The Omen, 1976.
Directed by Richard Donner
Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Harvey Spencer Stevens, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw and Patrick Troughton.
After the sudden death of his newborn child, American diplomat Robert Thorn, unbeknownst to his wife, adopts an orphaned infant whom they name Damien. As the child grows up, a series of strange and increasingly horrific occurrences suggest Damien’s origins might be something far more sinister.
When The Exorcist was released in 1973, its massive critical and commercial success kicked off a minor cinematic trend of Satanic infused horror films frequently dealing with demonic children. While many of these films have since been forgotten, often with good reason, there is one that has stood the test of time to become a classic in its own right; Richard Donner’s The Omen.
The cast led by the legendary Gregory Peck is solid throughout, with their committed straight-faced performances adding an extra air of seriousness and intensity to what could have easily been viewed as a rather silly film. The presence of acclaimed Oscar-winning actors like Peck, as well as Lee Remick (as Peck’s wife) in particular gives the film an extra level of gravitas that is rarely afforded to horror films, even today, although that is debatable. Although, I do wonder what the film would have been like if the studio went with one of the original suggestions for the lead; Charles Bronson. I can see it now; Death Wish 666 in which Bronson prevents Armageddon by shooting everything. Of the cast, Billie Whitelaw stands out as Mrs Baylock, a kind of Satan-worshipping Mary Poppins whose friendly pleasant public persona gives way to a glassy psychotic stare that cuts straight through to your soul.
In terms of scares, the film is somewhat dated by modern standards and, aside from one notable scene (more on that shortly), is not particularly scary. However, despite coming up short in the scare department, the film more than makes up for it in suspense and entertainment value. With scenes of baboons attacking Lee Remick’s car in one anxiety-inducing episode, former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton meeting his end at the pointy end of a church spire or David Warner having his head cut perfectly from his body in spectacular slow motion, the film is in an abundance of memorable set pieces and creative death scenes.
There is one scene though that stands out as the most upsetting and most disturbing moment of the entire film. At Damien’s birthday party, the celebrations are interrupted when his nanny, with a big smile on her face cheerily says ‘Look at me Damien. It’s all for you’ before she, in full view of onlooking children, hangs herself. I’ve seen this scene numerous time now, yet it still leaves me shocked and horrified every time I see it. If anything else, it’s the cheeriness and the smiling face of the nanny as she drops that disturbs me more than anything.
What marks out The Omen from most other horror films of the time, and even perhaps from modern ones is that it has real stakes. The story is a globe-trotting adventure as Gregory Peck travels the world to discover the truth about Damien’s origins and what the future could hold for him and the rest of humanity. It’s an exciting and novel approach to a horror narrative whose apocalyptic implications has a real sense of urgency and excitement to it, even if the source of terror is just a child. This plot might sound silly on paper and, honestly, it does. However, the film, by taking itself seriously without any hint of intentional silliness makes it work effectively, even if it does end with the surreal sight of Atticus Finch attempting to stab a child to death in a church.
However, if only one thing entices you to watch The Omen then let it be Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning musical score that has emerged as one of the most iconic in horror history. The music is perfect with the use of Latin choirs and orchestral arrangements serving to create a frightening score that makes you feel the full weight and power of Damien’s evil, even when all he’s doing is smiling at the camera. A scene in which Peck and Warner battle to escape a pack of vicious dogs would already be intense with a generic horror score, but add in the full might of the orchestra and choral sounds, it feels like the very fate of the world is at stake. Quite simply, the music is what makes the film work.
While hardly the scariest film, the suspense-filled story, strong acting, memorable set pieces and, crucially, one of the best horror scores ever composed ensure that The Omen, despite its flaws, stands out as one of the most ambitious and entertaining horror films of the 1970s. Check it out, but avoid the pointless glorified marketing gimmick masquerading as a remake. And maybe the sequels as well.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★