Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.
Release Date: June 25th, 1976 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Richard Donner Actors: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson
n Rome, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is distraught at the news that his newborn baby has died. And what will he tell his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), a woman who so desperately wanted a child of her own, and who, still resting in bed, has no idea of the tragedy? Adoption is out of the question, but a priest has a suggestion – a solution, which has presented itself quite coincidentally. Another baby, whose mother died during childbirth, could be substituted – and Robert could just keep this switch a secret. “On this night, Mr. Thorn, God has given you a sign.”
Years later, Robert is appointed the Ambassador to Great Britain; Katherine initially stays in the United States to look after little Damien (Harvey Stephens), who grows into an adventurous, fun-loving 5-year-old, but eventually relocates with the whole family to an embassy in London. Sadly, the newfound position of influence, the wealth, and the gaiety are short-lived. During a birthday party, nanny Holly (Holly Palance) hangs herself from the roof of the Thorn estate, causing quite the horrific scene. Her unexpected action appears to have been motivated by a stray dog, which also seems to be in communication with Damien. The Thorns’ circumstances worsen when Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) arrives, claiming to have witnessed Damien’s birth, and insisting that the boy’s mother was of questionable stock – and that accepting Christ is the only way to save them all from certain doom.
One would think that switching a child at birth – and concealing that information from the mother – is an unforgivable deception. Here, the ominous happenings begin almost immediately, as if to suggest that such an act has repercussions from beyond an earthly plane. Jerry Goldsmith’s music seconds that opinion, introducing all sorts of dissonant notes, screeching violins, and sudden bursts of sounds to startle the viewer into fearing Damien’s presence onscreen. And for good measure, chirpy, happy tunes work their way into the score as well, offsetting the swell of darker, unsettling motifs. It is, after all, the ultimate betrayal: having a child usurp the control and stability of the parent.
Stephens is thoroughly amusing as a creepy kid (made to seem abnormal via editing and unusual camerawork), following in the footsteps of “The Exorcist’s” supremely disturbing, youthful antagonist. If the violence and morbid imagery wasn’t terrifying enough, the use of a child – a figure who should represent absolute innocence – as a source of evil is as inspiring as it is bloodcurdling. Despite being a product of the ’70s, and limited by that era’s technology, makeup effects, and cinematographic standards, “The Omen” is a striking example of supernatural horror that would influence countless pictures to follow. Its storytelling efficiency far surpasses its technical elements, even when those are handled superbly (helmed by Richard Donner, a veteran TV director, whose work here is right at the start of his efforts in features).
From lights that don’t turn on, to the developing of eerie photographs, to the odd behaviors of frenzied animals, to unearthing graves, to the upsetting infiltration of the Thorn home by the severe Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), “The Omen” is rich with forbidding details and impressive scare tactics. It’s also a mystery, as Robert and an incidental accomplice, photographer Jennings (David Warner), attempt to track down Damien’s origins, which are full of relationships to the devilish number 666 and to ancient religious texts. To make the proceedings more frustrating, Peck adopts the role of disbelief and rationality (entirely convincingly at that), countering Remick’s superstition and fear, prompting suspense to ramp up as every minute passes. The devastating power of familial secrets and the revelations of a concerted plot to bring about the apocalypse (sharing themes with “Rosemary’s Baby”) make way for a riveting finale, involving an alarming decision to murder a child. In the diabolical world of “The Omen,” an exorcism just isn’t a reliable solution. “You must be devoid of pity!”
– Mike Massie