The Omen (Richard Donner,1976)
Straight out of the feverish religious hysteria that sprang from the wet loins of William Friedkin’s startling, boundary pushing (I mean, who can forget cute little Linda Blair jabbing a crucifix into her bloodied private part yelling ‘Fuck me! Jesus, fuck me!’) reactionary (yes, reactionary) masterpiece The Exorcist from 1973, the opportunistic cackling studio execs wrung together their greedy little hands and soon not only came up with another terrifying Christian fear-film to spurt like hot semen on the faces of an eager to gobble up public, but managed to up the ante; this time it wasn’t gonna be no mere innocent little girl overtaken by the Devil (well, to be precise, the demon Pazuzu) — oh, no — this was gonna be an angelic little boy not possessed, mind you, but the antichrist himself (cue that unforgettable Gregorian chant-style score music by Jerry Goldsmith)!
After being told by the shady-looking priest Father Spiletto (Martin Benson) that his son has died during birth, American diplomat in Rome Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) agrees, unbeknownst to his wife (Lee Remick), to switch his dead child for another newborn, whose mother (he’s also told) has died upon delivery… and, by the time Damien Thorn (I mean, can there have been a more perfect name made up for the devilish little tyke?) reaches five, with Thorn’s political career ascending to now being a right hand man of the US President himself, the increasingly unsettling events and mysterious and violent deaths occurring around him, along with his wife’s increasing paranoia and the appearance in their life of their son’s weird, underlyingly hostile nanny who has managed to inculcate herself into their home (played to perfection by the late, great English theater and movie thesp Billie Whitelaw), has Papa Thorn considering there might be some truth to the ramblings of that half-crazed, fire-and-brimstone spewing Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who keeps accosting him on the street with biblical ramblings about Thorn’s adopted offspring being the Devil’s Spawn whose ultimate destiny is to take over the world if he isn’t stopped (he’s sort of the Crazy Ralph of the film… “You’re doomed! You’re all doomed!”).
From the opening credits that includes a deliciously lurid image, of the kind that would be commonplace a decade later on all those wonderfully outlandish paperback horror novels of the 80’s, of the silhouette of our little Satan boy, a garish red light behind him projecting a shadow of a cross, with Goldsmith’s aforementioned unforgettable chanting score growing in fervor, The Omen lets us know that this isn’t gonna be a gritty, realistic- and auteur-based experience like the Friedkin film, but something more grand, theatrical and Hollywood-style (yet, not quite as grave either, leaning more towards pulpy).
With The Exorcist, Friedkin reveals himself as nothing if not an existentialist, even when he’s telling a simplistic good vs evil religious film. Omen director Richard Donner, on the other hand, may not really have the chops for all that deep thinking… but, man, is he able to make up for it with well-executed cinematic storytelling. I gotta hand it to him, amongst a ton of other impressive credits, the guy is acknowledged as the powerful creative engine behind the first two in the Christopher Reeve Superman films (which even today remain awe-inspiring — impressive forerunners to the superhero films to come), kickstarted the Lethal Weapon franchise and was the director of this wildly enjoyable first entry in this Omen franchise; it may be a stretch to declare Donner an auteur, but I’d argue he remains (even with all of his films’ financial success) underappreciated as a first-class journeyman director, able to bring real craftsmanship and inspiration to plenty of the films he worked on, no matter the genre, sort of in the style of earlier journeyman filmmakers like Robert Wise and Richard Fleischer (if not quite in the league of those two).
After those tone-setting opening credits and the ominous scenes of Peck going along with the baby bait-and-switch, the film settles in for a few minutes into a dreamy, over-the-top, gauze-over-the-lens-to-make-everything-look-soft-and-dreamy time-passing montage of the rich and powerful Thorn and his doting (younger, natch) wife (man, do they have no idea what’s coming) idyllically raising cutsie little baby Damien (with only one remotely ominous scene – that being the completely unnecessary, not particularly convincing, one of the couple reacting in false alarm horror that they’ve lost the little tyke in the cold river they’ve been happily strolling along – until he suddenly appears from behind a nearby tree, and all goes back to Hollywood storybook gooiness)… and it all seems a bit silly and more than a tad over-the-top… until we discover what Donner is setting us up for… and that’s the first, unforgettable, show-stopping death scene; the one that gets the whole show rolling in spectacular grisly fashion (just think “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” and if you don’t know what I’m referencing, for God’s sake get on to watching this film already!).
There’s more than a few fun and gruesome (and classic) set-pieces in the film, but as far as sudden visceral and violent impact (with zero blood, no less), this considerably jarring moment more than deserves its place in cinematic horror history. It was a time when moments like this could still really stand apart and out… and, man, did this one.
Peck, as always, gives his respectable all as the increasingly (and understandably) flummoxed diplomat, trying to keep his political career ascending while dealing with the notion that he may not only be raising Satan’s child, but all signs are indicating he’s gonna have to kill the little bugger (with those nasty sharp mystical daggers of Meggido). Peck may be a little ancient across from the considerably younger Remick, but, hey, he came from Old Hollywood where make-believe things like twenty-something Audrey Hepburn falling for 50-somethings like him, or Cary Grant, or Gary Cooper was the norm.
The Omen played as part of a retrospective for the recently passed Remick and while she isn’t really asked to do much other than gather some audience empathy, she is involved in two more brilliantly constructed, classic set-pieces (the most masterful being the fall from the balcony, with the fishbowl first dropping to reinforce distance, followed by the cinematic trickery of having the floor come up to meet her rather than her meet the ground, then the cleverly conceived moment – riffing on, knowingly or not, a similar moment with Edwige Fenech in the 1972 giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris —of Remick’s character seeing the cloudy image of her assassin through the cloth of the sweater she has over her head).
While nowhere near as harrowing an experience as, say, The Exorcist, or imbued with that almost darkly supernaturally unsettling sense of Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen remains a well-crafted horror movie; simple-minded, yet so effectively conceived it managed to not only give us a plethora of now classic set-pieces but introduced a whole cinematic Antichrist mythos, such as the now familiar ‘666’ birthmark, straight from the biblical Book of Revelations itself, as well as ends on a wonderfully cheeky and dark twist ending (and the whole Thorn violently dragging the screaming kid around for the last minutes is pretty surprisingly intense for a mainstream film).
While the Latin chanting sections of the Goldsmith score are unforgettable, I’m less certain of what I think about the weird churning sounds the famous composer created for various ominous moments, such as when the Devil dogs in the graveyard are about to attack; while certainly daring, they feel to me as having the effect of being too overtly low-brow ‘horror movie’.
On the smart end, the film loads up with some wonderful oddball character actors capable of quirky turns, including the familiar theatrical Englishman David Warner as the photographer who first starts figuring out something odd is going on, to an uncredited wild-eyed Leo McKern as an Antichrist expert (is that an actual profession?) and, of course, the very great, fascinating looking Whitelaw as the Satanist willing to give her life to protect the boy.
The massive success of The Omen spawned not only some (if I’m remembering them correctly) worthwhile sequels and, no surprise, a slew of perverse and crazy Italo knock-offs (ones usually cross-linked with The Exorcist). I’ll likely skip showing my daughter all those, but looking forward to taking her at least a bit further down Antichrist Lane with the rest of The Omen series…
As I explained to my mother, slightly bemused that I took her granddaughter to The Omen just a few days before the celebration of Christ’s birthday, how else will my daughter be prepared if by chance she unwittingly finds herself in the predicament of having spawned the Son of Satan? Better be prepared than be sorry, I always say. And, heck, if something like a third of Americans when polled actually believe the Devil’s kid is coming in their lifetimes, why not play along?