A few years before Richard Donner made us believe a man could fly in Superman, he convinced audiences that a creepy little brat could be the Antichrist in The Omen. Jerry Goldsmith’s wall-to-wall black mass score helps create an atmosphere of all pervading evil in this somber, terrifying occult horror starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
Peck plays Robert Thorn, an American diplomat who is persuaded to take on an orphan when his own son is stillborn in a Rome hospital. Fast forward a couple of years, and Thorn is the US Ambassador to Britain. The boy Damien has grown up into a corrupted cherub played all too convincingly by Harvey Stephens. Weird stuff starts happening – animals freak out in Damien’s presence, ferocious black dogs start skulking around the family mansion, and Damien’s nanny hangs herself at his fifth birthday party.
The shocking death of Damien’s previous governess leaves a position open for the sinister Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), who shows up on the Thorn’s doorstep unannounced. The Thorns buy Baylock’s story and it soon becomes clear that the new nanny is in cahoots with the evil dogs lurking around.
After the freak death of a priest who has been badgering Thorn, ranting about Damien being the Antichrist, photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) starts doing some digging. In an eerie subplot, Jennings notices dark lines on his photos of the nanny and the priest which correspond with the manner of their death. He approaches Thorn with the news, saying he has a personal stake in the matter. As it turns out, Jennings has caught a snap of himself in the mirror…
Few modern mainstream horrors treat their subjects with the gloomy sobriety of The Omen. Like The Exorcist a few years earlier, David Seltzer’s screenplay maximizes on the biblical conflict between good and evil to convey a sense of ancient, unfathomable dread. Occasionally the po-faced approach has the effect of rendering some scenes unintentionally camp.
Like Keyser Soze said, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, and given the way Satan chooses to dispatch his enemies in The Omen, it’s clear that he plans to keep it that way. Ultimately the film is best remembered for its operatic freak death sequences, which still have the power to take the breath away forty years later.
Gregory Peck is a great casting choice as Thorn. Because he’s Gregory Peck, you forgive him for the dodgy choice he makes adopting the orphan in the first place, and because he’s Gregory Peck, you don’t doubt that the best course of action is to stab the little shit seven times to rid the world of evil. Remick is effectively sympathetic as the tragic mother, but otherwise it is the trio of Brits – Whitelaw, Troughton and Warner – who have the biggest impact, as the demonic nanny, terrified priest and fateful photographer respectively.
The Omen is a magnificently doom-laden shocker best watched on a stormy winter’s night with all the lights out, possibly with pages of the Bible plastered all over your walls and windows as protection. Male viewers might also end up shaving blind for the next week, for fear of what they might see in the mirror…