1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.
Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.
The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to Charlton Heston, whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead to star in the awful Midway, which was also a box office hit that year. Almost equally uninspiring is Lee Remick as Peck’s wife. Like Peck, she’s too wishy-washy, coming to life most when she’s about to die. Together, Peck and Remick throw the film off-balance. In contrast, director Donner rightly doesn’t take this nonsense seriously. Harvey Stephens is effectively stoic as Satan Jr., which renders him even an even creepier beast, but surprisingly, his is more of a supporting character.