October 29, 2008

Seen Between Fingers -- Finally, a Beheading Everyone Can Enjoy

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies. We've been a little frivolous in our selections over the last couple weeks, so I was excited to return to the stable of classic horror show-ponies. I thought Chris seemed nonplussed during the viewing, so I was pretty surprised to read what he had to say about Damien's debut...

So often, my work for this column makes me think that my readers have completely lost their minds. I simply can't imagine a group of sane individuals finding a film like The Midnight Meat Train tolerable, let alone enjoyable. I have suffered through two Hellraiser movies shaking my head. Even The Fly and Suspiria, while largely pleasant, still felt deeply and campily flawed at times.

The Omen has proved that either you all haven't gone crazy, or I'm just starting to go there with you.

This movie works because it clings so closely to real-world logic, a choice that grounds the otherworldly plot in a believable way. Early in the film, after Damien's first nanny commits suicide for him as a misguided birthday present, a replacement caretaker arrives in the house. Though Mrs. Baylock seems nice enough, Damien's parents promptly realize that neither of them has requested this woman's presence. As the scene changes to follow the new nanny's trip to the little boy's bedroom, I turned to my viewing companion and mocked, “I love how they're just going to let her--” My witticism was cut short when, just like it would happen in real life, the concerned mother and father jointly swept down the hallway to ask just a few more questions.

The filmmakers were also extremely lucky in getting Gregory Peck to play Damien's father. A compelling actor with a rich, commanding voice, he could convince me of just about anything. If he says this is a good movie, then it's hard to disagree. He really elevates the material. Watching him learn that his wife has died, it's evident what a mess this could have been if some high school drama club reject had been given the role. Instead, we're treated to scene after scene in which his rich baritone and thoughtful eyebrows ensure us that this is a rational man thrown into irrational circumstances. Even when he decides to murder a toddler with ancient knives on a church altar, you're inclined to assume that he must have a perfectly good reason. (Though the cops seem less convinced of this.)

Smartly, the movie offers little in the way of gore. Despite that, among other things, a man gets skewered right down the center with a ten-foot spike, we're shown only scant drops of blood here and there. In fact, comparatively little time is spent with spectacular deaths. Again adhering to the idea that reality is scarier than fantasy, the longest depiction of violence is a dog attack, a situation in which the audience can easily place themselves. On the other hand, the film also contains (and I am frightened to find myself typing this) the most awesome beheading I have ever seen. The decision of whether or not to watch it happen was so difficult that I nearly split my face in two trying to do both.

If anything, I would have liked to see the dramatic tension of the plot taken even further. I mean, for all the realism, we're still dealing with a story about a boyish incarnation of the devil. And while the characters in the story have their doubts about this conclusion, we as viewers never do. It might have been interesting to see a movie in which the child wasn't obviously demon spawn. While I adored Billie Whitelaw's wild-eyed take on Mrs. Baylock, it would have been all the more intriguing if she hadn't introduced herself to Damien with the kind of intensity that only Satan worshipers seem able to muster. What if, in the end, we really did have to question whether we trusted Gregory Peck's choice to murder his son? Slaying evil is scary, but killing an ordinary kid is even scarier.

Overall, this movie serves as a nice counterpoint, or even antidote, to Apocalypto. That picture proved that a lot of blood can amount to only a little horror; this one proves that a lot of horror can come from only a little blood. I'm going to give The Omen my seal of approval. It's a well-crafted little nugget. And honestly, any movie that can get me to compliment a decapitation must be doing something right.

Next week: An American Werewolf In London.

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