I have the softest of spots for Satanic Panic horror, from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to The Exorcist (1973) to The Devil’s Rain (‘75) up to The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and beyond. There’s just something about Old Scratch pulling the strings on the ill-begotten and innocent alike that makes me giddy. One of the most successful iterations is 1976’s The Omen, wherein Beelzebub sends his little guy into the world to stir things up and make it hard for A-list actors to keep straight faces. But they somehow do, resulting in one of my very favorite devil-dipped ‘70s flicks.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox in a limited run on June 6th (OOH), The Omen went wide and brought in over $60 million against a $2.8 million budget, making it the fourth biggest grossing film of the year. And surprise, surprise, some mainstream critics liked it too, citing the acting, creative deaths, and Jerry Goldsmith’s now iconic, Oscar-winning score as highlights of a film that is as ridiculous as they come. To whit:
Let’s start in Rome, where American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck – To Kill a Mockingbird) is rushing to the hospital for the imminent birth of his son. He is told upon arrival that his son has arrived stillborn; however, another boy has been born at the same time and perhaps we could just swap one for the other, easy peasy? Robert reluctantly agrees, with the promise that his wife Katherine (Lee Remick – The Medusa Touch) never knows the truth. Shortly thereafter, Robert is assigned as the ambassador to Great Britain, and soon we’re presented a montage of happiness as the Thorns celebrate their idyllic existence with their son, Damien (Harvey Stephens).
Cut to Damien’s fifth birthday fete, as heads of state, dignitaries, clowns (oops, I’m repeating myself in one sentence) and rugrats gather to well wish the little tyke. Except the arrival of a demonic dog causes the nanny to make a scene and hang herself outside an estate window, leaving the party in shambles yet providing great fodder for photographer Jennings (David Warner – Time after Time), and providing a job opening for the new nanny…Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw – Hot Fuzz), who seems particularly well suited to look after the little imp. From there, things amp up for poor Robert and his clan; a visit from a panicked priest (Patrick Troughton – Dr. Who) reveals sinister events behind his child’s true identity, and when those who get too close to the truth start to be cast aside in freaky ways, Bob and Jennings search for a way to stop the impending apocalypse. (That Damien has a lot of pull, you know.)
The Omen is not The Exorcist, but they certainly rode the same zeitgeist train of the day; audiences were clamoring for anxiety-inducing supernatural horror in the wake of assassinations, unnecessary war, and corrupt leadership (at least that’s all behind us). But in the world of filmic terror, The Omen is not taken as seriously as The Exorcist, nor should it be; the former’s horror is decidedly macro in its intent, while the latter is effectively micro.
William Friedkin’s undisputed classic focuses on the plight of a priest’s need to save a possessed girl, and in return, hopefully himself. Director Richard Donner (Superman) and writer David Seltzer (Prophecy) don’t skimp and decide to put all of humanity on the chopping block; whereas Regan’s shattered soul allows for a personal connection to her pain (and Father Karras’ too), The Omen’s cast of characters are there to move the end days along as the plot allows. This is not a criticism; The Exorcist is a sincere examination of the nature of faith, while this film twists itself into biblical knots to interpret the Book of Revelations as ‘what if’ Sunn Classic propaganda by way of Roger Corman. It is pop art intended with the sole purpose of scaring the shit out of audiences.
And I love me some pop art, especially when the filmmakers have the tools and talent at their disposal. Donner, coming off a prolific episodic TV career (and one previous theatrical feature, 1968’s Salt and Pepper), flexes a muscular style that would serve him well as an action director in the Lethal Weapon series of films; subtlety holds no truck here, nor should it – Sturm und Drang is what the Anti-Christ deserves, and he delivers.
Donner also nails the tone necessary for this to succeed; which is to say, so serious that it laps around into perverted comedy; Seltzer’s death scenes are staged for maximum (and unusual) carnage, and Donner cackles as he sets up each one for the audience, and then follows through with the cosmic joke. They’re doozies, too; hanging, spire spearings, decapitations, all laid out for mainstream folk who ate it all up and came back for more. Again, this was turned out to please, not repel; there is no crucifix masturbation or chunky green vomit to cause people to pass out, only cleverly timed shocks. Thanks to cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Star Wars – yes, I just call it that), whose clever camerawork pays homage to Hammer with sharp close-ups and eerily staged set pieces, for presenting the material with a classier coat of paint than it probably deserves.
The same goes for the cast; Peck, Remick, et al imbue their characters with a weight just by their sheer presence alone; Whitelaw is next level great however as Mrs. Baylock; only someone truly sinister could be the literal Au Pair from Hell, and her downward stare and evil grin more than meet the qualifications.
The Omen is also fascinating in its portrayal of good and evil; the church is complicit in the birth and cover-up of Damien, and the film is filled with paranoid ranting from both sides of the pew (not dissimilar from Michael Winner’s The Sentinel from the following year). I suppose if I had a hand in bringing about the end of the world, I’d be a little jittery as well.
While the subject of religion has played an important part in horror throughout the decades, from the sanctified to the profane, pushing boundaries of faith and good taste (whatever that means), The Omen’s legacy is cemented in the final shot of the film: Damien, standing at a graveside, looks back at the camera ominously…and then smiles. The smell of brimstone has never been more appealing.
The Omen is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE KINDRED (1987)