Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
There’s a reason I avoided watching The Omen for as long as I have. It has nothing to do with being scared of it; after all, I don’t believe in a Satan or an Antichrist. No, the reason is that The Omen appears in “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time,” and I’ve learned to respect the opinions in that book. Of the films I’ve seen from it, apathy is the best of managed. I’ve outright hated a few of them. This didn’t bode well for The Omen. I’m not the sort of person who revels in bad film unless those films are being narrated by Joel/Mike and the bots.
This time, Harry Medved and Randy Lowell have let me and the rest of us down; The Omen does not belong in their book. This is a very solid thriller that is smart enough to merely hint at the supernatural despite its subject matter. That subject matter, as hinted at in the previous paragraph, is the birth of the Antichrist. So while there are obvious religious implications here, the film very much plays things straight. There are certainly aspects of the supernatural in evidence, but for the wholly skeptical (at least within the film), everything that happens can be written off as coincidence.
It begins in Italy, where Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick) has given birth to her first child. The child, however, is dead. This is something that her husband, American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) knows will likely kill her if she discovers it. He is offered a way out by a priest named Father Spiletto (Martin Benson); another child has been born at the same time and the child’s mother has died. Thorn immediately “adopts” the abandoned child, claiming him as his own son. He and Katherine name the boy Damien (eventually played by Harvey Stephens).
But we know where this is going, right? Damien is actually the Antichrist, although this isn’t revealed fully until around the final half hour of the film. We know something is up, though, because there are a series of bizarre and gruesome incidents surrounding the child. The first happens on his fifth birthday (notably, Damien was born at 6:00 am on June 6th, or 6:00, 6/6 for those playing at home) when his nanny publically hangs herself at Damien’s birthday party. She is soon replaced by Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), a grim-faced and malevolent woman who comes with a demonic Rottweiler.
Robert Thorn is frequently accosted by a priest named Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who warns that the family is in danger and that he knows the true parentage of the boy. This eventually unnerves Thorn substantially, but it’s when the priest is killed in a freak accident by a lightning rod that things really get weird. Thorn is contacted by a photographer named Jennings (David Warner) who has taken pictures of both the nanny and the priest before their deaths. Imperfections on the film seem to presage the deaths of both. Worse, a photograph of Jennings seems to foretell of his own terrible fate.
There’s a great deal more, of course. Damien, for instance, causes Katherine Thorn to have a miscarriage in a terrible accident. Animals seem naturally upset by the presence of Damien, demonstrated spectacularly with a group of baboons in a zoo. Throughout the film, there is a real sense of surreality, of things being slightly off at all times, making for an unsettling watch.
For me, it’s the presence of Gregory Peck that makes the entire film. He adds a tremendous amount of gravitas to the production, and to have such a prominent role only gives the film that much more power. The same can be said of David Warner, who typically played criminals, killers, and other heavies in the era. Placing him in a role like this one adds an interesting element, since audiences familiar with Warner would likely peg him as a villain. The real performance of note, though, is that of Billie Whitelaw, who plays Mrs. Baylock with an icy menace.
Also worthy of note is the score, which won an Oscar and was nominated for Best Song. When you think of demonic liturgical music, you’re thinking of the music from this film almost without question—every bit of demonic chanting that has come after this film has referenced it in one way or another. The Omen would be disturbing without the soundtrack or with a different one, but it serves frequently to heighten the mood. All of the good scares are enhanced by the score.
Finally, The Omen is notable for a number of the death sequences. I won’t spoil a couple of them because they truly are memorable; those I’ve already mentioned come early enough in the film that I’m not spoiling much. This is inventive and grisly stuff, and the film is all the better because of it.
The Omen isn’t going to turn me into a believer, except in the sense that this is a film that has held up fairly well overall. It’s a worthwhile watch for the horror fan and those who can’t get enough of the supernatural in their entertainment. It’s not big on boo factor, but there are moments when it really goes for sneaking under the skin and gets there.
Why to watch The Omen: It’s as good or better than its reputation.
Why not to watch: If you’re of a religious bent, it might be scarier than you’d like.