Over/Under: ‘The Omen’ vs. ‘The Good Son’

When people are talking about the best horror movies of all time, they often use the term “horror classic.” I’m not exactly sure how that’s different from a movie that’s just a “classic,” but I think it’s somehow implying that movies where people get decapitated aren’t as good as serious dramas.

I often hear the 1976 version of The Omen referred to as a “horror classic,” so I guess what that means is that it’s really good for a movie where people get decapitated. In 1993 a couple of superstar little kids named Elijah Wood and Macaulay Culkin starred in a movie called The Good Son. It’s never been called either a “classic” or a “horror classic,” but that might be because nobody gets decapitated in it.

What do they have in common?

Much of the drama in these movies comes from the fact that they feature creepy little kids who seem to be causing a lot of death and destruction as they live their little kid lives. In The Omen, it’s Damien (Harvey Stevens), a shaggy headed little kid with a sharp fashion sense who doesn’t say much, but who tends to inspire his nannies to jump off of roofs with nooses tied around their necks. In The Good Son it’s Henry (Culkin), a tow-headed little psychopath who likes to play dangerous mind games that often have fatal consequences. He’s basically Kevin from Home Alone if the wet bandits ended up dead.

Not only do these kids cause the deaths of friends and strangers, but they both become the cause of a little fratricide over the course of their films as well. It seems they don’t like sharing. These kids don’t have troubled pasts. They’re not working through issues; they’re just evil. Pure evil, born that way, proof that the universe is a horrible place. In some ways, that’s the scariest thing of all.

Why is The Omen overrated?

The Omen has a lot of things going for it. It was directed by Richard Donner, it’s got a big name in Gregory Peck in the starring role, and it’s about the antichrist. That’s some fertile ground for drama. Or, it should be. The problem with The Omen is that until it gets to a handful of fun kills in the third act it’s really boring. And I’m not saying that it builds in a slow burn way, there isn’t really any build to the story at all. Most of the film is Gregory Peck standing around having conversations with people, back and forth debates as to whether or not Damien is the antichrist. Really it’s not until the last half of the film that he decides to figure it out for sure and do something about it. That leaves a lot of time to kill. A lot of time spent staring at Peck’s eyebrows.

This film needed some tension, it needed some menace. Damien doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s the devil most of the time. He mostly just sits in front of fires with a goofy look on his face while wearing plaid pants. The only direct action he takes to kill anyone is by running his tricycle into a table his mom is standing on. Other than that we’re given a series of coincidences that we’re supposed to think maybe has something to do with Damien, but then again maybe they don’t. There’s nothing scary about coincidences.

And about that Gregory Peck thing. He’s a legend for sure, but I really don’t like his performance here. He’s front and center for pretty much every scene in the movie and every time we see him he is playing things too melodramatic. It’s exhausting. Every line he reads is Shatner yelling “Khan” in Star Trek II, every time he comes across a new bit of information he reacts like Heston finding out that they blew it up in Planet of the Apes. It feels like he thinks he’s slumming it by being in a horror movie so he’s camping it up for material that’s beneath him. In a movie that treats its material deadly seriously, the performance didn’t work for me. He either needed to be in a horror flick that was cheesier exploitation or play this character more close to the vest.

Why is The Good Son underpraised?

There isn’t a boring second in this movie. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have any machete wielding psychopaths, or demon possessed devil children, The Good Son is more full of thrills and chills than 90% of the horror movies I’ve ever seen. Culkin’s character keeps you guessing throughout the whole thing. You never know when he’s just psyching Wood’s character out and when he’s really going to do something crazy and violent. A scene where the two boys are just climbing up into an unusually high tree house is more tension filled than any moment in The Omen, including the high point of that film where a priest gets impaled by a weather vane. All throughout this film there’s a continued sense of discovery as you get deeper and deeper into Henry’s world and realize how twisted he is, and by the time it gets to the big, climactic finale I challenge anyone not to be jumping around their living room yelling, “Bitch, run!” every time another actor is in a room with Culkin.

The two lead performances in this movie are just killer. They’ve both gone on to be actors of some acclaim in their adult lives (okay, Wood more than Culkin), but the fact that Wood and Culkin were so good at this age is just scary. Forget Hannibal Lecter, Culkin’s Henry is more unnerving than anything I’ve ever seen Anthony Hopkins do. Watching a character like Henry so believably come off as calculating and sadistic is a true testament to what Culkin was able to do at such a young age. In 99 out of 100 other child actor’s hands this role would have played as complete cheese. And Wood, while getting a less showy role, is no less impressive. The way he takes a pretty normal kid and slowly unravels him into a raving madmen is extraordinary. It harkens back to performances like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. These kids don’t just hold their own for child actors in this movie, they take what most of today’s big movie stars are capable of and trounce it.

Evening the Odds

There are a handful of things that I like about The Omen for sure, but I don’t think that it’s strong enough to be put into the category of “horror classics” like my Netflix suggestions algorithm thinks that it does. It certainly isn’t as good as something like The Exorcist, which came out a couple years earlier and was way freakier while dealing with similar material. And The Good Son? I don’t know if it is horror enough to be considered for the label of “horror classic,” but I do think that it presents the evil little kid story more effectively than The Omen does.

I would say that it’s one of the best thrillers that I’ve seen in the past twenty years, but I never hear anyone mention it unless it’s the answer to a trivia question; that movie where Kevin McCallister was evil. Bottom line, if one of my friends was pregnant and I wanted to freak her out, I’d have her watch The Good Son.

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Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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