The Omen (1976)


The Omen

The Omen is not as serious a movie as it appears. Coming to the modern audience as the infant in a Holy trinity of satanic, apocalyptic horror films, including The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen arrives leaden with reputation and expectation. Its story is renowned, its sequences remembered, and its delicious score is an iconic pop-cultural phenomenon. On the surface of things, Richard Donner’s film matches its Trinitarian peers shock for shock. However, as little Damian proves, not everything is as it seems. Though garbed in the accoutrements of its satanic predecessors, it is at its core a story of gross implausibility and squandered potential, a schlocky piece of fluff shot and cut with unwarranted earnestness. When poked and prodded, when the hair is cut away, the film is essentially a pretty good bad movie.

The story of the devil’s son born to the American politician begins with a moment that only reveals its ridiculousness in retrospect: when Ambassador to Italy Robert Thorn’s (Gregory Peck) first-born dies moments after birth, he is offered, and accepts, an abandoned child as replacement. He does this so that his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) is spared the torment of the death. I know politics is pragmatic, but really. With any moral quibbles twitched away by a few hard long stares, the Thorns take up shop in England when Robert receives a promotion. The years pass in dreary montage and Damian (a creepily cute Harvey Stephens) grows to age five in blissful British tranquility. Naturally, when his nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself on his sixth birthday, announcing ‘It’s all for you Damian,’ things change.

From here on in, we meet the new nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), a depressingly unambiguous villainess, and her big, black, overprotective dogs. Damian starts reacting strangely to churches, animals start reacting strangely to Damian, and priests start showing up with all manner of bad limericks. Add a photographer with a lens for predestination, baboon attacks, a famous fall, and an unnaturally persistent lightning storm, and The Omen delivers on the horror quotient.

Donner directs all of this action with a master’s handle. Every moment of terror, every death, hits hard with suddenness and a certain ingenuity. The nanny suicide is a particularly well orchestrated ballet of close-ups, crazed eyes, and well, leaping nannies. Donner attacks the ears with barking animals and a ludicrous yet effective score courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith. Cloying Hallmarkish pianos follow the family around their English manor before harps, trumpets, and Latinized choirs join in to herald the film’s sporadic explosions of violence. The camera is far less extreme, observing the action with a generally dignified distance. One only wishes Donner had trashed it up a bit more.

Establishing a classic style generates an expectation that said style and story will meet on equal planes and the tale told here does not sustain the manner of its telling. I was left wondering what exactly Damian did to warrant his parents’ distrust. It is not the child but his minders and certain rascally priests who cause the film’s central troubles. The one incident for which Damian might be held accountable is arranged by another, and potentially an accident. Damian never revels in but rather runs from the travesties he seems to create. The Thorns’ turn against him is plainly unwarranted and dramatically unsubstantiated. That this is the crux of The Omen‘s story leaves us with a struggling film indeed.

It is unfair in some ways to expect so much of The Omen, ostensibly a classy exercise in genre filmmaking. Yet, the dilemma of the father forced to kill the son, so rich in Biblical allusion and potentially intense psychodrama, is tangential where it might have been central. The parental predicament of Rosemary and her baby centered Polanski’s film and allowed its evolution to the esteemed cinematic pinnacle at which it now sits. Donner’s movie looks similar, and slows at times to contemplate, but never to contemplate anything of great worth. It fumbles with poetical predictions where it might have been tortured by the terror of the Thorns’ decision. As such, The Omen is a good movie, diverting, unsettling, quiet, and noisy, but certainly not great. Damian just isn’t ready to play with the grown-ups.

The DVD is now available on a two-disc collector’s edition, featuring one deleted scene, two commentary tracks, introduction by Richard Donner, two featurettes about the film, and an ‘appreciation’ from Wes Craven.

The Omen Collection Blu-ray box set includes four Omen films, including the remake (only The Omen IV is excluded). Each includes a commentary track. Also included are two making-of featurettes from the 2006 remake.

Baby did a bad, bad thing.