The Omen (1976)

The Omen (1976) – So here’s a fun little fact about WordPress it keeps track of how many posts you publish and lets you know. A couple posts ago I noticed the numbers creeping upward… 663… 664… 665… I knew there was only one movie that could possibly be the subject of my 666th published post. Though I don’t find myself dwelling on religious matters much these days, I was raised Roman Catholic. Once that gets in your head, it never really leaves. While this manifests mostly just as a very complicated relationship to the emotion of guilt, it also leaves you with some vestigial remnants of reverence for the Church. Even if you’ve become an atheist with nothing but contempt for religious organizations, you have that little bit in the back of your mind that always dwells on the subject of sin and Hollywood’s perennial favorite bad boy… the Devil. The Omen is far from a docudrama of the Roman Catholic Church’s stated position on that type of thing. The Bible quotes are made up and aside from maybe a term or two, the mythology is invented for the movie. But just the trappings of Catholicism have always been enough to give it an air of authenticity… even if there is none whatsoever. Anyway, I’ve been away from the Church for a good portion of my adult life now. So the question is whether or not The Omen can still tap into that sense of fear in invoked in me when I was a young Catholic boy…

Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) is an American diplomat in Rome with a big problem. His wife Cathy (Lee Remick) has just given birth to a baby that died almost instantly. Robert is convinced by a priest (Martin Benson) to adopt an infant born at the same time whose mother died in childbirth. Robert tells Cathy that he’s their own child and the Thornes raise him as their son Damien. When Damien is five (played by Harvey Stephens) Robert is appointed the United States’ ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Thornes move to London. But Damien’s childhood is… less than normal. The new nanny Miss Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) swears she is there to keep him safe. A menacing dog is following Damien around. Animals at the wildlife sanctuary freak the fuck out when Damien is around. Damien himself freaks right the fuck out when his parents try to make him go to a church for a wedding. A priest named Fr. Brennan (Patrick Troughton) is trying to pass cryptic warnings about Damien to Robert. Also a photographer named Keith Jennings (David Warner) notices some strange flaws in the photos he’s been developing that seem to match up with horrific accidents to which the people in the pictures seem to fall victim. Robert begins to suspect that there is more to Damian than an ordinary child, and Brennan knows more than Robert about the details of Damian’s birth…

So this is the movie that for a long time ruined the name Damien. It was a perfectly respectable name, albeit one that sounds kind of like “demon.” (Though it etymologically traces back to meaning “to conquer” or “subdue.”) One of the things I like about the movie is what a non-character Damien really is. Later sequels would ruin this somewhat by making him the central character, but the movie is wise to have Robert at the main protagonist. The weird horrific things happen around Damien. Damien does at times seem quite sinister, but not in any way that would strain credulity for a child. Kids are temperamental. In fact there are supernatural things said to be occurring but nothing seen on screen is explicitly paranormal. Of what we actually see, everything is possible (albeit in some cases quite unlikely). This adds on another layer of doubt. When the truth about Damien comes out… is it the truth? Or is it some form of collective madness targeting a child?

Gregory Peck, a long way from Atticus Finch, carries Robert’s inner conflict on his face. He’s dealing with issues bigger than he ever thought he would have to (and he was possibly running for president!). Lee Remick also is great as a woman who gradually becomes terrified of her own child (though it’s not really her own child). The elaborate deaths scenes recall the decades-later Final Destination films (with the third of them even ripping off the photo gimmick). The Omen is still filled with unnerving atmosphere and some damn creepy fucking moments. Foremost among these would be Damien’s fifth birthday party, with a rather public display by his nanny (Holly Pallance, daughter of actor Jack Pallance). That one still gives me the heebiest of jeebies. The film has aged well, due in large part to the direction of Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, and the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”). Part of it is that the idea of Satan or the Antichrist or just absolute evil personified is a pretty timeless idea. The Omen manages to tap into all the right fears about evil, enough to be a very engaging horror flick.

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