By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: He’s the devil’s child.
Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is an American ambassador living in London who learns that his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has given birth to a stillborn child. One of the priests at the hospital suggest that he take a newborn whose mother has just died during childbirth and treat it like it were his own, which he does, but without telling Katherine. When they take the child home things start out fine, but eventually a series of strange deaths begin to occur to the people around them convincing the couple that their child may possess some sort of dark power as unbeknownst to them he is the son of the devil.
Considered at the time to be a rip-off of The Exorcist, whose success many other studios were hoping to replicate, this film has managed to rise above the rest of the tacky satanic themed films of that decade and in the process has created a franchise of its own that at this point has spawned 3 sequels, 1 remake, 5 novels, and even a TV-series. While the story does border on being unintentionally campy at many points it still succeeds due to the death scenes that many consider the best moments of the film, but for me the creepiest part is when they go into the small, dingy room of the priest who has every inch of the walls covered with pages of the bible.
The film’s weakest link is the child who’s given only a few words of dialogue making his presence transparent and not frightening at all. If this kid is from hell then he should behave like it by doing mean things that the Patty McCormack character did in The Bad Seed, but he doesn’t and with a few exceptions he behaves pretty much like a normal kid, which ultimately makes him uninteresting.
While Peck is solid I felt his character arch was too wide as he starts out as a non-believer, or at least we can assume this since he doesn’t take his kid to church until he is already 5, who goes from being skeptic to paranoid believer too quickly. Having him start out as devoutly religious would’ve made his transition less extreme and might not have required the David Warner character, who ends up ‘educating’ Peck about Damian, being needed at all.
Remick, whose only facial expression is that of panic, is equally one-dimensional and genuinely wasted. I also felt the scene where she gets knocked off the chair that she is standing and then literally leap frogged over the railing was too exaggerated as she most likely would’ve just fallen onto the upstairs floor instead. Seeing the later shot of her crashing through the roof of an ambulance gets too underplayed by showing only a small trickle of blood coming from her mouth when in reality her entire face would’ve been mangled, but isn’t
Billie Whitelaw as the sinister nanny Mrs. Baylock is terrific and helps add underlying tension, but I felt she should’ve come better prepared to protect the child. Granted she had a guard dog, but there needed to be another weapon at her disposal like a rifle that she could’ve used against Peck when he tried to take the child instead of just throwing herself at him physically in a desperate attempt to stop him, which nonetheless is still a great moment as it’s so rare to see a woman and a man going at it in a physical altercation while on equal footing, which should’ve been enough reason to have this scene extended out even more.
Ultimately though it’s Richard Donner’s outstanding direction and the way he implements interesting touches that keeps this thing engaging throughout instead of being laughable, which it could’ve easily have become otherwise. While it’s been many years since I saw the 2006 remake, and I can’t remember it in much detail, I did come away feeling this one was the better version and infinitely superior to its two sequels, which will be reviewed later today.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: June 25, 1976
Runtime: 1 Hour 51 Minutes
Director: Richard Donner
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube