A whole bunch of ropey sequels and a dodgy remake aside, The Omen remains a rather wonderful little Satanic thriller, and a fantastic horror movie in its own right. The sixties and seventies were populated with reproductive horrors like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, and I think that there’s a reason that The Omen has endured. More than three decades after its original release, The Omenremains a superb example of seventies horror at its very finest.
The Omen apparently learned a few marketing tricks from Jaws and become something of a pop culture sensation upon its original release. The studio teased audiences and built up hype around the project, to the point where it could be seen as one of the distant ancestors of today’s blockbusters. However, I’d argue that – even divorced from that context – The Omen stands out as a superb example of the horror genre, despite what the franchise eventually became.
Everybody is familiar with the basic plot of The Omen. Robert Thorn, the United States ambassador to Rome, loses his son in childbirth. Rather than telling his wife about the loss – “I’m afraid it would kill her”– he conspires to replace the child with another born on the same night. This child’s mother, we’re told, dies in childbirth and Robert decides to bring the baby to his wife without telling her that it isn’t her son. As tends to happen in horror movies, this momentary lapse in ethical judgement has pretty spectacular results.
Of course, like most horror films, the movie uses that story as a vehicle to explore all-too-real human fears. What happens if you don’t feel a connection with your own child? Both Robert Thorn and his wife Katherine both find themselves unable to connect with Damian in the way that they might expect. Katherine believes that the boy is her own flesh-and-blood, and finds herself unable to give him the love that she feels she should.
She has no patience for his playing around the house, and that lack of empathy with the boy she believes to be her biological son eats away at her. “I need to see a psychiatrist,” she tells her husband. “I have fears, such fears.” It’s a very unnerving thing to feel so disconnected from your own off-spring and even – perhaps – to be afraid of them. A horror about the son of Satan is not the most subtle vehicle to explore maternal ambivalence, but it’s a very basic and easy to understand adult fear.
Similarly, Robert Thorn faces similar difficulties relating to the child, but his are rooted in the opposite problems. While Katherine believes she can’t connect with her own biological son, Robert seems uncomfortable with the child because he knows that Damien isn’t his own child. Digging around in a creepy and abandoned cemetery, we discover that – on some level – Robert never quite let go of his deceased son. Discovering that the body of Damien’s mother has been replaced with the skeleton of a jackal, he insists on cracking open his son’s grave. “If it’s an animal too, maybe my child is still alive somewhere.”
This allows us to empathise with Robert and Katherine Thorn, despite the fact that they are dealing with something obviously fantastical. Gregory Peck does a great job as Robert Thorn, and his anguish is palpable throughout. The script does miss a few steps while it tries to convince him to sacrifice his own son at the altar, but Peck does an excellent job carrying the movie. A lesser actor might camp it up or phone it in, but Peck delivers a surprisingly sincere performance in what might otherwise be a diverting piece of schlock.
Indeed, casting Peck proves to be a rather wonderful trick on the part of the movie. In To Kill a Mocking Bird Peck personified the idealised father figure, and many of his later roles play against that to a certain extent. The Boys From Brazil is an obvious example, featuring Peck playing against type. However, in The Omen, he’s a similarly sincere and earnest figure – apparently a “future President of the United States” – but the movie has him make a single error in judgement and then pushes him to the point where he is trying to murder his own son.
While Peck is superb, the rest of the movie holds together surprisingly well. Donner manages to restrain some of the more ridiculous moments in the film, but there are instances where Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score overwhelms the film a bit. I honestly never would have figured, based on scenes of Damien staring at stuff, that the Devil was such a synthesiser enthusiast. Similarly, the script rather clumsily foreshadows Damien’s ‘secret.’
Of course, it doesn’t really count as a secret since the opening credits all but give the game away. The titlecard features Damien casting a crucifix with his shadow, so it’s not as if the audience didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. Either way, we don’t need heavy-handed sequences like the one where Jennings utters, “I don’t know if we’ve got the heir to the Thorn millions here or Jesus Christ Himself.” Similarly, even the priest assuring Robert Thorn that the child is a gift “from God” feels a little bit too on-the-nose.
Still, there are the exceptions rather than the rule. Donner handles the script surprisingly well. The cast is superb, even outside Peck. There’s a reason that those other stars are generally consider genre institutions today. While Patrick Troughton had already worked on Doctor Who, The Omenestablished David Warner and Billie Whitelaw as cult actors – I think that both owe a great deal of their body of work to their performances here.
Outside the cast, Donner also does a superb job. There are at least two (if not three) downright iconic sequences contained within the film, familiar to virtually any horror fan and arguably among the best images in seventies horror. It’s hard to imagine anybody reading this has yet to see the film, but even they will likely be familiar with the sequences I describe, as sinister forces conspire against Robert Thorn and those around him.
I honestly consider The Omen to be one of the finest American horror films ever produced. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film casts one hell of shadow that hasn’t faded into memory even after a number of lacklustre and generic horror sequels. That’s a testament to all involved.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Billie Whitelaw, Damien, Damien Thorn, film, Gregory Peck, Horror film, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Movie, non-review review, Omen, patrick troughton, r eview, Robert, Robert Thorn, Rosemary's Baby, Satan, Special effect, Thorn, United States, United States Ambassador