Any movie that decided to deal with the devil immediately after the release of William Friedken’s The Exorcist in 1973 was surely damned to spend an eternity in the shadow of surely one of the greatest religious horrors ever made. However in 1976, thanks to the brass balls of repeat genre conqueror Richard Donner, The Omen managed to become a smash hit and prove that even though the devil has all the best tunes, he also has some pretty good movies too. After an early career honing his skills on virtually every American TV show you can think of from Kojack to The Banana Splits (!), Donner attacked the material with a deadly earnestness that treated it with with the same respect he would show to the Man Of Steel only two years later to the same iconic effect.
American diplomat Robert Thorne sits in a hospital in Rome mulling over the news that his son has died during childbirth and openly wonders how he’s going to ever break the news to his resting wife, Katherine when a priest makes bold suggestion. Why not adopt a baby born mere minutes ago whose mother died in childbirth and tell nobody – even his wife. A distraught Robert agrees and five years later, no one is any the wiser as little Damien celebrates his birthday and his “parents” celebrate the fact that Robert has been appointed ambassador to England – however, the party is officially deemed “over” when Damien’s nanny suddenly commits suicide in full view of everyone while declaring her undying devotion to the confused child.
Reeling from this scarring act of party pooping, Robert is further disturbed by the raving claims of a strange priest that he and his wife are in mortal danger and that only fulling devoting themselves to God will save them and dismisses it all as overblown nonsense. But still, the suspiciously supernatural evidence mounts up with Damien suffering a violent rage fit on the way to church or an entire Safari Park full of animals having an utter shit attack in the terrible tyke’s presence – no to mention the rash of weird accidents that seem to happen whenever the child’s comfort is threatened.
However, possibly the biggest red flag is the arrival of Mrs Baylock, a replacement nanny for Damien whom neither Robert or Kathy recall requesting for.
Answers eventually come in the form of photographer Keith Jennings, who’s random snaps have revealed some bizarre phenomena and it finally galvanises Thorne to head back to Rome to get to the bottom of this freaky shit once and for all. He’d better hurry though, because against all odds Kathy has become pregnant again and regardless of whether what’s occuring is either a conspiracy or a prophecy, some malevolent force has their number… and it’s 666.
When compared to some of it’s demonic peers, admittedly The Omen may not be as subtle as Rosemary’s Baby or as mature as The Exorcist, but to this day it still achieves the impressive task of giving me a massive dose of the heebie jeebies every time I watch it – something that’s all the most impressive when you consider that I’m not particularly a religious person.
The secret is pure, unbridled showmanship that pumps the proceedings with the kind of operatic, stoney faced urgency that usually follows the histrionic melodrama of Darth Maul igniting his second lightsaber blade and you just can’t help getting swept up in the hysteria that SOMETHING DANGEROUS IS HAPPENING!!!
The movie doesn’t even try to be subtle with it’s revelation (or should that be The Book Of Revelations) that young Damien Thorn is destined to actually be the Anti-Christ by first beating us across the face with Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificent, Oscar winning score that uses black mass chants to effectively loosen the bowels before the the film’s even bloody started.
In a neat bit of contradiction, while Jerry Goldsmith music is screaming warning directing into our faces, the mounting dread is neatly offset by some clever casting by having it’s lead character be comprised of near-undmbreakable rationality and as dire as events get (and believe me, they get pretty fucking dire) you still have faith that good will prevail thanks to the grounded gravitas of Gregory Peck – I mean, it’s Gregory Peck for crying out loud, he’s Atticus bloody Finch – which makes the final act gut punch all the more horrific as our stoic hero is reduced to a sweaty, mad dash to holy ground with a bundle of sacrificial knives in one arm and his “son” in the other…
The other thing that makes The Omen so squirmingly memorable is the fact that Donner stages the “accidents” and “suicides” with a flare for the brutal as the devil seems to have a knack for tying up loose ends that makes Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas look like a soft touch. Damien’s first nanny doesn’t just hang herself from the roof of a building, she also manages to go through a plate glass window as she does so giving an already shocking moment an extra pinch of nastiness and the stunning exit of Jennings (played by David Warner looking like Richard Ashcroft) whose head is divorced from his shoulders byva rogue pane of glass in agonising super Slo-Mo like it’s being picked apart by pundits on Fox News.
Adding the the scrotum gnawing unease is the appearance of Billie Whitelaw’s frankly terrifying Mrs. Baylock, arguably the most terrifying on screen nanny that’s ever existed like she’s a toothy effigy of the Anti-Marry Poppins carved out of pure fucking evil and not all the booming music and shocking deaths can hold a candle to her flashing a horribly vacant smile.
Once The Omen hit big (Satanic panic was so big in the 70’s), Donner embarked on a impressively versatile career of iconic movies that remained unbroken all the way through the entire 80’s that included such diverse titles as Lethal Weapon, Superman: The Movie, The Goonies, Ladyhawke and Scrooged. But it’s arguably The Omen that, to me at least, remains the most impressive as it remains a horror film that still has the power to unnerve over forty years later and whose influence can still be keenly felt – be it in the accident prone Final Destination series to South Park and beyond.
I mean look at it this way – do you trust anyone you meet named Damian? If the answer is no, don’t blame me, blame the fucking Omen…