The Omen (1976)

The Omen (1976)Synopsis (spoilers warning): When their child is stillborn in Rome – on the 6th day, of the 6th month at the 6th hour – Robert Thorne, an American diplomat (Academy Award®-winner Gregory Peck), and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) are devastated. In his despair, Thorne exchanges his dead baby for one born at the same time…and unwittingly enters a bargain with the devil that culminates in a series of gruesome ‘accidents’…and a child destined to one day destroy the world!

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The Omen 8.5

eyelights: Gregory Peck. Patrick Troughton. the well-conceived plot. the devilish score. the realistic kills.
eyesores: the fake scare when the Thorns walk by the lake.

“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666.” – Book of Revelation, Chapter 13, Verse 18

I don’t remember when I first saw ‘The Omen’, exactly. I had seen bits and bites of the sequel as a teenager, but had never seen this one until some 15 years later. I became an instant fan: rarely had I seen such an intelligent, well-crafted chiller thriller. If I have a grievance with horror films, it’s just how nonsensical and ill-conceived they are.

Not so with ‘The Omen’.

‘The Omen’ is the story of Robert Thorn, a U.S. ambassador whose wife just had a stillbirth, and who is convinced by a priest to substitute the child for an abandoned one that was born at approximately the same time. For the sake of his fragile wife, he decides that he will take in and raise Damien as their own, never telling her the truth.

The problem is that a series of tragic circumstances begin to envelop the Thorns. While their family life is genuinely happy and Damien is a healthy boy, strange deaths strike near them and questions are raised about the origins of the boy. Virtually stalked by a manic, doom-saying priest and saddled with an inquisitive reporter, Robert Thorn must confront an ominous possibility…

…that Damien is not all that he appeared to be.

In putting together ‘The Omen’, director Richard Donner made a wise decision: he specifically asked screenwriter David Seltzer to keep supernatural elements out of the film – with the intention of making the events out to be a credible as possible, as they might actually happen in real life. In so doing, he grounded the story and turned it into a “what if” scenario.

The picture also confidently uses religion to tell its tale, its conspiracy of evil, adding considerably to its weight; at no point does get it into hysterics or make outrageous claims about the End of Days. In fact, even though some of its arguments are wholly invented and aren’t actually rooted in the Bible, it’s delivered in such a way that it feels entirely believable.

Of course, ‘The Omen’ would be nothing if not for the gravitas of Gregory Peck, who came out of retirement to make this picture, presciently taking a reduced pay cheque but a 10% cut of the grosses. Peck, a fine and charismatic actor, gave the part of Robert Thorn a sober intelligence that was much needed; if Thorn hadn’t been so clearly convinced, he wouldn’t have convinced us either.

Another element that makes ‘The Omen’ so chillingly effective as a horror picture is Jerry Goldsmith’s Academy Award-winning score. Donner has said that his picture would not have been nearly as terrifying if not for Goldsmith’s score.  One just has to listen to the music on its own to recognize that, as disturbing as ‘The Omen’ is, Donner’s assessment is spot on.

Utterly inspired, Goldsmith layered eerie chants of pseudo-Latin over dramatic strings and delicate piano tinkles. Equal part drama, romance and terror, he created one of the most distinctive motion picture scores in history. In the realm of horror cinema, likely only ‘Psycho’ and ‘Jaws’ are as effective: I can’t listen to this score without feeling a certain sense of dread come over me.

Now, if I seem cryptic in my overall assessment of ‘The Omen’, that’s because it’s a thriller that depends on the element of surprise to deliver its creeping terror and goose pimples. There are moments when less is more, and this is one of them. If one hasn’t already seen the picture or heard all about it, it’s near-essential to go into it with a blank slate – or at the very least with limited foreknowledge.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

But for those of you who have seen ‘The Omen’ already, here are some of my favourite moments in this awesome motion picture:

  • The nanny’s hanging: this is really disturbing, because we get the gist that something is wrong with the nanny beforehand, and yet we would never expect her to commit suicide in public – at a child’s birthday party! And in such a dramatic, show-stopping fashion. And shouting “It’s all for you, Damien!”, no less. WTF. This really sets the tone for the picture. The look on Lee Remick’s face is utterly unforgettable.
  • The eerie looks that Damien gives (such as the one at his birthday party, when he sees the Rottweiler): it’s utterly chilling – you get the sense that, despite his limited intellectual development, he is instinctively aware of what’s transpiring. And that he’s all for it. *shudder*
  • The priest’s impalement: to me, seeing him frozen in his steps, looking up, arms outstretched to the heavens and shouting as the lightning rod bolts towards him, is probably as intense as the nanny’s hanging. It was something to behold: in that moment he knew he was doomed and was powerless to do anything about it. The sight of him quite literally pinned in place, still standing but impaled, was gruesome in the best way possible.
  • Ms. Baylock’s arrival: when she shows up and tells Damien that she is there to protect him, it means that not only is there a conspiracy, but it confirms that there really is something out of the ordinary about Damien. Then, later, when Robert Thorn goes to Damien’s room only to find a growling Rottweilier on guard at the door, and Ms. Baylock comes out of the shadows, we realize that Damien is being protected by powers beyond our understanding, and that anyone getting in the way will be forced out. Anyone.
  • The sight of the crushed baby’s skull: infanticide is particularly horrific to start with, but seeing that small skeleton with a big gaping hole in its skull was disturbing. Not to mention the fact that we know that there was a sinister motive behind it – it wasn’t an accident or some random occurrence. This adds an extra layer to the ominous vibe surrounding Damien’s presence.
  • The unveiling of the seven daggers of Megiddo: the daggers are spectacular-looking, with lengthy stiletto-like blades and a crucified Christ on the handle. Collected together in a cloth roll-up case, they make an impression every single time.
  • The beheading: it is said that Richard Donner purposely designed the sequence so that audiences who looked away would return their gaze only to see the head still floating about in mid-air; he didn’t want them to miss it. It’s an excellent trick, but he also managed to make it seem like time slows down, so that the rest of us don’t feel as though it is overkill or gratuitous. It’s quite a memorable moment, for all its ghastliness.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Even as an agnostic, non-Christian, I find ‘The Omen’ absolutely chilling. I was raised in a culture that personifies evil in the form of Satan (followed in close succession by Hitler and the Teletubbies), so the idea that there may be some truth to the Book of Revelation triggers my imagination and dread at the same time. Furthermore, this film is crafty at building credible arguments in its favour.

‘The Omen’ is more than a mere collection of spooky moments: it’s a moody piece that builds the tension slowly and with the utmost precision, all the way to its terrifying climax. The last scene leaves the audience with a horrible feeling in the pit of their stomach: as events are unfolding it will only get worse, until evil prevails and there is no hope for humankind. Brrr…

“From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
‘Til man exists no more.”

Incredibly enough, the series only gets better. ‘The Omen’ was just a warning.

Story: 9.0
Acting: 8.0
Production: 8.0

Chills: 7.5
Gore: 3.0
Violence: 5.0

Date of viewing: September 22, 2013

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