Thursday, October 13, 2016

Critic’s Crypt: Demonic Double Bill – The Omen & The Exorcist

Lee Remick, Gregory Peck and Harvey Stephens (centre) in The Omen (1976).

Critics At Large is pleased to present the second installment of CRITIC’S CRYPT, a new column in which our writers compare, contrast, and explore two horror films that are linked by a common element. This time around, Justin Cummings brings together The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973).

The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) are connected by more than just the stink of a demonic presence. Both are about children who act as vessels for evil spirits, yes. Both revolve around the perversion of the sacred and the innocent, true. Both are pretty damn terrifying, of course. But – despite their differences in quality and execution – the thing that most strongly links these films is a core theme that I think goes under-discussed in most conversations about these two classics: parenthood.

I was wondering how I was going to be able to add to the chorus of voices singing out in praise of these films, which many consider to be among the best horror films ever (both are multiple Academy Award winners and The Exorcist in particular is often given hyperbolic labels like “the scariest film of all time”). In watching them again, it became clear to me that while they’re indeed excellent spookfests that (mostly) deserve the adulation and attention they (still) get, there’s some interesting subtext going on in both movies that I’ve rarely seen anyone really sink their teeth into. Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) are – at least on the page – some of the more interesting horror film characters I know, and the terrible fate they share is, I think, a large part of why the films they’re in are so emotionally charged and intense. Parenthood is unassailably sacred in human culture; it’s connected to our primal animal instincts and tied to our innermost fears and doubts about our own bizarre and fragile mortality. In The Exorcist, when Father Karras (Jason Miller) asks the titular expert, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), why the unnamed demon has chosen this little girl as its vessel, Merrin’s response is as much true for director William Friedkin, and both these films in general, as it is for Pazuzu: the point is to make us despair; to make us feel animal and ugly. These filmmakers hit us where it hurts most, by attacking what we hold most precious.

Lee Remick in The Omen.
I’ll come right out of the gate by saying that The Omen isn’t as efficient at delivering this subtext as its predecessor, and that Thorn is more interesting in concept than he is in execution. Its core premise of a switcheroo at birth, by which Thorn adopts the Son of Satan, does get right to the meat of this theme; the lie he tells his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) – that Damien (Harvey Stephens) was her child all along, and that she didn’t miscarry her own actual baby – is the first and greatest perversion of parenthood The Omen has to offer. But the film almost immediately drops this delicious textual morsel in favour of a sort of weirdly slow detective story, in which the plodding plot beats of Robert investigating his son’s true nature take precedence over any exploration of the boy himself or his relationship with his parents. The natural comparison is to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which a woman who hasn’t even given birth yet can sense that something is horribly wrong with her child, or even (to provide a much more recent example) The Babadook (2014), in which a mother’s stress and grief over what’s happening to her child are front and centre. It’s almost disappointing that Katherine is shown to be a caring and attentive mother, because that depiction of her character acts less like a springboard for thematic exploration and more like a reminder of what the film doesn’t show us. This is Robert’s story, and it’s a coldly detached one at that, with scant scenes showing any interaction between father and son – or any emotional deterioration of the idyllic little life he’s built around his family as a result of that fatal lie (apart from their reactions to the violent incidents caused, apparently, by Damien).

The Omen is a film of highlights: Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score (the first and only such score I know of which contains lyrics praising Lucifer in Latin), striking location photography, strong performances, and a few (but very memorable) shockers – the most effective of which has to be the housemaid’s suicide near the beginning of the film, which I’m tempted to say works mostly because the lead-up to it is so slow that we’re allowed to become bored, and let our guard down. Is this intentional on the part of director Richard Donner? Hard to say – but the rest of the film’s slack, languid pacing seems to suggest otherwise. For a film that’s mostly about Robert travelling around the world to investigate the warnings of a crazed, ill-fated priest (Patrick Troughton), very little actual insight is provided to us about Damien himself. We’re given the now-standard Biblical lore that explains the warning signs preceding the coming of the Antichrist, and the explication of the Number of the Beast, but who is this boy, really? Is he Satan made flesh, or a mere puppet? It seems to me that Satan manifests not as the boy, but as the Rottweiler, through which he exerts his telepathic influence on others (like the housemaid, who locks eyes with the dog at the edge of their backyard during Damien’s birthday party), or sends his thralls to serve Damien (like the oddly Tim Curry-esque Mrs. Baylock, played by Billie Whitelaw). But this means, at least for the purposes of the film, that Damien himself is neither evil – he’s just surrounded by evil influence – nor a figure of direct possession. As far as the film is aware, he’s just a little boy! Isn’t that interesting? Wouldn’t an exploration of that fact make for a heartier film, if The Omen bothered to do it? Robert struggles with the apparent evidence of Damien’s true nature piling up around him, but there’s very little that happens that can’t be unequivocally, 100% for sure attributed to unfortunate coincidence; and when Damien, prostrate on the altar of Christ with a dagger hanging above him, begs his father not to kill him, it’s not the demon attempting to sway Robert with a glimpse of his real boy – because it might very well be his real boy! We’ve never seen anything that conclusively proves otherwise, and I don’t believe that that ambiguity is the whole point of the film. Nowhere near enough legwork is done to establish that Robert doubts the evidence he finds, except for the one instance in which he rejects the idea of stabbing Damien to death (which, I should note, leads to a decapitation scene so out of step with the rest of the film’s tone that it has the opposite of what I’m sure is the intended effect). Maybe the true perversion of parenthood in The Omen is just that Robert is a really shitty dad (a tough fact to swallow for those of us who grew up with To Kill A Mockingbird, but there it is). There’s a lot about The Omen that works on the page, but on the big screen it doesn’t do enough with the material, and therefore pales in comparison to the other film on the menu tonight.

Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973).

Where The Omen drags its plot and misses opportunities for interesting character work, The Exorcist positively hums with purpose and drive. William Friedkin was a documentarian before being tapped for big-budget Hollywood pictures like The French Connection, and he brings that realistic, immediate style to The Exorcist, deliberately placing every shot and every moment to communicate not only maximum tension and horror, but maximum character agency too. There isn’t a moment of screen time in which Chris MacNeil’s emotional state, and her relationship to her daughter Regan, played by Linda Blair (who she knows is buried somewhere beneath the demonic façade) isn’t explored and expanded upon as part of that core theme of the corruption of motherhood.

Chris’s relationship with Regan is shown to be as idyllic as Robert’s was with baby Damien, and to the same end: we need to be shown something good and pure for it to hurt us when that thing is perversely twisted beyond recognition (which illustrates again why The Omen isn’t as effective – Damien remains innocent and cute the whole way through). There are a few general ways in which this theme is usually explored in horror films, but I think it’s best expressed here by Friedkin (and Burstyn and Blair) in that it’s maintained as subtext, rather than text – the mistake that too many horror films make in their tendency to jettison subtlety so they can put butts in seats. First, there’s the idea of the “bad mom.” As we embrace a maternal ideal in society, so too do we create an idea of the opposite, a mother who is inattentive and selfish. We see this in some overt ways (like the torturous medical procedures she agrees to put Regan through, which screenwriter and creator William Blatty saw as worse than the visitations of the demon) and some small ways, as Chris struggles to be strong for Regan, and question how far she’s willing to go to save her (like her delivery of the line “Will she die?” during a break in the exorcism ritual, which suggests that she has resigned herself, in her grief and exhaustion, to that idea). Next, we have the absent father element, which is brilliantly touched on by having Regan express interest about Chris’s director and possible lover Dennings (Jack McGowran) before killing him herself: a pretty damn clear indictment, however unconscious, of Regan’s lack of a paternal figure. There are other illustrations of this theme, like the corruption of the physical home environment (Regan’s room, natch – not to mention her interruption of Chris’s dinner party) and the deconstruction of the mother’s personal sexuality. (This is demonstrated again, very subtly, by having Chris neglect all her own needs for comfort and reprieve – the only interest she has in the strapping Father Karras, for example, is whether or not he can help her child.) It bears mentioning that Chris isn’t the only mother in the film, either: Karras’s ailing mama appears as a further example of the bond between mother and child, and how it can be twisted to serve the demon’s purpose.

From the opening shot, the whole world of The Exorcist is in discord. Merrin comes face to face with an ancient foe; Karras experiences a crisis of faith; even the film Chris is shooting depicts civil unrest and war protests. Except for the world of mother and child  -- until, of course, “Captain Howdy” starts speaking to Regan through her Ouija board, and the whole mess gets rolling. Every moment after that is spent using repetitive, monotonous sound and jarring editing to create a sense of jagged tension and unease. The Exorcist is rightly praised as a truly horrifying film, but I don’t think enough has been said about why it’s so scary, and how effectively it communicates its subtext in the midst of all the vomit and flying furniture. The Omen is creepy, to be sure, and worth the praise it still gets for its many strong elements, even if it doesn’t do justice to what I can sense lurking between the lines of the script. But The Exorcist is a pure realization of the perverse, which is what proves film bloggers right when they claim it’s just as gut-wrenching today as it was over forty years ago.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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