(director: Richard Donner; screenwriter: David Seltzer; cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor; editor: Stuart Baird; cast: Gregory Peck (Robert Thorn), Lee Remick (Katherine Thorn), David Warner (Jennings), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock), Harvey Stephens (Damien), Patrick Troughton (Father Brennan), Martin Benson (Father Spiletto), Holly Palance (Young Nanny), Leo McKern (Father Bugenhagen, The Exorcist); Runtime: 111; 20th Century-Fox; 1976)
“The Omen manages to have its shocks look sensible and seem convincing.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Following on the heels of “The Exorcist“, “The Omen” is another box-office success. It is one of many commercial horror thrillers spawned in the 1970s, and much better critically acclaimed than most others. It is even a more satisfying film in many ways than The Exorcist. What makes this film so captivating, is how it relies on narrative and not special effects to build on tension.
It’s June the 6th, at 6 a.m. (that reveals the configuration of 666, the number of Satan in John’s Revelations), when an American diplomat to Rome, Robert Thorn (Peck), learns from Father Spiletto that his child has died at birth. He is given the unethical proposition of switching babies, of not going through an adoption procedure because his wife Kathy (Lee) wants her own child and refused to adopt one before. A baby becomes available because at the same time of his child’s delivery another woman without any relatives, died while giving birth to a healthy child. Robert accepts this switch, believing it would crush his wife to learn of their child’s death. But, he doesn’t tell her what actually transpired. This adorable cherub turns out to be none other than the Antichrist. There must be a moral here about accepting someone else’s baby from a priest without playing by the rules. The film will play on the biblical induced fears found in the Book of Revelations, whose prophesies tell how Armageddon will take place through the rise of the Antichrist from the hands of a politician.
How this film gets to hold its head higher than most of the other films of this nature is because the acting is first-class, the telling of the story is tight, and the criss-crossing between London, Rome, and Jerusalem is suspenseful. The film is in constant motion, so it is difficult to stop and think and reflect how much hokum one is asked to swallow.
Bizarre happenings start to take place in the Thorn’s new home in London, as Robert has been appointed as the ambassador to Great Britain. His first nanny (Palance-Jack’s daughter) hangs herself at Damien’s (Harvey) five year old birthday party after a black rottweiler (I’ve never been partial to that breed), who is a dog sent from hell, appears at the party. The dog acknowledges Damien as a friend and goes back into the woods, but will reappear whenever Damien needs protection.
A photographer from the paparazzi, named Jennings (Warner), gets a picture of the nanny’s suicide and will become fascinated with the ambassador, taking many other photos of him and his family.
There follows a string of bizarre events concerning Damien. When Damien is at the zoo, giraffes flee from him and baboons attack the car he is in with his mother. And, oh yes, there’s a strange hiring of the new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie). She looks as if she came straight out of hell, in fact it later is revealed that she is an apostate from hell. She is here to help bring Damien into the Devil’s fold. In one scene she warns Kathy not to bring Damien to the Episcopal church, he’s too young to understand those rituals. But the Thorns get prickly about what she said and sure enough, when their limo gets near the church, Damien tries to scratch his mother’s eyes out.
The next bizarre twist comes by way of a Father Brennan, who acts as if he had a nervous breakdown. He tries to communicate with the stubborn ambassador about how the child they have is Satan, but unfortunately his way of communicating is by ranting that he saw the child at birth and knows what a monster he is. That is something no parent wants to hear about their baby. So, I can’t really blame the very prudish and politically sensible Thorn for not believing the priest. But when he is told by the priest that his wife is in danger, he meets the priest in the park and is told to go to a certain area in Jerusalem and get the exorcist there to tell him how to kill his Antichrist son. Naturally, Robert tells the priest to take a powder. But in next morning’s newspaper he reads of how the priest was found dead, transfixed by a lightning rod that came from the nearby church. This gets Thorn’s attention, at last.
The ambassador becomes very worried, and is helped by Jennings who notices something strange appearing in all the photos he has taken of the Thorns. Then the ambassador becomes even more troubled by the news that his wife’s fall was induced by Damien and Mrs. Baylock, and it requires her hospitalization. She loses the baby he didn’t realize he was having until Father Brennan told him about it. All this leaves the ambassador befuddled, looking only as Gregory Peck can look when things that are supposed to make sense don’t.
With the aid of Jennings, Thorn goes to Rome to locate the hospital records and the mother of his adopted baby; and, also to see Father Spiletto again. And after a few shocks here, he goes to Jerusalem and finally tracks down the exorcist (McKern) Father Brennan told him to see. While in Jerusalem, there are a few more shocks, and the story excitedly swings back to London. Here, a few more shocks develop. The film succeeds because it knows how to tell a suspenseful story and not rely on green vomit for its shocks, like The Exorcist resorted to. The Omen manages to have its shocks look sensible and seem convincing.
The Omen was remade in 2006 by John Moore.
REVIEWED ON 4/13/2000 GRADE: B-