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Session 9, One of the Best Horror Films You’ve Probably Never Seen

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Session 9 centers around a group of asbestos abatement professionals looking to make a hefty bonus on a bid if they can complete a monster job in a week.  The job?  Get the notorious Massachusetts Danvers State Hospital clean and ready for renovation.

The team is a group comprised of old friends Gordon, Phil and Mike (Peter MullanDavid CarusoStephen Gevedon respectively), new enemy Hank (Josh Lucas), and fresh meat, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III).  The group dynamics are enough to make the film interesting, but throw in an atmospheric mental asylum, mystery, and some eye catching cinematography and you have the hidden horror gem, Session 9.

Phil and Hank are working through some things, mainly the fact that Hank slept with Phil’s girl and now the two are together.  Gordon’s a new dad, not getting much sleep, and money’s tight meaning this job means everything.  And Mike?  Mike is the law school dropout son of the State’s Attorney General, with an intelligence that puts his curiosity into overdrive.

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On the first day inside, the group splits up, each man taking on a different task.  When Mike finds a box marked “Evidence” in an area he is working, he can’t help but look inside.  He finds data pertaining to patient #444, Mary Hobbes, aged 37.  The box contains 9 session tapes which include audio recordings of Mary’s interviews with a Danvers’ State Hospital doctor, photographs, and the general details of her dissociative identity disorder.

Mike, curiosity running wild, sits down and immediately starts playing the tapes.  As the interview unfolds, all but one of Mary’s alternate personalities appears.  All of them reference an alternate named “Simon” who is supposedly responsible for a violent, traumatic event occurring 22 years prior on Christmas in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The intensity of these interviews, and the manner in which they are slowly revealed to Mike like ghostly voices from a dark and violent past, is enough to make for a Brad Anderson's SESSION 9terrifying tale.  But, director Brad Anderson refuses to relent there.

As the long days of stressful removal work continue, each team member begins to show wear and tear.  Hank, finds a hidden stash of coins, jewelry, and assorted personal effects behind the wall of the hospital’s crematory oven.  He comes back that night and, while he’s heading out with the loot, befalls a mysterious fate.  The next day, when Hank fails to show for work, Phil finds out Hank may have split town for casino school in Miami.  No one is particularly surprised, especially Phil who is still bitter over losing his ex-girlfriend to him.

Down a man and with the deadline for their bonus looming, the guys seemingly begin to buckle under the stress.

When confronted about his odd behavior, Gordon, the crew leader, confesses to Phil that he hasn’t been sleeping, that he hit his wife.  Concerned, Phil tries to rally the crew to take on another guy.  Gordon flatly refuses, a move that threatens to jeopardize the entire contract.  Meanwhile, Mike, our law-school dropout continues delving through the session tapes for Mary Hobbes until finally, he arrives at the tapes for session 9.

Brad Anderson's SESSION 9This is when things go haywire.  On the recording, Simon, Mary’s alternate, finally appears.  He begins, for the first time, to engage with the interviewing doctor.  Interspersed with this eerie repartee are scenes that reveal the true nature of what’s been going on with Gordon and his crew behind the walls of the Danvers State Mental Hospital.

Session 9 was a modest film that didn’t enjoy commercial success.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a terrific horror film.  Rich with atmosphere, mystery, and moments of absolutely hair-raising tension, Session 9 is a film that continues to “get me” viewing after viewing.

The Climax Golden Twins provide a brilliant, nerve-twisting score.  The lack of light, the filth and dilapidation of the building are like a physical manifestation or reflection of the state of the crew’s mental and physical decay.  It may sound weird to call Session 9 a gorgeous film, but it is.  Carefully framed and lit, each scene looks as good as any art house indie film, made all the more special by the fact that you’re watching a scary film.

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Session 9 is a horror-lover’s treat.  A rare, deliciously mind-bending, terrifying treat.  Tasty.

The Amityville Horror – Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story

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“I just wish that … all those people hadn’t died here.  I mean … ugh!  A guy kills his whole family.  Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Well, sure, but … houses don’t have memories.”

The Amityville Horror (1979) caused quite a stir at the box office in the US the year it was released.  People flocked to see the film adaptation of an apparently true story of a supernatural event that rocked a family to their very core by a house full of demons.

The film tells the story of George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder), recently married and deeply in love, who decide to shell out $80,000 for a house on Long Island for their instant family of 5 (Kathy has three children from a previous marriage).  The house in question was the site of a grisly mass murder years before, 112 Ocean Avenue.  Regardless of the house’s disturbing history, the Lutz family decide to buy it.

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After the sale is final, the Lutz family spends the next several weeks attempting to move in.  Only, the house doesn’t really want them there.  Disembodied voices tell them to “get out!” and seemingly unexplainable events begin to occur at every turn.  A chair rocks itself.  Windows slam closed with no apparent cause.  The house never feels warm to George, who falls ill.  Doors close on their own volition and cannot be opened despite the fact they have no locks.

Kathy, who is a devout Catholic, begs her friend, a priest named Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) to bless the house, to help her rid it of its bad vibes.  Even the girlfriend of George’s business partner, Carolyn (the ever dishy Helen Shaver), feels the bad energy rolling off the house.  Though Carolyn initially refuses to go near the place, she eventually leads George to the discovery of the point of origin in the house.  An area in the basement where the spirits/demons come and go.  Come on.  We all know you don’t go in the basement!  That’s where the bad sh*t always goes down.  Always.

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Things continue to escalate and degrade until one night, during a horrible storm, the Lutz family flees for their lives, never to return or reclaim their possessions.

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“The truth never stands in the way of a good story.”

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The crux of The Amityville Horror lies in whether you are a believer.  A believer in God, in Christ, and therefore in the Devil, in spirits and demons.  As a child, my parents hauled me to Sunday school, religiously (pun intended).  I first saw the film in the 80s when it, no doubt, showed up on one of the local television networks, probably completely edited down and devoid of the bleeding walls that I went “nice!” to this viewing.

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But, 80s version of me, the child version, that is, the one that had been going to Sunday school and learning about good and evil, was terrified of that empty, rocking chair in Amy’s (Natasha Ryan) bedroom.  The 80s me was terrified at the idea of voices coming from no particular person, dispossessed.  Indeed, the 80s version of me was pretty friggin’ terrified of The Amityville Horror in total.

I think it’s true what they say, about not being able to go home again.  Additionally, I think that sentiment, that belief can really be applied to more than just the ideology of “home”.  In fact, it can certainly be applied to films that terrified us, films that we loved, or films that were just so amazing or original or fascinating to younger versions of ourselves.  Films with which, upon revisiting, we occasionally find ourselves disappointed, maybe even a little sad.  Of course, there are many factors at play here, including the fact that we are viewing the film through a new lens, one that has more experience.

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It’s not your fault.  It’s me.”

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Whatever the cause, The Amityville Horror definitely falls into this category for me.  Instead of fear, I found myself preoccupied with the religious angle of the film, of the role it plays in the fear and experiences of the Lutz family.  Instead of being terrified of the little rocking chair, I kept thinking how dishy Margot Kidder (and James Brolin, for that matter, damn!) was in 1979.

No.  The shine is definitely off the horror here, and not just because I’m older and don’t put as much stock in religiously slanted horror films anymore.  Like some of you I imagine, I found myself doubting the validity of any movie with the words (or some combination of the words) “based on a true story” associated with them.  I think it started with Fargo and it never relented, this doubt and mistrust.  Thanks, Coen Brothers.

You see, in order for this film to be of any worth in terms of scaring its audience, that audience has got to believe it.  The audience has to buy it.  They have to give a damn.  And (sorry) I just don’t.  I think The Amityville Horror is still a solid film, and it will scare the hell out of people into the supernatural/religious horror genre.  James Brolin and Margot Kidder are terrific.  Brolin freaks me out if for no other reason than his unbelievable fixation on the ax he wields throughout much of the film.  And Kidder, well, she’s the perfect eye candy for a horror film, even if her character is a somewhat unsubstantial.

Bottom line?  After 30+ years, the effects in the film are still decent and the story of the Lutz family continues to attract people to the “original” home where the events supposedly took place (*see link below).

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*The REAL story behind The Amityville Horror (spoiler: is it really based on a true story?)

30+ Years On, Stanley Kubrick’s Masterpiece The Shining Still Mesmerizes

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Struggling to turn his life around in the wake of alcoholism and the abuse of his child, writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) agrees to take a 5 month long off-season caretaker position at The Overlook Hotel.  Completely isolated and left to his own devices, Jack’s young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), begins seeing things thanks to a unique psychic gift referred to as “shining”.  As a snowstorm moves in, completely cutting off the Torrance family from the rest of the world, Danny is plagued with visions of the future, events from the past, and is visited by ghosts who inhabit the hotel.

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Also starring Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance, Jack’s wife and Danny’s mother, and Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef and a man who shares Danny’s gift, The Shining is directed by Stanley Kubrick and is (loosely, very loosely) based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King.

The division echoed by the film reviewing community and filmgoers alike when mention of Kubrick’s The Shining is made constitutes an all too familiar sentiment when the work of a popular author (Stephen King) is adapted to film.  Kubrick’s 144 minute adaptation is a slow-paced, dream-state that often breaks with the underlying themes, subject matter, and overall tone of King’s novel.  In fact, King has been quoted as saying Kubrick’s vision of his work is the only adaptation he could “remember hating”[1] mainly due to Kubrick’s changes to the personality of the main character, Jack.

There is a litany of theories in print and online that would like to inject deeper (and potentially more sinister) meaning into Kubrick’s intentional variances to King’s original work; including one that would have you believe Kubrick’s The Shining is the director’s confession to having been a part to the staging of the Apollo 11 lunar landing (see below for a link to the full-length documentary).  Still others, would ask that you consider Kubrick’s lifelong obsession with the Holocaust, and his frustration at never having been able to find an adequate project in which the matter could be explored, as a reason for the director’s hijacking of the film’s subject matter. [1]

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Most of these theories are laughable, but strangely entertaining to investigate.  I, myself, lost many hours in a YouTube rabbit hole delving into such theories.  I invite you to do the same.  All of it, even the crackpot ideas, lend themselves to the Kubrick mythology and are relentlessly fascinating.  The documentary, Room 237, gives itself over to the investigation of such theories and we encourage you to take a look.

However you take Kubrick’s adaptation, a few irrefutable truths remain.  Kubrick’s The Shining is a multi-layered experience, replete with recurring motifs (Kubrick relies heavily on mirrors throughout the film), and shot construction as a method of revealing or concealing the true nature of the events taking place in the scene.

Is Kubrick’s The Shining a ghost story?  Not necessarily.  As film critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Kubrick’s The Shining lacks a reliable character from whose viewpoint the audience can be informed.[1]  It’s never exactly clear whether the ghosts depicted in the film actually “exist” or are just mental manifestations of Jack or Danny, both of whom have questionable mental health.

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This means, we are never given a context for understanding the motivations or the intent of the ghosts inhabiting The Overlook Hotel.  Nor can we trust that the ghosts actually “exist.”

Kubrick’s The Shining then becomes a story about choice, not of ghosts, predetermination, or reincarnation (don’t let the photo at the end of the film fool you).  All of the characters in the film have multiple roles.  For instance, Jack is a father and husband.  He is both good and evil.  He is simultaneously an abusive and caring father and husband.  It is up to Jack to choose which he wishes to be.

In a sense, then, this means Kubrick’s The Shining should be viewed through the lens of being a psychological horror film despite it’s supernatural elements.

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And that’s not a bad place to be, especially considering the most powerful moments in the film center around the mental fracturing, or unraveling, of its central characters, not the ghosts of The Overlook Hotel.  Even while the scene in which the room 237 “hag” chooses to reveal her true self to Jack is disturbing, it holds but a candle to the sense of “off-ness” you will feel when Jack is shown standing, staring out the window (see above photo).

Drenched in natural light, unshaven, with pink irritated eyes, everything about this single moment in Kubrick’s The Shining tells the audience things have just gone irrevocably off the rails.

Despite the inconsistencies between book and film, of which there are many, Kubrick’s The Shining remains one of my favorite films.  It’s difficult to admit, given the fragile, hysteria-prone depiction of Wendy who continually allows herself to be mentally and verbally abused by her husband, Jack.

The decadence of the Gold Room, the never ending hallways, and grand interior design of the hotel lend a visual opulence to the film that I find intoxicating.  Every viewing of The Shining reveals something new.  Arguably, Kubrick’s masterpiece.

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Okay that’s enough Gif’s for now.

REFERENCES:

[1] ”The Shining (film)” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Feb. 2013. Web.  17 Feb. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_shining_film>

 

The Anticipatory Dread Effect of Paranormal Activity

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When my nephews first approached me a few years ago after having first seen Paranormal Activity, they were literally terrified of the subject matter.  Not the film, per se, but the idea that someone (or some thing) might be watching them when they sleep.  The fear is not without grounds, although, as far as I can surmise, no recognized phobia yet exists for it.  Should it?  After all, sleep is a time of particular vulnerability.  A time when we are neither here nor there.  A time when secret things happen because no one is there to see them.

Director Oren Peli, having spent his entire life afraid of ghosts, said this: “If something is lurking in your home there’s not much you can do about it.”

It’s a primal thing.  If it doesn’t bother you, and you (like me) don’t subscribe to the existence of demonsParanormal Activity is going to be a snore.  There are long periods of time where nothing is going on except the director’s attempts to ratchet up the tension.  This technique is effective if not a little exhausting.  There’s only so much time a human being can spend in a state of anticipatory dread.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m particularly harsh on films claiming to depict, or be based on, “true events”.  Even though it does not expressly say it’s based on true events, Paranormal Activity falls into this category thanks to the use of found footage to emulate the vibe of a documentary.  This would be fine if the film didn’t attract a certain contingent of film goers believing the film to be a kind of proof of the existence of ghosts and demons.  This makes the film Paranormal Activity one of the most insidious (and, make-your-head-explode profitable) films of this nature yet made.

Paranormal Activity focuses on a young couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah, who are settling into a home and trying to have a life together.  When things start going bump in the night, Micah (Micah Sloat) decides to use a video camera in hopes of gathering proof and potentially, some answers.  After the incidents become more frequent, Katie consults a psychic, Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs) who tells her the thing in the house is not a ghost.  It’s a demon.  And what’s bad about that is it’s attached to Katie, not the house.  So, basically, there’s no sense in running.  It’ll just follow you.

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On and off for the remainder of the film, Katie begs to leave the house.  Wouldn’t you?

As the incidents become more harrowing, and the couple are now able to, in the bright light of day, watch the previous nights’ events unfold before their eyes, Micah decides to try to communicate with the demon via Ouija board.  He has been expressly told not to, first by Dr. Fredrichs and then by his pleading girlfriend, both of whom fear it will invite the demon in.

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And, by all accounts, it does.  One night, after Katie and Micah have left the house for a rare night out, the board catches fire.  After this, it’s game on for the demon who makes no qualms when it comes to expressing its hostility toward Micah.

Unable to escape the sometimes maliciously slanted torments of the demon, Katie slowly unravels.  Exhausted, terrified, and feeling hopeless, Katie begs to leave the house knowing full well it will do little to deter her tormentor.

Filmed in the director’s home and completed for about $15K, film goers rewarded Paramount Pictures with an astounding $193M in ticket sales proving yet again that people just really like being scared.  Me too!  Otherwise I wouldn’t be going through the Boston.com Top 50 Scariest Movies of All Time list film by film. This film, by the way, ranks 43rd.

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And although Paranormal Activity isn’t my piece of cake, there’s plenty going on here to make it a worthwhile film.  Paranormal?  Maybe not so much.  Supernatural?  Definitely.  Although, Supernatural Activity isn’t that catchy.

Katie Featherston’s performance, for example, is nothing short of perfection in this particular scenario, in this particular film.  Hell, even the moments when I was sitting there keenly aware of the fact that I wasn’t buying the film’s premise, I could still buy Featherston as a terrified college student looking for a little peace (and sleep).

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Is Alien Ridley Scott’s Masterpiece?

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When a Weyland/Yutani towing vessel receives an order to investigate a signal of unknown origin on a nearby planet, the crew of the Nostromo are wakened from hypersleep.  Touching down on the planet from which the signal appears to originate, a search party comes into contact with an alien lifeform, one of whom attaches itself to the face of crew member.  Back aboard the Nostromo, the crew eager to dust off and head back to Earth, the alien begins to transform and hunt the crew.

Ridley Scott's ALIENStarring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Tom Skerritt as Dallas, Veronica Cartwright as LambertHarry Dean Stanton as Brett, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as Ash, and Yaphet Kotto as Parker, Alien is directed by Ridley Scott.

Alien is one of those iconic films that’s been discussed, analyzed, argued over, and celebrated.  Rightfully so.  Scott’s vision of the Nostromo, its crew, and the alien landscape of LV-426 was so complete and fully realized that, in a way, they were made real.  The film spawned an epic franchise (including that disappointing crossover with the Predator series) and gave birth to what is arguably the strongest female character in the history of film: Ellen Ripley (Weaver).

Full of intricately developed tension, Alien is every inch a horror film.  That it’s set in space with an unknown species as its villain are the only reasons the film even manages to Ridley Scott's ALIENgraze the sci-fi spectrum.

The set of the Nostromo was constructed as a self-contained stage, one that the actors or crew couldn’t actually get out of without traversing to the other end.  This aided significantly in the authenticity of the claustrophobia felt in the film, in addition to restricting the movements of the cast, thereby increasing the tension between them.  The concept of an enclosed, complete set has since been duplicated by directors like Joss Whedon who constructed the set of Serenity much in the same manner.

There is an ongoing discussion about Alien‘s sexual undertones.  From the oral penetration of the face hugger, to the explosively violent “birth” of the alien a short while later, there’s no denying the intensity of the imagery.  There are also countless theories about the play on the fear of rape in men and how Alien has become a sort of payback for years of the film industry’s exploitation of women.  Take or leave the theories, one thing remains irrefutably clear.  Ridley Scott knows how to inject fear to maximum, unrelenting effect.

Ridley Scott's ALIENThat the character of Riley (Weaver) was meant to be a man is not lost on me, or other fans of Alien and it’s subsequent sequels.  Weaver, who had up to the filming of Alien been predominantly a stage actor, brought a steely resolve to Ripley.  In a crew comprised mainly of men (the exception being Cartwright’s, Lambert, the ship’s navigator), Ripley stands her ground at every turn.

As a woman, there is probably no other performance in film that affected me, molded me, and influenced me as strongly as Weaver’s performance in Alien.  It taught me that women could be strong, resourceful, smart, and sexy.

Ripley is one hell of a role model and remains, to date, my favorite character in any film.

Akin to many other films made in the ’70s, Alien develops over a protracted period of time, with little action occurring in the first half of the film.  In many instances, there is nothing but silence, expect for maybe the humming sound of the ship.

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You’re given a look at the Nostromo crew, their life, their interpersonal relationships and struggles.  Then Ridley Scott makes you sit there and steep in it.  Like the alien5crew, you’re more or less trapped in the confined space that is Nostromo.

This works to the extreme for the horror elements in the film.  Before the struggle to survive begins, you have a fairly good handle on the environment and the characters.  You know there’s nowhere to run and that no one is coming to help.  The crew, after all, is expendable.  Thanks, Weyland-Yutani.

Alien is a bonafide horror masterpiece, beautifully imagined, orchestrated, and executed by Scott.

Parasites, disease, physical invasion, claustrophobia, paranoia, Alien has it all.  Truly a must-see.  Alien is a bonafide horror masterpiece, beautifully imagined, orchestrated, and executed by Scott.

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The Omen – Instilling Fear of Children Since 1976

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“When the Jews return to Zion / And a comet rips the sky / And the Holy Roman Empire rises, / Then You and I must die. / From the eternal sea he rises, / Creating armies on either shore, / Turning man against his brother / ‘Til man exists no more.”

Originally advanced screened in the United States on June 6, 1976, Richard Donner‘s The Omen, starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, terrified audiences with it’s hauntingly evil portrayal of the devil incarnate, in the shape of a little boy.

When their child dies at birth, Robert Thorn (Peck) decides to deceive his wife to spare her the grief.  In their child’s place, he agrees to take into their care, another child, born the same night as his biological child died.  Unbeknownst to him, or to his wife, Kathy, the child is the seed of Satan.  As Damien, their “adopted” child begins to grow, it sets in motion a chain of unfortunate, and deadly, events from which neither Robert nor his wife, Kathy, can escape.

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Many people have heard the stories of The Omen curse – the lightning strikes, the plane crashes, animal attacks, car accidents and the like.  Whether or not you believe in it, the murmurs of such a curse lurking around the production of The Omen did do something successfully, it drove people to the film either out of curiosity or morbid fascination.  Personally, I agree with the folks at deathensemble.com – and since I don’t believe in Satan, how could I possibly believe Satan didn’t want The Omen being made so he cursed the production of and those involved with the film?

Yeah, about that…

You see, the not believing in Satan, or in the Roman Catholic church, poses a significant problem for members of the viewing audience.  But, I suppose there’s two ways of looking at it – a.) who cares if these people don’t buy it, they knew what they were going to see, b.) maybe they’ll leave being a little more afraid of deception, children, and large, black dogs.

Either way, The Omen comes out a win-win for a filmgoer.  After all, devil or no, is there anything more terrifying than a child who doesn’t seem to think twice before harming its own mother?

There are plenty of tense moments, great effects, and the plot is kept moving by well-paced storytelling.

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The Omen made a strong impression on me when I first saw it years ago as a much younger incarnation of myself, one who still believed in demons and ghosts and biblical evil in general.  Now that I’m older, The Omen evokes other, more tangible fears about the cost of deception in a relationship, the alien nature of quietly scheming children, and of religiously motivated violence.

In a way, these two visions I have of The Omen make the film, its construction and execution, a very good one, even after more than 35 years.

 

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