Richard Donner, 1976
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens
"We drink the blood, we eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan."
I can't imagine a world in which a reader of this blog would not know the plot to The Omen, but I'll rehash it anyway. Katherine Thorn has just delivered a stillborn child. To spare her feelings, her husband Robert is convinced by a hospital chaplain to secretly replace it with another baby just born, but orphaned. He agrees and they name the baby Damien. Not long after, Thorn is appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and they move to London. Strange things begin to occur. Damien’s nanny hangs herself at his birthday party, declaring, “It’s all for you, Damien!” A mysterious, protective new nanny arrives, Mrs. Baylock, with a menacing Rottweiler in tow.
A priest desperately tries to convince Thorn that Damien is evil, but the man soon dies in a freak accident. Katherine becomes increasingly paranoid and fears Damian. One afternoon, he causes an accident that lands her in the hospital and nearly kills her. The finally suspicious Thorn and a sympathetic journalist (David Warner, I love you) travel back to the hospital in Italy to dig up the truth. They discover that Damien may in fact be the Antichrist, the son of Satan.
Along with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), The Omen concludes a trilogy of mainstream occult horror centered on satanic children. Part of what made each of these films so successful is the subtle approach to occult evil. Many of the circumstances that befall Rosemary, Regan and her mother Chris, or Damien and his parents could be chalked up to postpartum depression, teenage angst, strange, coincidental circumstances, etc. Despite the obviously paranormal things that occur at the conclusions of each of these films, they maintain ambiguity for as long as possible.
The Omen’s chief strength is that Damien does not belong on the set of Village of the Damned or even The Bad Seed. He only appears to be an innocent child, if somewhat strange and withdrawn. It is unclear if Damien is committing any evil acts or not, though they seem to occur around him and not from him. With that said, The Omen hasn’t aged particularly well. There are plenty of stupid things about the film, the zoo scene being chief among them. Damien terrifies some giraffes, who run away. Later some incensed baboons chase the car. I’ve been to Six Flags’ Animal Safari a number of times and if there was food in the car, the baboons would run after you, beat on the car, try to get in, etc. Maybe a creepy moment, but certainly not one experienced by Damien alone. The priest who tries to insistently talk to Thorn and then is impaled by a metal pole during a storm is also just silly.
There are some great set pieces, namely when Damien’s first nanny suddenly hangs herself at a children’s birthday party. Another is when Katherine is standing on a chair (to hang a plant, I think) and Damien runs into her with his tricycle, knocking her off the second floor balcony and nearly to her death. The death scenes become increasingly more violent and spectacular, culminating in David Warner’s sudden decapitation. If you’ve never seen The Omen, it’s worth watching for this scene alone.
There are some good performances, though it is surprising to see Gregory Peck in a horror film. While I would never argue that Peck is a great actor, he simply seems wrong for the role. Thorn certainly lacks any emotional connection to Damien, which is detrimental to the power of the ending. It would be a very different film if Katherine secretly adopted a son and Thorn found out at the last minute that the child was not biologically his.
Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses) is good as the increasingly paranoid Katherine Thorn and it’s interesting to have a central female character who wants an abortion and is not comfortable being a mother. David Warner (Straw Dogs and dozens of other films) has several shining moments as the photographer Jennings and gets the best death scene of the film. Billie Whitelaw (Frenzy) is suitably terrifying as the determined Mrs. Baylock.
The script by David Seltzer (Prophecy, Bird On a Wire) if fairly solid, but is the weakest part of The Omen. Some of Gregory Peck’s dialogue is frankly Shatner-esque and the gender politics verge on the offensive. While Rosemary and Regan/Chris are the focal points of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, it seems somewhat odd that Thorn is the main character of The Omen. He could so easily take up the role of absent/busy father that is in both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. It’s clear that The Omen was trying to distance itself from The Exorcist by mixing a satanic horror thriller set at home, amidst family life, with an international thriller involving archaeology and detective work. Perhaps Selzter thought that only a male character could realistically be involved in those scenes.
One of the most popular American horror films, The Omen did well at the box office and was a huge success, partly thanks to a marketing campaign based on Jaws’ campaign from the year before. Richard Donner does a solid job directing, though he has a dependable overall career that includes Superman, The Goonies, Ladyhawke, Lethal Weapon, etc. Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score is essentially composed around a series of Latin choral segments all about worshipping Satan. For it, he received an Oscar. My final complaint actually has to do with the score. Despite how well written it is, certain themes are often mixed in at inopportune times so that very dramatic music is being played while relatively little is happening.
I grew up watching The Omen and still love it, despite its flaws. It comes recommended. I’m reviewing the two-disc Collector’s DVD, which has lots of great special features, though there is also a single disc, a Blu-ray, and a box set of the series. This was followed by Damien: Omen II (1978), Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981), and a made for TV movie, Omen IV: The Awakening (1991). It was also remade in 2006.