes the true object of horror, just as the greatest Gothic novels aren’t simply preoccupied with the spectacle of one aristocratic family but the horrific prospect of aristocratic patrimony and inheritance itself.
What remains so paradoxical and powerful about the film then, is that it presents the Catholic Church, as an institution, as the target of this emerging apocalyptic horizon – especially the expansion and consolidation of the Church under late capitalism – but by way of the very esoteric, cultic and apocalyptic imagery that the Church itself promulgates. Not unlike the earliest Protestants who were often forced to find a vocabulary to resist the Church from within the Church, the film attempts to forge a language to resist the burgeoning religion of neoliberal capitalism from within that religion, something that becomes even clearer as the franchise moves towards the radical business strategies of the Thorn Corporation in the second and third films. In that sense, there is something of a Protestant gesture – or at least an attitude of protest – that increasingly mitigates against the lush Catholicity of Donner’s mise-en-scene, grasping towards a more austere, skeletal and slashier kind of aesthetic that is nevertheless not quite a slasher aesthetic either, and is perhaps only consummated in the digital horror aesthetic of the 2006 remake. As a result, Damian’s presence is quite muted in the film, with most of the horror tending to circulate and revolve around him, just as most of the film’s scariest moments are more a matter of editing than actual spectacle, most spectacularly in a scene at a drive-through nature reserve when a herd of baboons starts to crowd around and attack Damian and Katherine in their car.
In fact, it probably wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Thorn becomes the main character of the film in Damian’s place, and even a kind of image of the Antichrist himself, since the main upshot of this Protestant aesthetic is a profound scepticism of any gesture of paternalism or protectionism. Of course, that scepticism is initially directed at the Church, but it gradually expands to encompass Thorn – or to collapse Thorn and the Church into a single entity – which perhaps explains why he feels so present in the second film as well. At the same time, there’s something so inherently paternalistic and protectionist about Peck’s screen persona that this feels like something of a deconstruction of his most iconic roles as well, especially Atticus Finch, who feels as skewered here as in Go Set A Watchman. Whether because he is consciously recalling the role, or because Atticus had become so integral to his screen persona by this time, there is a sense that Peck is channelling To Kill A Mockingbird at every moment, while his relationship with Damian often feels like a distant, spectral echo of his relationship with Jem and Scout, more grandfatherly than fatherly, which is perhaps why he also feels like Katherine’s father as well. It’s no surprise, then, that Lee Remick works just as well, with her role here as a kind of sounding-board for paternalistic rhetoric beautifully recalling her iconic performance in Anatomy of a Murder, witness to a husband who gradually feels like he is being put on trial in ways that she could never have anticipated. Between them, they deconstruct and dissociate themselves from their most iconic moments, just as The Omen takes the road less travelled in 70s horror, which makes for a bracing vision, more than rich enough to sustain the franchise that followed.
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