The Omen is one of the horror movies that I was allowed to watch as a child. In our house, the rules were quite simple - films featuring nookie were off limits; bad language was frowned upon but acceptable, and violence was all right, as long as it wasn’t tried at home. As a consequence, The Howling was disappointingly out of bounds until I was much older. I didn’t get to see The Shining, which would probably have given me multiple nightmares for some days afterwards. Poltergeist was fine, and in those days supremely scary (I’ve hated clowns ever since), but it was The Omen - in those banned Exorcist days - that introduced a degree of classy horror.
As it happened, I actually watched Damien Omen II before the original, so by the time I caught up with it I knew that Damo was indeed the Antichrist. The sequel has it as fact, whereas in The Omen you never know for certain. Seeing it now, as part of the Omen Pentology boxset (£7.99 from HMV, readers - what a snip!), the suggestion that Gregory Peck’s protagonist comes to attempt the murder of his own son through a series of unfortunate coincidences, rather than a gradual realisation that the child is Satan personified, adds a fascinating and grim new dimension to the story. The truth is that Peck doesn’t know. He suspects, but he can’t ever be certain, and it remains for the film’s sequels to make Damien’s identity explicit.
The other striking thing about The Omen is that it is never really scary. There are a number of nasty deaths, several shocks, and a scene hinting at canine motherhood, but it’s left to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score to provide the atmosphere. Clearly, choirs of singers howling in fevered Latin were deemed to be shocking stuff back in the 1970s. Take that away, though, and you have little more than several very creepy performances for your chills. Of these, Billie Whitelaw is in fine form as Mrs Baylock, Damien’s nanny and infernal guardian. She’s second in the ‘bonkers’ stakes to Patrick Troughton, who takes on the pivotal role of Father Brennan. For anyone who doubts Damien’s credentials as the spawn of Satan, Brennan is a crucial player. It’s suggested that he could as likely be suffering from morphine-induced craziness as he is telling the truth. At one point, we enter his room, the walls plastered with pages from the Bible and festooned with crucifixes, which adds dubious layers to the character’s credibility. Does he know the horrible reality, or is he just a nutter?
Of the main players, an ageing Gregory Peck just about gets away with playing Robert Thorn. In the film’s opening acts, Thorn is the epitome of waspish integrity, a politician who is respectable enough to become American ambassador to the UK. Underneath this facade, however, he’s an emotional wreck, forever wrestling with the knowledge that Damien isn’t in fact his son at all, but rather a newborn who was given to him when his own boy died during childbirth, just as coincidentally the adopted child’s mother passed away during delivery. Visibly shaken by the deaths of people connected with Damien, and then presented with some rather dodgy photographic evidence from press man Jennings (David Warner - brilliant) that implies something sinister is going on, Thorn starts to lose it entirely, and goes on a fact-finding mission in Rome to discover whether his suspicions have any credence. They do, though you get a nagging impression that Thorn sees what he wants to see in the testimony presented to him, that he has actually started to make up his own mind about Damien’s diabolical roots. Moments of lucidity, such as when he exclaims that he can’t possibly murder a child, throwing his sacrificial knives away for good measure, come just before something happens to conveniently put him back on track e.g. Jennings’s neck meeting a flying pane of glass, just as the photographer predicted would happen.
Far more sympathetic is Mrs Katherine Thorn, played by Lee Remick. Remick gets many of the movie’s most unsettling scenes, one taking place in the safari park where her car - with Damien in it with her - is attacked by baboons, and the bit where her son attacks her when he’s threatened with a visit to the church. Possibly the finest performance in the history of celluloid involving someone looking shocked, Remick is fantastic value, and doesn’t deserve her end in The Omen. Indeed, it seems to me that she’s bumped off rather cheaply, the timely catalyst that sends Thorn over the edge.
Finally, there’s young Harvey Stephens as Damien. Many of the posters for The Omen overdo the scary effects (eyes that were made to look demonically red for much of the publicity), but the child actor doesn’t need any such props to appear suitably sinister. It’s nothing he does, more the stare of those cold blue eyes and milky features that make his a fine turn.
The Omen is directed by Richard Donner, who builds a great sense of atmosphere as the suspense develops. Admirably, the material is produced with a straight face. At no point is the admittedly rather silly yarn played for laughs, or with an ironic eyebrow raised, and it’s to Donner’s credit that he manages to stay within the realms of credibility. The filming, particularly on location, is superb. A standout scene is that between Peck and Troughton. As Father Brennan pleads with Thorn to recognise Damien as the Antichrist, the wind slowly begins to pick up, adding a physical sense of hysteria to the proceedings, all branches swaying and leaves flying around.
The Omen was remade in 2006, to cash in with the marketing-friendly possibility of releasing it on the sixth day, of the sixth month, in the sixth year. The updated version, which is on the Pentology, is terrible, but the same isn’t true of the original. Nicely restored visually (though in terms of the audio Goldsmith’s score is blasted out at the expense of background-bound dialogue and ambient effects) and available for a devilishly cheap price, The Omen is a creepy piece of work with piles of atmosphere, and perhaps more psychological depth than is at first apparent. Naturally, since those childhood days I have now seen all the classic horror flicks listed above, including The Exorcist. It’s the latter piece with which The Omen is most often compared, yet Donner’s effort comes across as more accessible and enjoyable, and I think the one that will stick around for longer.