Omen, The (1976)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-09-12 07:27

Written by: David Seltzer
Directed by: Richard Donner
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and Harvey Stephens

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
'Til man exists no more."

Horror cinema got really bedeviled for about a decade; maybe all of the very real tumult stemming from the 60s and 70s (America alone suffered through devastating assassinations and Watergate) convinced people that Satan was amongst us, resulting in our fear of a godless world being projected on the big screen. If the eternal fiend wasnít trying to claim our unborn babies (Rosemaryís Baby), then he was possessing them once they grew up (The Exorcist). Capping off horrorís most demonic trio in 1976 was The Omen, wherein Satan once again took the guise of a child to wreak havoc.

Actually, in this case, he sent his son, the prophesized antichrist from Revelations. When U.S. ambassador Robert Thornís (Gregory Peck) wife gives birth to a stillborn, heís convinced by a priest at a nearby orphanage to adopt a child born at the same moment his own son perished. The first few years of this ruse go off without a hitch; however, once little Damien (Harvey Stephens) turns five, foreboding events begin to happen: his nanny commits suicide at his birthday party, and sheís immediately replaced by a mysterious new caretaker (Billie Whitelaw). Another priest (Patrick Troughton) arrives in Britain to warn Thorn that he has indeed adopted the son of Satan, who will eventually attempt to use Thornís political power to plunge the world into turmoil.

Quite frankly, apocalyptic movies scare the shit out of me. I think it stems from these really weird Christian propaganda movies about the rapture (the first in the series is A Thief in the Night if youíre curious) that I once had to endure when my family went through a brief religious phase. Ever since then, the end of the world and Revelations have been spooky stuff--even that scene in Ghostbusters where Ray and Winston discuss Armageddon is legitimately creepy. However, I think The Omen sits near the top of the end-times heap due to its scope and intensity. Whereas Rosemaryís Baby and The Exorcist were intimate affairs dealing with individual paranoia and faith, The Omen carries a deeply ominous vibe that spells doom for the entire world.

Thereís literally only about five minutes where the film relents on its bleakness; after the eerily low-lit, cold opening where Thorn agrees to adopt Damien, the film establishes his idyllic existence with his wife and new child. It all goes to hell in a hurry, as The Omen is just a fantastic horror film thatís full of mystery, suspense, atmosphere, and viscera. Donnerís film is unrelenting on all of those fronts and is infused with fantastic camera work and evocative imagery thatís complimented by Jerry Goldsmithís score, whose main choral arrangement has become one of the most infamous in cinematic history.

Assaulting viewers with the singular goal of scaring the crap out of them, it succeeds due to the filmís propulsion--thereís rarely a dull moment, and danger lurks around the corners of each scene. One of the filmís subplots involves a photographer named Jennings (played by the criminally underrated David Warner) whose lens picks up hints of the gory fates of Damienís victims; stuff like Final Destination would take this aspect and expand upon it, but its presence here adds an extra layer of intrigue (particularly when Jennings himself becomes a potential victim).

And while the sensational, splattery payoffs from those photographic omens are memorable, I think the film works best when itís exploring and deepening its central concept. Damien isnít even anywhere near my favorite sequence in the film where Thorn and Jennings take off to Rome to figure out just whatís going on. Itís here that they meet with all sorts of weirdness: Damienís orphanage mysteriously burned down shortly after his birth, which left one of the priests horribly deformed. Everything culminates at a sinister graveyard set that oozes dread, and Donner dips into some tried and trued horror tricks here--disturbing images (the revelation of DamienĎs actual mother is a freakishly great moment), nail-biting editing rhythm, and some unnerving POV shots (one begins to sense that our two heroes are not alone--they arenít).

The devil must be a charming sort because it seems like he often manages to lure great casts into his films (Italian rip-offs excepted, of course). The Omen arguably features the most impressive cast from the Satanic cycle, as Peck and Remick bring all of the gravitas youíd expect from them. Peck especially brings that old-fashioned Hollywood leading man charm, which gets put through the wringer (itís almost like youíre watching Atticus Finch lose his shit, though Peck sometimes plays Thorn with a little bit more firmness). I feel like Whitelawís nanny is one of horrorís more underrated weirdos; everyone rightfully remembers Damien, but his caretaker is a menacing wench whose bad vibes are palpable the minute she wanders into the Thorn household with that intimidating dog in tow.

Of course, thereís a reason everyone remembers Harvey Stephens as Damien; there have been a lot of wicked kids over the years, but he might be the most unsettling. Maybe itís because his cherubic appearance is completely at odds with his insidious intent, which cuts right to the heart of the devilís deceptive nature. That the antichrist can take on such an unassuming yet sinister form is frightening, and Stephens captures both of those qualities effectively. The scene where he and his parents approach a church is disturbing due to his inhuman, almost demonic cries. I find it interesting that children were so often the targets in these films; itís not so much because theyíre vulnerable, but because they represent that purity and hope for the future that was being consistently shattered during this time period.

In many ways, I think you can read The Omen and its ilk as completely unsubtle representations of the chaotic world they were unleashed upon. Their horrors are primal and unnerving because its villain is practically the ultimate boogeyman, the one weíre conditioned to believe is actually real. And whether you actually believe that or not seems immaterial; I donít count myself as being even faintly religious, but movies like this have some scary stuff going on and revel in our desire to be creeped out. This one is also wickedly entertaining too and should be sitting on your shelf; if it isnít, pick up one of the various releases from Fox immediately. Even the old special edition release from way back in 2000 holds up with a solid anamorphic transfer and a stereo soundtrack. It boasts a nice selection of special features as well, including a 45 minute documentary, an interview with Goldsmith, a six minute short film, and a commentary with Donner and editor Stuart Baird. As itís one of the most popular horror films of all time, The Omen has been repackaged, tossed into various box sets (it spawned three sequels and a remake), and upgraded on Blu-ray. You can't go wrong either way, as this is undoubtedly one of horror's best unholy terrors. Essential!

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