Catching Up: The Omen

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

I didn’t like The Omen, and I need to figure out whether it’s the movie’s fault or mine.

Last month, Matt Seitz wrote a great article about how modern moviegoers have this weird compunction to try and act “superior” to older films. They love to laugh at the dated aspects, like acting styles, or special effects, or editing. People refuse to view old movies in their proper context, allowing their contemporary world view to override everything else. It’s a terrible attitude, and one I strenuously try to avoid.

And yet, I laughed heartily at The Omen. I didn’t find any of the scary parts scary. I found it to be a superbly goofy experience. The question is: would I have felt the same were I watching the movie for the first time in 1976, or am I too affected by the culture in which I’ve been raised to appreciate the film properly?

I think a major part of the problem has to do with the fact that almost all the most famous parts of The Omen have been thoroughly absorbed into pop culture. There are many antichrist stories, and most of them will make at least a few allusions to this one, if not wholly rip off large chunks of it. I knew most of this film before I went into it. And yet, this is pretty much the same situation I faced when watching Jaws for the first time, but I was able to fully experience that film. And Jaws is even more prevalent in the culture than The Omen. So there’s something else going on.

Is there anything I did like about the movie? Well, I thought the music was nicely evocative. “Ave Satani” is fairly brilliant, a truly sinister and bombastic piece that thoroughly evokes the idea of an antichrist. The scene in which a hypnotized nanny calmly and cheerfully hangs herself in front of a party is genuinely unnerving. And… um… huh, was that seriously all I found to really, non-ironically enjoy? Goodness me.

The thing about The Omen is that it circles so intently around the idea of scaring you with the concept of the antichrist and demonic cults that, if that can’t knock you off-kilter, it kind of doesn’t work. Especially since Rosemary’s Baby went for the same kind of atmosphere eight years earlier, but pulled it off better and much mores subtly. The Omen tosses some hilarious death scenes into the mix, all of which feel like precursors to Final Destination more than anything else. People who are too close to the truth about Damien, the seemingly normal little boy, suffer ludicrous “accidents.”

But then again, back in 1976, seeing a dude get decapitated on screen was a novelty, and fairly shocking. So I think I’ll have to chock up not being horrified by the deaths as my fault. But when I watch Gregory Peck or Billie Whitelaw giving a strained, over-the-top performance, do I roll with it, or do I sit back and shake my head? And when they engage in an utterly absurd knockaround brawl, do I grip my armrest in tension or from a busting gut?

But I think the biggest problem with The Omen is that it’s just kind of leaden. Most of the run time is spent with the main character figuring out something that’s obvious to us from really early on. “Your kid’s a psycho, also you should fire your nanny!” And I’m fairly certain that hypothetical 1976 me would feel the same way.

I didn’t feel much at all for The Omen, and this is one of those cases where I almost feel like I should be apologizing for the lack of a reaction. All I can say is that, while I may simply have watched the film through the wrong eyes, I tried my best to do it the right way. But it just wasn’t enough.

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About Dan Schindel

Born and raised in rural Maryland, Dan Schindel now lives and works in LA, hoping to one day soon trick someone into paying him to write about film. He loves all the movies equally, no matter what genre or pedigree. He spent last year watching and writing about a documentary every day, so now he knows everything. Besides CBR, he also writes for ScreenPicks, We Are Movie Geeks, Who Got the Role?, Off to See the Elephant, and more.