Franchise Firsts: “The Omen” (1976)

Apples in my Happy Meal? Apples?! My dad will have something to say about this, madam!

Arguably outgunned by the inimitable The Exorcist, The Omen remains one of the greatest demonic horror films of all time. Here’s why!

Robert Thorn is an American ambassador in Italy. His wife is about to have a baby. At the hospital, a priest informs Thorn that the baby has died. The priest suggests that Thorn adopt another infant and not tell his wife about the switch, sparing her the grief of losing her own child. The new child is Damien, and as we all know, Damien is the Antichrist, the son of Satan, sent to usher in the devil’s rule on earth.

Skip ahead five years. Thorn is now ambassador to the UK, and Weird Stuff starts happening. At Damien’s fifth birthday party, his nanny hangs herself in full view of all the partygoers, a scene which traumatized me as a child. (Don’t ask me why or how I managed to see it.) Things escalate, with Thorn’s wife Katherine eventually concluding that Damien is evil. Her fears seem to be confirmed when he knocks her off a third-floor landing in their palatial home, leaving her hospitalized. As Weird Stuff escalates, people are gradually convinved of Damien’s satanic nature–though of course Thorn, the main character, is the last to accept it–and as the folks who know the truth start to die, Thorn is left with an unspeakable task: kill his own son, in a grisly way, in a church, for the good of humanity.

While not as pitch-perfect as The Exorcist, The Omen nevertheless manages to be just swell. It’s got Gregory Peck as the lead, for one thing; and although it suffers from what I’d (probably incorrectly) classify as an earlier style of acting–what I like to call Acting by Proclamation–it’s still a great, atmospheric, and intelligent thriller. There are some pacing issues, it’s true, but it perfectly captures the atmosphere of dread that is, for me, the sine qua non of horror. The scene where the reporter, Jennings, is decapitated by the flying sheet of window glass is just so weird, so unlikely and bleak, that it still creeps me out.

Another point I like about The Omen is that it provides a way for people to fight back. Thorn gets the daggers of Megiddo and has a chance to kill Damien and spare the world his reign of evil. As we all know, he fails; but he has the chance, and that’s more than a lot of horror offers its heroes. The biggest enemy, of course, is doubt. If Thorn had accepted the truth of Damien’s demonic nature just a bit earlier, he might have saved his wife and Jennings and countless others. But he hesitated, and, as they say, he who hesitates is lost.

It’s not the greatest horror film of all time, but it’s surely one of the greats. If you somehow haven’t seen The Omen, you really should. It’s one of the few creepy-kid films that really work, and its influence on the horror genre is still apparent today.

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Retro Review: The Howling (1981)

I decided to watch The Howling in preparation for reviewing the new sequel comic over on HorrorTalk. (Unfortunately I’d confused it with Wolfen, a very different kind of werewolf movie.) Decades ago, Howling used to run on Saturday afternoons, along with its countless sequels, on the local Paramount network where I grew up–further proof that the ’80s were a crazy, crazy time.

Karen is a TV news reporter in LA who is contacted by a serial killer named Eddie. They arrange a meeting, with the LAPD planning to use the occasion to bust Eddie, and Karen’s station hoping to use it as a ratings coup. When Karen follows Eddie’s instructions to meet him in a booth at a peep show, something more than ordinarily serial-killery happens. Given the title of this movie you can probably imagine what.

As Karen and her colleagues get deeper into the story of Eddie the serial killer, they learn that he hailed from a place called “the Colony,” which, we eventually discover, is a den of werewolves who’ve been attempting to pass as human. Dr. Waggner, the psychiatrist employed by the station where Karen works, is conveniently one of the ringleaders of the wolves, and he’s the one who sends her up there after her traumatic encounter with Eddie. (He claims it will help her “recharge her batteries.”) Karen and her husband schlep up to the happy hippy Colony, where they eventually are pulled apart by the crazy werewolf-sex shenanigans that naturally happen in such situations, a single (human) person dies, and then comes the showdown with the werewolves.

Seriously, this is a 1980s horror film and only one person dies. Let that sink in.

There’s also only one sex scene! But at the end of that sex scene the people turn into cartoon werewolves. So… score?

Amazingly, The Howling is not horrible. There are plot holes galore, but the first in the franchise is far from the worst horror film I’ve seen. Some of the practical effects are actually pretty good, like the severed werewolf hand that slowly and bubblingly changes back to its human form. It’s not especially violent, as such things go, and the plot is coherent, if superficial and somewhat stupid. (And loaded with horror clichés.) Best of all are the numerous tongue-in-cheek moments, like the can of “Wolf Chili” visible in one scene, or the ending sequence with drunk patrons in a bar debating what they’ve just witnessed.

If you want to turn off your brain and forget about the awful, awful world we actually live in, you could do far worse than this.