The Omen (1976)

A movie does not have to be high art to strike a chord with the public.  The Omen was an attempt by writer David Seltzer to make some money and get a nice trip to the UK.  It just so happened that because of The Exorcist the public was hungry for more movies involving demons and such, and adding a veneer of Catholicism didn't hurt either.  The Vatican's secrets are most likely of more interest to scholars than anyone else, but a religion doesn't hang on over the centuries without creating a bit of mystery.  In this case, Seltzer settled on the Revelation of St. John, the low-fantasy portion of the Bible and, instead of an hilariously named (albeit historically correct) demon named Pazuzu, with The Omen we get the son of Satan himself. 

When Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) is informed that his child has died he visits a priest at the hospital in Rome where his wife is coalescing.  He is given an offer too good to be true: a foundling, whose mother died in childbirth, was born at the moment as the death of his child.  All he has to do is keep silent and not tell his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) that it is not their baby.  This he does, and his fortunes continue to increase as he is appointed ambassador to the UK. 

A happy, tight-knit family at first, things begin to change during their son Damien's (Harvey Stephens) fifth birthday party.  His nanny (Holly Palance) commits suicide in front of the guests, leading to the need for a new governess, a role that is filled by Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw).  Mrs. Baylock knows who Damien is and arrives to protect him, while Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), a priest who also knows the truth about their son, tries to convince Robert of what needs to be done.  Robert starts becoming convinced after a series of strange accidents to those around them and, after meeting photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), whose photographs seem to foretell the deaths, he goes in search of a way to dispatch his son and save his wife and himself. 

Despite Seltzer's intentions The Omen works as a visual novel, following a path that doesn't lead to predictable places.  It swings from being a horror film to a family drama to a detective movie as things develop and the truth is revealed.  In the beginning director Richard Donner wanted to make Damien's identity more ambiguous, but he made the proper choice of cluing the audience in at times where the parents are still in the dark.  The presence of Gregory Peck, who at this point was pretty much retired, adds not only gravitas but some room for the movie to be unpredictable as well. 

The movie has a series of what are now iconic death scenes but it also has this oppressive, dark atmosphere throughout.  There are no actual demons walking about and no appearance from Damien's true dad, but rather an impending sense of dread.  Satan is working behind the scenes in this one and the whole thing has a feeling of inevitable prophecy.  There are a few misguided attempts to make it scarier - Brennan's recitation of a poem that is not in Revelations is the biggie - but for something that was meant to be a cash grab it is well thought out, even when it comes to some of the simple solutions such as disinheriting Damien or abandoning him to the Nanny.  One gets the feeling that evil would find a way, or that any attempts would result in the same ending for the Thornes as everyone else that decided to prevent Damien's rise.

The only really bad thing about this movie is that it gave rise to one of the more mediocre horror series to come out.  The first sequel wasn't terrible, but pretty much every attempt afterward to expand on the story has been a massive failure, even with Sam Neill taking over the role as an adult Damien.  I am sure Gregory Peck was quite happy - he took a percentage of the movie as part of his salary, and it paid off better than almost anything else he did - I'm also sure he was also glad not to have to come back.  

Despite a quick descent into mediocrity the Omen series didn't immediately make a serious blunder like The Exorcist II: The HereticStill, the first movie tells the story, tells it well, and ends it where it needs to end.  It should have been left as it was but, again, it was never meant to be art.  

The Omen (1976)
Time: 111 minutes
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Harvey Stephens
Director: Richard Donner



  1. I remember years ago I watched the second and third movies on TV. The second one there could have been an interesting story about what you do when you're 13 and find out you're meant to destroy the world, but they really couldn't pull it off. Though they probably weren't as bad as the Star Wars prequels in showing someone turn really evil.


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