The Omen, made in 1976, is one of the greatest horror films ever made. Fact. Whether a believer or not (and I'm most certainly Not), there can be no denying the incredible power that this story has. Fashioned from a fine PR notion and re-tooled from a slick story-pitch, that actually went on to become a bestseller in its own right, Richard Donner's seminal fright-flick took the age-old, and never really cinematic theme of the battle between God's flock and the Devil and wove an iconic, resonant and terrifically insidious chiller that is as effective today, despite sequels of lesser quality and an unwanted remake. We'd had the books of Dennis Wheatley, a couple of them haphazardly filmed by Hammer, we'd had the great, but avant-garde Rosemary's Baby in 1968 (good, but highly overrated) and, of course, just two years prior to The Omen, William Friedkin's excellent, and graphic, depiction of innocence rescued from evil in The Exorcist. But the satanic struggle for souls and dominion over man really only thrashed about on the hinterland of cinematic exploration until young Damien Thorn famously turned around to give audiences a final parting, demonic smile at the gut-punch denouement to Donner's classic. More mainstream than The Exorcist, The Omen still provided plenty of chills and a great story filled with well-etched characters, a grand-standing score from the legendary Jerry Goldsmith and plenty of theological food for thought.
What follows is not so much a review but an in-depth look at the elements that made this film such an enduring classic. If you haven't already seen the film (which, to be honest, is probably unlikely), then I would advise you to skip to the technical aspects, special features and verdict, because there will be an unavoidable number of spoilers within this comprehensive text. But, providing you know the film already, then perhaps you will enjoy this celebration of its thirtieth anniversary. Take a deep breath then, because we're going to go some way with this one, folks.
With a story that involves the Devil's ultimate conceit of delivering a son unto an unwitting human family of power, thereby placing his progeny in a unique position to take control of mankind, The Omen takes what, on face value anyway, are pulp conventions but then twists and subverts them, denying them the horror-glamour that other filmmakers may have insisted upon. When US dignitary Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), on the eve of his ambassadorship to Great Britain, loses his baby boy during the birth, he accepts the last-ditch offer of swapping his apparently still-born son with the offspring of an unknown mother who, herself, apparently died during childbirth. With the secret known only to him and a handful of shady-looking monks and midwives, Thorn effectively pulls the wool over his own wife Kathy's eyes and the couple rear the cherubic toddler with as much love and care as they can. Of course, we all know that young Damien, as the child is named, has far more up his mitten than he is letting on. From the age of five onwards, events surrounding the Thorns take on an altogether more sinister air, with loving nannies taking picturesque death-plunges, guardian devil-dogs arriving on the scene and a rash of inexplicable demises taking care of anyone who suspects something darker lurking behind the cosy family exterior. With the fear-and-conscience-maddened Father Brennan (played by ex-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton) plaguing Thorn with terrible tales of his son's true identity and a photographer called Jennings (David Warner) involving himself and inadvertently placing himself in harm's way, Thorn must face the starkly brutal and horrific truth of the mistake he has made and battle to keep his sanity and protect the lives of all those he holds dear.
It's a big concept and one that would take an on-fire director to run with it. Richard Donner, who would soon helm the awesome Superman The Movie (still the best, by a long way) was the man who would take the chance on David Seltzer's one-off pitch. From an original idea that Producer Harvey Bernhard had about the Devil being alive and well and walking the Earth of the present day in the guise of a little boy, he created a genre-boosting horror event-movie that did for block-busting what Jaws had done a year previously. The script, by David Seltzer, also managed to come up with the most prophetic, memorable and downright “believable” verse that The Bible never actually contained.
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 restless sea, he rises,
Creating armies on either shore
Turning Man against his brother,
'Til Man exists no more.
It is an Apocalyptic verse and one that still sends shudders down the spine. Told, in earnest, by Troughton's soul-stricken priest, the words carry such an ominous strength that the film's desperate narrative locks its course with a ferocity that is nigh on unshakeable. The Number of the Beast, the infamous 666, is another wonderful element thrown into the unholy brew, kick-starting a whole new interest in the Book Of Revelations - something that the makers of The Omen, rather smugly, take some credit for. But the fact still remains that, without The Omen rattling some cages, a lot of new theologians would not have seen the light.
The characters have become horror icons, the actors portraying them all of a high calibre, further enhancing an already rich film and lending lots of credibility to a plot that could have been viewed as being hokey and ludicrous.
“It was foretold that this pregnancy would be terminated. I'm going to fight to see that it's not!”
Gregory Peck's acting style has never been a warm or sympathetic one. I've commented on this before (see review for The Bravados) and, despite terrific barnstorming performances in the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird and the original Cape Fear, I still only find him believably human in The Omen. It's true that his early scenes during the “getting-to-know-you” montage of Damien growing up appear a little clunky, with the big guy exhibiting all the tenderness of the White Cliffs of Dover, but there are many moments in the film when Peck seems to open up and reveal a rawness and tragedy beneath the stoic ambassadorial poker-face that are, in my opinion, quite heartbreaking. He tackles the job of playing an impassive figure of authority that has to display the sentimental chinks in his armour when at home with his wife and child with an air of troubled dignity. Peck's Thorn has an awful lot on his mind. He knows that Damien is not their own child but he must forever reconcile this unbearable fact with the knowledge that he acted in the family's best interests when he agreed to the fallen priest's blasphemous option.
His worn patience with Troughton's Father Brennan provides a growing unease, and his battle of wills with Mrs. Baylock adds more and more frisson to an already tense home atmosphere. The partnership that he strikes up with the photographer Keith Jennings is something that we cling onto with a passion, especially once the bond between him and Kathy begins to deteriorate, coming to form an alliance representing not only the force for good, but a camaraderie that, even if only fleetingly, brings Robert Thorn a sworn confidante and friend. Perhaps it is because I grew up with this film, and have seen it more times than I could possibly count, that I hold the image these two disparate and, ultimately, doomed souls scurrying through rural Italy and then the battered old ruins of Bugenhagen's (a grizzled Leo McKern) archaeological site as one of the most enduring pairings in horror film history.
But Peck is the one who displays the raw agony. He may suffer the worst phone-call of his life, but it is the pain of his virtually silent response to this news that hurts the most. Donner treats the scene of Jennings returning to the hotel room, babbling the latest that his research has revealed, with real care and reservation. “Kathy's dead,” is all that Thorn can bring himself to say, the shadows cocooning him in the shot like the polarisation of his own pierced emotions. Sometimes less is considerably more.
“Don't let him kill me ...”
Lee Remick is painted purely as a figure of tragedy. The worst deceit has already been perpetrated against her when we first meet the pretty wife of soon-to-be Ambassador Thorn, a sad lie that poor Robert has no real way of getting out of. This is a last chance option to keep her happy - rearing a surrogate baby that is a replacement for the son she doesn't even know has already died - and he, in an agonised pact that he knows will come back to haunt him, sees no other option. Remick delivers a performance that perfectly attains the image of a soul on the brink of despair. She comes to realise that Damien is not her child, not through the bizarre incidents that seem to plague them, but through the warping of her own maternal instincts towards the child. There simply isn't a bond between them. That she comes to fear the boy is a powerful thread that details the corruption of love and trust, subverting the whole happy families ethos that the Thorn's dearly desire for the sham it so clearly is. Her suspicions are infernal ... yet even she cannot fully comprehend the full implications of what is at stake. The more I watch this film - and I return to it quite often throughout the year - the more upsetting this idea becomes, leaving me with an impression composed more of the breaking up and destruction of an innocent family than with the true satanic overtones that the screenplay illustrates. Donner's decision to play more on the feelings of the characters than with the actual diabolical nature of the plot is a sound one. The story uses the fight between Good and Evil, God and the Devil as its main thrust, yes, but the devastating effect that this conflict has upon the simple folks involved within its mechanics carries the most weight. The threat to family and the home is utterly prevalent throughout, and this is something that is too-often overlooked by film-writers and critics, who seek the much more obvious motives of the story in order to sensationalise its more demonic aspects. And nowhere is the film's kith-and-kin theme more overtly illustrated than when Kathy's quiet breakdown is played out in a scene of shattered fragility as she engages her calming (yet inwardly twisted and cut up) husband in a spot of melancholic pillow-talk. In the similarly hellish - though, sadly, mediocre - The Devil's Advocate, Charlize Theron, as Keanu Reeves' mentally-collapsing wife, takes her tragic cue directly from Lee Remick's tortured innocent. But Remick's performance is the one that grips the heart more, I feel, with such pain and fear that the many exciting deaths along the way completely pale into insignificance. I know for a fact that my emotional reaction to a film has evolved quite radically since my own son arrived on the scene (daughter on the way soon, too!), and it has been very interesting to examine my own altered perceptions of The Omen as time has gone by. Now, I cannot help but place myself far more implicitly within the scenario than ever before. Where once, I just saw a devil-child (a monster that shouldn't be sympathised with) causing many sensational deaths (horror set-pieces that should be admired and even applauded), I now suffer, by proxy, the horrible feelings of a parent who suspects that A) their child might not even be their own, and B) that the right thing to do would be to kill that child in the name of all that's holy. Think it through and the emotional backlash is acutely horrendous. As Robert Thorn keeps on reminding himself that Damien is “only a boy,” so do we. The evidence may point towards him being the son of the Devil, and evil incarnate, but our eyes and our heart show us only a sweetly smiling child. Societal and familial values wholly standing firm, how could anyone plunge those daggers into such a small body?
Especially when Damien then utters those soul-imploring final words of “No, Daddy! Don't!”
It is always overlooked, and I cannot believe it. There have been times when I've been unable to watch this final pivotal sequence ... and it even hurts just writing about it now. Think about how Robert Thorn would have lived with himself afterward - nothing that has been prophesised would have come to fruition; none of the bad stuff would have been proved. His ensuing self-doubt would have destroyed him. Of course, this all ties in with Donner's somewhat bizarre idea that the whole thing should perhaps be viewed as a psychological drama. The emotional collapse of Thorn's mind and soul when confronted with the haunting stigma of the truth of swapping his dead son for an unknown impostor and living with a lie ever since would certainly have been incredibly hard to take, the bitterest pill of all, but the director's opinion really is at odds with the things that his film clearly makes apparent, and I choose, largely, to ignore the director's radical viewpoint. In fact, I don't really believe he means it, himself. In the context of the film, the Devil exists ... make no mistake.
David Warner's doomed photographer Keith Jennings is a marvellously drawn study of a shabby, down-at-heel paparazzi whose biggest scoop may just prove to his undoing. Warner has a long history of association with the horror/fantasy genre and his realistically lived-in face provides much gravitas for the situations and dilemmas that his characters often find themselves in, and the miserable, hangdog expression he wears throughout The Omen makes him an agreeably sympathetic protagonist. His discoveries in the darkroom carry a poignancy that mixes mystery with a palpable sense of unease, his conviction that all is not well enabling him to convincingly persuade Peck's already rattled Thorn to his way of thinking. I love the moment when he informs Thorn that it is his “problem too,” and shows him the photograph of himself with the black line going through his neck, and then looks forlornly into the mirror in which he captured the image. Their later confrontation in a bustling side-street, arguing over the daggers is a pivotal moment too. Jennings, acting alone at this point, has the detachment and determination to do what must be done despite the aged Bugenhagen's curt dismissal of him in the mission. I still feel the desperation and agony of Thorn when he witnesses the horrific demise of his last confidant and friend. The dominoes are all falling into place, the prophecy is coming true. Everything he doesn't want to believe in must now be faced ... on his own.
“I've heard you ... now you listen to me. I never want to see you again!”
“You'll see me in Hell, Mr. Thorn. There, we will share out our sentence.”
Patrick Troughton's dark priest, Father Brennan, is the perfect embodiment of a man who has been complicit in the unthinkable and who has, since, had a wretched change of heart. There can be no doubt that his satanic disciple has seen the true face of evil and now knows the infernal suffering that his soul will undergo in retribution for his betrayal ... yet he makes the decision to help the Thorns, to warn them, regardless of the diabolical danger that this will place him in. Look into Troughton's filmy, red-ringed eyes and you will see the desperation of a man poised on the border between heaven and hell. His meetings with Robert Thorn carry a supercharged hysteria that is bubbling just below the surface. In a lesser actor, these scenes would have gone over the top with biblical imploring and prophetic doom-mongering, but Troughton has the air of someone who knows it is already too late to save himself - and is, in fact, preparing for his date with damnation even as he wrestles valiantly with his attempts to convince Thorn of the truth. What the film never really makes clear - although it was present in the script and David Seltzer's novelisation - is that he was actually one of the Devil's midwives, present at the birth of Damien and an active participant in the murder of the Thorn's real child. In the film he comes over as more sympathetic than, perhaps, he really is and his downfall can be viewed as either the Devil's retribution or, maybe more pertinently, a real Act of God. The fact that he is denied entrance to the sanctity of the church would seem to point to this conclusion, adding a much more varied flavour to the cocktail of wrathful death and destruction. His frantic flight from the whirling, supernatural storm is one of the all-time classics, though. Jerry Goldsmith's score really lets rip with this sequence and for me, personally, it is one of my favourite pieces of film music. The camera angles employed as Father Brennan begins to realise that this tempest has his name all over it are terrific and I just love his final charge towards the church doors, his hands outstretched before him like some sprint-finish faith healer. The metal spire that whistles down towards him brings with it a tremendous zooming close-up on his fear-widened eyes; its delicious thudding home then announcing a return to the tranquillity and harmony of before. Our emotions, however, are mixed. Great death scene, yes - although in the long shot that spike just doesn't look like it has gone through him at all, does it? - but, in a way, we are sorry to see him go. As depraved and despicable as he had, no doubt, been in his life, he was at least trying to do the right thing at long last, and there is a sense that the last chance for the Thorn's (and our) salvation has just been robbed.
“Do not fear, little one. I am here to protect thee.”
Billie Whitelaw's pant-wettingly scary Mrs. Baylock is the stuff of pure nightmares. Her strange and unannounced arrival at the Thorns' residence, cool all-knowing assuredness about her small charge's best interests and penetrating eyes transform her status as a simple nanny into something far more sinister. Her Rottweiler accomplice padding about like a black shadow with muscles actually seems to be the animal persona of herself, a bestial extension of her own evil influence. Several of the most dramatic scenes in the film feature her dark and predatory presence - the harrowing final assault on poor Kathy in the hospital and Robert's incredibly brutal tussle with her through the house being a couple of shocks that people often overlook when totting up The Omen's chill factor. Her face as she advances through the ensnaring curtains is hideously calm and deliberate, a mask of implacable intent. Yet, compare this confident and determined visage with her later frenzied defence of the child - wild, hissing and spitting like a cat. Her final scene as she battles with Thorn is sort of recalled in the early eighties, Robert Ginty thriller The Exterminator, when the titular character wrestles with - guess what - a Rottweiler in the kitchen of a mobster's house. Whitelaw excels in this role.
“I was at the hospital the night your son was born. I witnessed the birth ...”
Of course, we can't leave out little Harvey Stephens from the roster. Famously booting Richard Donner in the “Biblicals” gained him the part, and a quick black rinse of his blonde locks gave him the look. The eyes and the coldly macabre presence of an ill-understood power are all down to the child performer's uncanny imagination, however. Seemingly grasping the part with some esoteric, and instinctive, understanding, Stephens has come to signify Hell itself, lending a face to the Devil that is as sweetly beguiling as it is malevolent. “He's just a little boy!” wails Robert Thorn, as he handles the dreaded Daggers Of Meggido, “he's not responsible!” The ace card in Donner's film being that our arch-villain is just an angelic little child, with sparkling eyes and the chubby cheeks of a cherub. We know different, obviously ... but our hearts keep telling us that poor Damien is just a boy. How can he be the Devil's son? And how could we even contemplate harming him? It is a shocking juxtaposition - utter depravity hiding beneath the mask of purity. Keysor Soze may insist that the Devil's greatest trick was in convincing the world that he didn't exist, but Donner assured us that a greater, and more far convincing ploy would be to place his powers in the hands of a small boy.
Richard Donner, as evidenced by all that I have already said, has never been better. The set-pieces have become horror-film benchmarks, mini-extravaganzas in their own right. The sequels followed-suit but never equalled the power of the original's celebrated death-scenes and episodic terror-building. Damien's two anxious excursions - the first to an instinctively despised church and the second an animal-worrying satanic safari - are expert sequences of cranked-up tension and hair-raising unpredictability. But the afore-mentioned killer storm sequence ranks as one of the all-time great set-pieces, marvellously self-contained and propelled by an energetic and bravura performance from Patrick Troughton. My favourite scene, though, sees Thorn and Jennings prowling about in the old Etruscan cemetery, the terrible sense of claustrophobic doom surrounding them just as tangibly as the pack of ferocious dogs that come lurching out of the, admittedly, artificial-looking set. Mingling their truly awful and repugnant discoveries - the little broken skeleton of the real baby is a mightier jolt to the system then the remains of Damien's horrendous mother - with the increasing weight and seriousness of the task at hand, Donner, once again, interweaves the heartbreaking with the suspenseful. So few filmmakers can boast such a skill. Ridley Scott managed to capture the pain of Maximus' loss and his powerful, raging thirst for revenge in the forceful (but much more black and white) inner conflict in Gladiator, but Donner, if anything, has even deeper intimacies to explore. And, once more, it is rewarding to have such a granite-jawed and inscrutable-faced actor as Gregory Peck playing the one upon whom these revelations have the most profound effect. When we see him crumble in guilt, remorse and fury ... what chance do we stand? Donner would also utilise pain and anger - and another fine actor in Mel Gibson - to great effect in the first Lethal Weapon (still the only one actually worth watching!).
The grand-slam moments of balls-out carnage pay dividends, too. The church-spire impaling, the hanged nanny smashing through the window and, of course, the famed decapitation are celebrations of cinematic death. The dummy-head spinning through the air, seen from half a dozen different angles, may look patently fake now, but the shock value of such a well-choreographed demise is still a gore-hound's delight. The high-rise drop onto, and then through, the roof of an ambulance packs a violent wallop, as does Kathy's trick-camera fall to the floor beside the shards of the shattered fish-tank, Donner's eye-popping visual sleight of hand still a mesmerising treat. But, the climactic tooth and claw fight between Thorn and Baylock, and her big black dog, is a nerve-shredding exercise in desperate hand-to-hand combat. The ferocity of this grapple is actually quite unexpected, the addition of Whitelaw's unearthly hissing and screaming casting a more potently primal feel to the scene. Mrs. Baylock is far more menacing a threat than say, Jason Vorhees, or his fellow sequelised interpretations of Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger. Their fantastical slaughtering treads the thin line between fear and farce, and often crosses right over into the horror genre's own peculiar Achilles Heel - parody. The violence that Damien triggers has more emotional impact upon us. The family unit, the home and the beliefs that we hold dear are the victims here, and the means of their extinction far crueller than, say, a simple machete or a butcher knife. The notion that something far greater is at work is fine, mysterious and overwhelming, and incidentally, something that the minds behind the Final Destination series must have gotten in-synch with. Strangely enough, despite The Omen's fame for setting a fatal coincidence trend, there is actually only one death that can really attributed to such a concept - that of Jennings' decapitation. All the other deaths are clearly orchestrated by someone or something with a clear agenda, but the photographer's beheading can literally be viewed as a terribly unfortunate accident ... a slipped handbrake, an incline and an un-secured sheet of glass. I think the Devil could quite happily get off scot-free with that one, m'lord. The later films in the series, especially Damien: Omen 2, would go to extraordinary lengths to create elaborate “accidents” for their casts, sadly becoming the only real reason to bother watching them in the first place. But The Omen managed to make us give a damn about the victims - even down to the poor babysitter that we never got the chance to know - which tempered the spectacle with feelings that ran deeper than just shuddery delight.
“Pages of The Bible, thousands of them. Every inch of wall-space covered ...”
But, besides the big moments, take the time to savour some of the smaller instances of disquiet, unease and dread that Donner peppers his film with, things such as the way that the stone coffin lid breaks apart, or the unsettling image of a clown sheltering a traumatised child at the garden-cum-hanging party. I enjoy the slow padding of the dog along the landing as Robert Thorn tries to outwit it and, of course, the deliciously eerie discoveries that Jennings makes in his dark room. And the film's repeated use of close-ups on characters' eyes has an uncanny power to prickle the nerves.
Jerry Goldsmith is as much a star of this film as anybody, for without his phenomenal score The Omen would be denied much of its power. Justifiably winning the 1976 Oscar, Goldsmith's music does the unthinkable - it takes the choral backbone of a Catholic Mass and inverts it with diabolical chanting and a dark ferocity that evokes medieval occultism with all its blood-chilling cacophony. The main title theme, Ave Satani, is justly remembered and plays in many forms throughout the film. But the cue entitled The Killer Storm, which accompanies Father Brennan's panicked flight through the tempest, is probably my favourite section. The scenes set in the old graveyard feature sensationally ominous tones that just add layer upon layer of dread and unease, culminating in the frenzied attack of the dogs. What I love about this cue is the very, very end of the piece - listen out for the final crescendo, those last four notes as Thorn and Jennings finally get back to their car are an awesome send-off to a musical, and visual, tour de force. Goldsmith also creates a truly beautiful and painfully haunting coda for Kathy and the Thorns that is pregnant with tragedy and wistful with yearning for a happiness that can never be. “The Piper Sings” is the love song, actually sung by the composer's wife, that would, perhaps, have been the only fly in the ointment, as it doesn't really gel too well with the score at large, and was justifiably removed from the released version, though the instrumental version sits comfortably within the movie. And, in line with that, Goldsmith's quieter cues, on the whole, work just as well as his more brazen and blood-freezing compositions. As usual when reviewing, I have the soundtrack playing right now ... and, if you are a fan of Goldsmith's score, let me take the opportunity to recommend the Deluxe Expanded Edition for The Omen soundtrack which, along with lengthened versions of Damien: Omen 2 and The Final Conflict (actually a pretty close second to the original score, in my own opinion, with that majestic main theme and the exciting cue The Hunt), makes for an incredible audio experience.
Well, folks, thanks for bearing with me for this tribute, and I hope that those of you who may have neglected this classic will return to it soon. Donner's film is a landmark, a milestone, in the horror genre. It sums up the 70's ethos of darkness and nihilism in, perhaps, the most emphatic way possible. The Devil is among us, it warns ... and the end is nigh. The relevance of the dark scheming world of politics is as pertinent now as it was back then ... in fact, probably more so if you think about it, giving the story a thoroughly contemporary vibe that keeps the film tantalisingly prescient.
Despite being slicker, better produced and more mainstream, The Omen joins the select band of 70's shockers that will forever dominate the horror genre - titles such as Jaws, The Exorcist, Suspiria, Dawn Of The Dead, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And, just like those cult heavyweights, The Omen is chilling, controversial and so deeply entrenched into the public consciousness that it will affect each new generation that sees it. But the main reason that this and the other horrors from this decade remain so popular is their ability to evolve over time. People change their interpretations of movies and, subsequently, the meanings of those movies seem to adapt. Certainly this is true of me and my feelings towards this film. As a non-believer, I see The Omen as prime entertainment. But, as a father, I cannot help but be devastated by it.
An absolute classic.
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