Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Omen: Special Edition (1976)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - Good morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world. You have been warned.

When Kathy Thorn (Lee Remick) gives birth to a stillborn baby, her husband Robert (Gregory Peck) shields her from the devastating truth and substitutes an orphaned infant for their own – unaware of the child’s satanic origins.

The horror begins on Damien’s fifth birthday when his nanny stages a dramatic suicide. Soon after, a priest who tries to warn Damien’s father is killed in a freakish accident. As the death toll mounts, Robert realizes his son is the Antichrist and decides he must kill the boy to prevent him from fulfilling a cataclysmic prophecy.

Briskly paced and breathtakingly evil, The Omen is the first film in a classic four-part legacy of terror.

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson, Robert Rietty, Tommy Duggan
Academy Awards: Won for Best Original Score-Jerry Goldsmith. Nominated for Best Song-"Ave Santani", 1977.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround & Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 20 chapters; rated R; 111 min.; $29.98; street date 9/5/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird; Original Documentary: "666: The Omen Revealed"; "Curse or Coincidence?" six-minute featurette; "Jerry Goldsmith on The Omen Score" 17-minute featurette; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | The Omen Collection | Score soundtrack - Jerry Goldsmith

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/C/B

Growing up, I always lumped The Omen, It's Alive! and The Exorcist in together. They were all movies that dealt with scary kids and they all came out well before I was old enough to see them; The Omen hit screens the latest of the three, but even at the ripe old age of nine, that film wasn't going to be an option for me. (I was more of an Apple Dumpling Gang kind of guy.)

To me, these movies were exactly the same; I thought there was nothing to differentiate them. I still haven't seen It's Alive!, so I can't say how it compares to the others, but since I've now watched both The Omen and The Exorcist, I can definitely recognize the various similarities and differences.

The biggest commonality stems from the fact both concern apparently evil kids. The Exorcist's Regan has a pawn of the devil, whereas The Omen features a tyke who may actually be the anti-Christ. The latter is left much more uncertain, as the plot never explicitly states that Damien (the brat in question) is devil-spawn, whereas it's patently obvious that Regan's possessed; although she's at the age where her body starts to change, head-spinning usually isn't one of the hallmarks of puberty.

I thought the biggest difference between the two movies is that The Exorcist has barely aged since 1973. When I watched it last year, I was completely stunned at how powerful it remained; I expected a semi-schlocky little fright-fest and almost keeled over when I saw how explicit and graphic the movie was. It also simply works, as it presents one of the scariest films I've seen... ever.

The Omen, on the other hand, hasn't matured as nicely. The story follows Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), an American diplomat, and his wife Kathy (Lee Remick); when the film starts, she's given birth to a stillborn child. The Italians in charge offer to swap the newborn son of a dead mother and no one will be the wiser (except Robert, that is). He agrees and the satanic wheels are set in motion.

The plot picks up at Damien's fifth birthday party, when some unpleasant events occur. After that, more and more nastiness builds, and the intrigue deepens. As I mentioned, all of this remains much more plausibly coincidental than the happenings of The Exorcist; the film tries to keep the "truth" of the matter vague.

That open-ended quality is to be applauded, as too many films beat the audience over the head with their intentions; it's nice to see one that lets us make decisions for ourselves. However, that aspect of the movie is one of its only subtleties, as I thought the production seemed overwrought much of the time. It utilizes an excessively dramatic and hysterical manner for many scenes that makes it appear strident and almost campy at times.

I wish I could discuss The Omen without making so many comparisons to The Exorcist, but I can't because I think the two go hand-in-hand to a great degree. Part of the success of the latter stems from the quietness and matter-of-fact tone taken through much of the film. It works because of the lack of shrillness or overexcitement.

The Omen doesn't go over the top in those regards, but it strains too much for my liking. I simply never really got involved in the story. Some of the blame lies on the little head of Harvey Stephens as Damien. The kid seemed vaguely spooky at times, but he never really appeared as eerie or chilling as he should. That's partly because we really don't see much of him, so it's hard to gauge his effectiveness; his appearances are relatively minor, and they weren't enough to generate much of a sense of threat. A more effective kid - such as The Shining's Danny Lloyd - could bring out the menace in the role, but Harvey just doesn't do it.

To be sure, I didn't think The Omen was a bad film, as even through the overwrought qualities it still possesses some modest creeps and scares. Frankly, I may have simply had expectations that were too high, as I thought I'd find something on a par with - or at least reasonably close to - The Exorcist. The Omen doesn't approach the heights achieved in that classic, and it stands as a moderately interesting but fairly dated exercise in horror.

The DVD:

The Omen appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture often looks absolutely fantastic, enough problems creep up to knock down my overall score.

On the positive side, the movie seems very crisp and well-defined from start to finish, with virtually no examples of softness to be found; it's a razor-sharp image that presents the information with great clarity. Moiré effects and jagged edges pop on rare occasions, but I did note more artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion than usual; the "ropiness" these bring appeared fairly frequently. The print itself looked pretty clean, with few glaring defects. White speckling was the most common flaw, and I also saw some light grain, black grit, and a few scratches. Nonetheless, the picture usually seemed pretty free from problems.

Colors were generally quite bright and accurate, with some well-saturated and lively hues throughout the film. The only occasions during which I noticed any color-related concerns occurred when we entered a darkroom situation; the red lighting could be a bit murky and difficult to penetrate.

Actually, I don't think that issue was due primarily to color issues. I believe the fault stems from the only major flaw I found with this DVD: black levels. Dark tones came across as excessively dark and heavy much of the time, and shadow detail could be really thick. There were a number of shots - such as the one in the graveyard, or many shots of the Rottweiler - that I simply couldn't make out due to the overly dim appearance. These scenes don't dominate the film, but they're enough to knock the image down to a "B"; that's too bad, because the rest of the picture is "A"-level.

The Omen features the movie's original monaural soundtrack plus a new Dolby Surround 2.0 mix. I went with the latter for most of the film but switched to the mono track on occasion to compare the two. The soundfield for the 2.0 mix is fairly innocuous but it helps spread out the image. Most of the audio still sticks pretty closely to the center, but effects and music move nicely to the sides as well. The surrounds kick in mainly during the "bigger" scenes, like during storms. It's a fairly unambitious track, but it adds a little involvement to the sound.

Audio quality appeared largely identical for both the mono and Surround mixes; unfortunately, both were equally weak. Dialogue seemed extremely flat and dull throughout much of the film; speech appeared very bland and could be hard to understand at times. Effects were thin but adequately reproduced for a movie of this era, and Jerry Goldsmith's score showed a few signs of life; the music was easily the most lively and bright aspect of the mix, though it still seemed fairly limp. The soundtrack got a "C" based solely on the mild expansiveness of the new Surround mix; had this affair remained monaural, it would have dropped to a "D+" due to the poor quality.

More interesting are the supplemental features on this DVD. First we find "666: The Omen Revealed", a 46-minute and 10-second documentary about the movie. This show combines recent interviews with a number of members of the crew (director Richard Donner, editor Stuart Baird, composer Jerry Goldsmith, religious advisor Robert Munger, producer Harvey Bernhard, executive producer Mace Neufeld, and writer David Seltzer) and film clips to discuss the movie. On the negative side, this program doesn't offer a very coherent telling of how the film came to exist; it touches on the important issues but does so in a fairly haphazard manner. I also thought it provided too many scenes from the movie; these go on too long for my liking and seem unnecessary. I would have enjoyed some behind the scenes footage or stills from the production, and the absence of any actors seems odd; unfortunately, Lee Remick died in 1991, but Gregory Peck and David Warner are still kicking, and I'll bet that spooky little kid's around somewhere.

Despite those flaws, "666" provides a generally interesting and entertaining piece. The various anecdotes we hear offer the most pleasure, as there are some good stories involved. For example, the scenes that feature baboons are discussed in detail, and these are quite fascinating. I also really liked the moments in which Donner and Baird detail the unusual editing used in one scene. It's an inconsistent program, and it certainly could have been better, but it's definitely worth a look.

Next up is a running audio commentary from Donner and Baird. Donner can be engaging and entertaining, as he showed during the track for Lethal Weapon 4, but this piece largely falls flat. Unfortunately, there are plenty of silent spots, and when the two do speak, too much of their statements fall into the "remember him/her/that?" category. Some of the best material will seem redundant to anyone who's already viewed the documentary; for example, the baboon stories are repeated, and in less detail. Occasional new and useful tidbits appear, but for the most part, I found this commentary uninteresting. Donner and Baird seem to be old friends, and it sounds like they used the session to get reacquainted instead of telling us good tales about The Omen

A couple of short video programs appear as well. "Curse or Coincidence?" runs for six minutes and 20 seconds and covers some of the spooky events that surrounded the production of the film. The format duplicates that seen in "666"; actually, I don't know why this piece wasn't simply incorporated in the full documentary, as it has no reason to appear separately. In any case, the featurette is fairly interesting and entertaining.

The other video piece makes more sense as a separate entity; "Jerry Goldsmith on The Omen Score" provides a mildly in-depth look at his creation of the film's music. We see interview snippets with Goldsmith in which he talks about four different pieces of the score, and each of these is followed by the music in question. The program lasts about 17 and a half minutes total; the segments can be watched individually or as one running piece.

I didn't know that I could have watched the Goldsmith program as a whole until I'd gone through the four snippets on their own. Why? Because The Omen possesses some of the hardest to read menus I've ever seen. Lines are written as dark red on a black background. This renders them effectively invisible until you highlight one, at which time it turns a readable yellow. This means that to inspect all of the menu options, you need to flip through them manually to make them "go gold", as it were. It's annoying and ill-executed, especially since it makes options less accessible; if I'd known there was a "Play All" button for the Goldsmith piece, I would have pressed it from the start. Unfortunately, I couldn't see it and only figured out its existence when it lit after the completion of the fourth segment.

The DVD ends with the film's original theatrical trailer. At least I think it ends there; since the menus are so dark and impenetrable, there could be a gold mine of stuff lost in there somewhere. For all I know, the holy grail may be buried in that morass; man, these menus are a mess!

Despite that flaw, The Omen receives decent treatment on DVD, perhaps better than this mediocre movie deserves. The film occasionally seems decently spooky, but it can't maintain these moments over the long haul. The DVD offers slightly flawed but generally excellent picture plus a few nice extras, though the sound seems very bland. I'd recommend a rental of The Omen; although I didn't think much of the movie, it remains an influential film in its genre, so it's something horror fans should give a look.

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