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Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: The Omen (1976)

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The Omen: 1976

Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick  and David Warner.

Directed by Richard Donner

Review By: D.S. Ullery
For a great many people, the peace and love movement launched in earnest in 1967 with the Summer of Love – and, in a larger, ideological sense, the innocence of the 1960’s – came to an ugly end on an eerily silent August night in 1969, when Charles Manson sent his followers into the Hollywood hills on a mission of murder. Even the success of the Woodstock festival several weeks later couldn’t quell the tide of rising tensions.

This may seem an odd note on which to launch a review of what’s essentially a mainstream occult horror flick about the Antichrist, but bear with me.

Between 1967 and 1974, the mood in the United States had undergone a dramatic shift away from the sensibilities distinguishing the early days of the Hippie movement. There was the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the aforementioned Manson cult crimes, the Kent State shootings, Watergate and the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon.

All of these events were underscored by the escalating violence in Vietnam, with American combat troops being deployed in earnest by 1965 and reaching an all time high by April of 1969.  The voices of the flower children were being drowned out by an increased chorus of disillusionment with the status quo. Everything from our government to class division to the patriarchy was viewed through an increasingly conspiratorial filter.

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Small wonder then that, in 1968, Roman Polanski delivered such an impressive cultural touchstone with his film adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby. Here was a film with definite sociopolitical undertones, as young wife and expectant parent Rosemary Woodhouse finds herself increasingly paranoid as the target of a conspiracy, one which proves to be all too real. A husband offering her as a vessel to further his own career, a satanic society which assigns her the role of mother, whether she wants it or not, forcing her to eventually accept on her own terms. The politics were there. Clearly the times they were a’ changing, as Dylan crooned.

By the time Richard Donner’s The Omen arrived in theaters in post-Watergate 1976, there was fertile ground to plow. Aside from the quality of the finished film, I think that had as much to do with why this attempt to cash in on the rising interest in occult stories begun by Polanski’s film (and pushed to new heights by the brilliant The Exorcist several years earlier) ultimately earned a place as a horror classic. The message of The Omen is both direct and brilliant, delivered with perfect timing: The son of the devil is among us and he’s going to be a politician.

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The story: American politico Robert Thorn (A superb Gregory Peck, who embraces the material without a shred of condescension), finds himself awaiting the birth of his child in a Catholic-run Roman hospital on June 6th, at 6am. He is informed by the head priest his son was stillborn. Wracked with grief and concerned how this news will effect his wife Kathy’s mental state, Thorn is at a loss about what to do.

The priest offers a solution: Another child -born in the same moment to a mother who died as a result-  could be adopted in secret. It is observed the child even bears a striking resemblance to Thorn. His wife would never need to know. Desperate to protect her and have a family, Thorn agrees.

Everyone reading this likely knows the rest of the story by now. Three sequels (including a made for television movie that stands as one of history’s greatest mistakes), a 2006 remake and a short lived TV series later, it’s practically impossible for a horror fan over the age of ten to not be familiar with The Omen.

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The kid – who they name Damien- grows up. For the first few years, the Thorns enjoy an idyllic existence. Robert is promoted to Ambassador to Great Britain (where the majority of the film is set). They purchase a beautiful mansion there and settle in. Kathy appears none the wiser regarding her husband’s deception.

Beginning with his fifth birthday, a series of increasingly gruesome accidents seemingly centered around young Damien begin to occur, setting the lives of the family on a course of violence and tragedy. As death begins to intrude more prominently and the nature of the evil surrounding the child encroaches, forces conspiring to eliminate the parents and allow Damien to inherit their power begin to reveal themselves.

The cast is excellent, much better than exploitation material like this usually boasts. Lee Remick is engaging and ultimately someone the audience deeply sympathizes with as Kathy, Robert’s doomed wife, who suspects there’s something not right about her son. As already noted, Gregory Peck brings every bit of his regal, commanding presence to the screen, investing Robert with both a sense of authority and a deep humanity rare for this sub-genre. There’s a moment late in the film when he weeps for his wife that, to this day, is one of the most heart wrenching scenes I’ve ever watched. The grief he essays is tangible.

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Billie Whitelaw shows up in the second act as a new nanny – Ms. Baylock-  who the audience quickly comes to understand is well aware of Damien’s origins. She’s there’s to protect and nurture him, with her life if necessary. Whitelaw is a formidable, terrifying presence, providing the film with some of its more unsettling moments.

But the MVP of the film has to be marvelous British character actor David Warner. It’s because of this role that I became a fan of his work in the first place. Here he inhabits the role of Jennings, a photographer who begins to unravel the dark mystery surrounding the birth of Damien, prompted by bizarre blemishes in his photographs which seem to predict each new death. Warner’s dry delivery and energy are infectious. The best sequences in the film are those where he and Peck are paired up, traveling Europe to track down the truth about the boy.

The score is phenomenal. The late, great Jerry Goldsmith was tapped to provide the music and his work here earned him a thoroughly deserved Academy Award win. The opening theme – “Ave Satani” – has since transcended mere commercial success to become a familiar, often copied musical motif that’s instantly recognizable in the present.

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Director Richard Donner – who I list alongside John Badham as an under-appreciated genius – does a fantastic job weaving his visual narrative along with David Seltzer’s intelligent screenplay, drawing top notch performances out of his cast. I think modern audiences may tend to overlook how remarkable a career Donner has had. His next film was Superman the Movie and he went on to direct all four Lethal Weapon films.  Never is his ability behind the camera more evident than with The Omen.  With this film, Donner efficiently continued the brand of mainstream, blockbuster horror ushered in with Jaws the previous year.

An astonishing quality The Omen possesses is an uncanny ability to successfully balance spectacular set pieces with mood and atmosphere.  The deaths in this film are successively more brutal, usually depicted as the consequence a series of events the audience knows are diabolical in origin but appear to be unfortunate accidents to the unaware.  Possibly the best example of this is the now famous, tone-defining sequence where a sudden lightning storm abruptly develops on a clear afternoon, terrorizing an errant priest who had attempted to warn Robert Thorn about Damien.  As an unseen, malevolent force hurls deliberately aimed lighting bolts at him, the terrified man scrambles frantically to find sanctuary in a local church, only to set up a shocking impalement moments later.

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Yet, that isn’t why the scene works. What powers it is everything that came before. The gradual introduction of the priest, the sinister undertones carried by his cryptic remarks as he stalks Thorn, the electrifying moment when people entering Thorn’s office drown out his admission that Damien’s mother was a jackal. The groundwork is carefully laid.  This is how it goes the entire film. By the time the special effects kick in and the ghastly deaths are happening, we’re already invested and unnerved.

Compare that to a more modern film series like Final Destination (which one hundred percent owes its approach to elaborate onscreen kills to The Omen franchise). Those are fun films to watch, but they work in a superficial, “how-can-we–top–the-last-death” capacity.  With The Omen, Donner is far more interested in telling a very scary story about inexplicable, supernatural events and populating it with believable human beings. The violence is a natural outgrowth of that, not the reason for the film to exist in the first place.

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There are countless movies which employ the devil as the heavy. Few of them match the class, power and effectiveness of The Omen. Not only did it expertly tap into the collective wariness regarding politics in the mid 1970’s (while simultaneously capitalizing on a cultural surge in religious themes. DePalma’s terrific adaptation of Carrie would also effectively show faith leading to dark directions via a breathtaking performance from Piper Laurie the same year),  if anything it’s even more relevant in the current political climate. That’s the defining quality of a true classic- it stands the test of time.

The Omen is a movie every horror fan should have in their collection.  

***** out of ***** of five stars. It doesn’t get much better.

D.S. Ullery

D.S. Ullery has published in various ezines and magazines, as well as the anthologies When Red Snow MeltsCreature Stew; Journals of Horror:Found Fiction; Wild Things: Thirteen tales of Therianthropy ; Paying the Ferryman and The Final Masquerade. Beyond Where the Sky Ends – the first collection of his horror fiction- was published in early 2016. A born and raised Floridian,  he lives with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.

Into dark distributing tales?

Beyond Where the Sky Ends-Dark Tales to Disturb and Engage by [Ullery, D. S.]

“Beyond Where the Sky Ends a hell of a read, hitting on many different levels and I truly hope it finds its audience” -Zakk Madness. 

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