Feelin’ Spooky: The Omen (1976)

By Christian DiMartino

When Richard Donner died earlier this year, it was definitely a bummer. Mind you, the guy was 91, so he lived a good life. He also hadn’t made a movie since 2006’s 16 Blocks, which I haven’t seen since its release but I remember it being pure Donner. He was also on the cusp of coming out of retirement to make Lethal Weapon 5, which might not have been necessarily… well, necessary, but I would’ve been all over it because like a lot of movies I shouldn’t have been watching as a kid, Lethal Weapon was (and still is) one of my favorites. Donner was one of the great unsung filmmakers of his time, in that he made films that were purely entertaining, but they were terrifically entertaining. Superman and Lethal Weapon are certainly among his best, but in my heart, his best film just might have been his second film, The Omen.

Alright, so I’m going to make a bold claim, and stay with me: of all the horror films I’ve ever seen, The Omen remains my favorite. Not the 2006 remake with Liev Schreiber (haven’t seen that in about 15 years, but it’s literally the same movie). Not any of the sequels, which dove into the lore presented by the the first film and particularly its ending. But Donner’s The Omen, which remains one of those truly unsettling horror masterpieces that remains just as perfect now as when I first saw it as a third grader (I would tell you I wasn’t raised right, but I beg to differ). It’s a film that, through and through, remains chilling. From its performances to its direction, with Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificent, Oscar winning score to wrap a bow on the whole thing, The Omen is more than just an “Exorcist knockoff.”

I mention this last part because The Omen was released three years after The Exorcist took the world by storm. It’s clear that, after William Freidkin’s masterful nightmare, other studios wanted to take their own stab at the world of the devil and such. So I’m not 100% sure on how well The Omen was received during its initial run. I know that Roger Ebert gave the movie two and a half stars, which in his book is a “thumbs down.” From where I’m sitting, that is complete blasphemy. Hell, we all make mistakes. You know what really doesn’t though? The Omen. It’s a movie that sets out to haunt you, and boy, it’s a knockout.

The late great Gregory Peck gives among his most underrated performances as Robert Thorn, an American who dabbles in politics (I don’t, but I want to get the sequence of the plot right, so stick with me). As the film opens, Robert’s wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has just had a miscarriage, but he is told that another boy has just been born, and that his mother has passed. So he essentially claims this child as his own, and they name him Damien. Soon Robert is given a promotion, as an American Ambassador for England (again, I know nothing about politics, but I’m doing my best), and four years go by and Robert, Katherine and Damien live their lives happily…

Until Damien’s fifth birthday party. At this fabulous soiree, Damien’s current nanny stands on the highest ledge of the Thorn’s beautiful mansion with a noose around her neck, exclaiming, “It’s all for you!” She then proceeds to jump and hang herself in front of a bunch of children. Sheesh, what a buzzkill. On top of that, there are these Rottweilers hanging around Thorn manner, and there is an unexpected arrival of another nanny named Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw, a real creepazoid), and it’s all totally sus. The plot is really kicked into gear though with the arrival of a Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who arrives at Richard’s office telling him that he was there the night Damien’s real mother was born, and that it was urgent. Brennan (I love the way he says, “Mr. Thorn”) tells him that his son is the spawn of evil and that he is to travel to Italy in search of answers. Richard is obviously in disbelief, but after strange occurrence followed by strange occurrence, Thorn goes on the search for answers while the lives of him and Katherine and basically everyone around them hang in the balance.

Speaking of strange occurrences, you should really look into the IMDb trivia for The Omen; it’s really quite chilling and honestly pretty fascinating. A plane with a bunch of crew members was struck by lightning, for example, and the animals featured during the zoo sequence were actually rabid. Just stuff like that. This is one of those films, like Poltergeist, that must’ve been cursed from their inception, in the way that evil found a way onto the set. That doesn’t make The Omen a better film, necessarily, but if you love the movie as much as I do, yeah, it’s pretty interesting.

What works so beautifully about The Omen is that it follows the type of evil that I find genuinely frightening. Take a movie like last month’s Malignant. It was obviously silly, but it was good fun, but also, the creature at the root of that film was totally absurd. What makes The Omen work is similar to what makes a movie like Hereditary work. I’m not a particularly religious person, but was raised by religious parents, and what’s chilling about The Omen is that the evil at the heart of it isn’t really seen, but we also kind of know it’s there. Sure, Damien shows signs of evil, but is he really aware of it? Not to mention, the freak occurrences that occur in The Omen are what I’ve already said: freak occurrences. Terrifying storms mixed with a giant rod going through a man’s body; a parked truck being “accidentally” switched to reverse and decapitating a man with a giant sheet of glass. There isn’t a spectre or a ghost or a creature pulling the strings in The Omen, nor is there some sort of black magic. It is, quite simply, the work of evil, and the film establishes this so well that it could probably convert any nonbeliever.

The performances are first rate, as is Donner’s direction, which I also believe to be his best. He crafted a film that happened to not be an ingenious potboiler but also a film that strikes fear into our hearts. The Omen is a triumph of the highest order, I stand by it. It’s a horror classic that remains endlessly interesting and perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it 1,000, but it’s one that has aged gracefully. If you’re wanting a good old fashioned fright, this is the one. I’ll also say, on Halloween about two years ago, some friends and I turned off every light in the house, turned on our wireless speaker, and blared Jerry Goldsmith’s Academy Award nominated song, “Ave Satani.” I’m not gonna lie, it was among the single most chilling experiences I’ve had. And this is coming from someone who has been watching The Omen since they were eight years old.

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