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Should I Watch..? 'The Omen' (1976)

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Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

The Omen is a psychological horror film released in 1976 and was directed by Richard Donner. The film follows US diplomat Robert Thorn and his wife Kathy from Rome to London after Robert agrees to adopt a mysterious child after the death of his own new-born son. The film stars Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton and Harvey Spencer Stephens in his film debut. The film initially received a mixed response from critics but has since been reappraised as one of the scariest and greatest horror films of all time. The film would win an Oscar for veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith (the only one of his long career) and would go on to enjoy success at the box office as well, with more than $60.9 million taken in the US alone. The film has since become a pop culture phenomenon, drawing criticism from the Catholic church and popularizing myths about Biblical prophecies regarding the Antichrist and Armageddon. It would be followed by a number of sequels and a 2006 remake, none of which enjoyed the same levels of success as this first film.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

American diplomat Robert Thorn is living in Rome with his young wife Kathy, who is in hospital about to give birth to their son. On the morning of June 6th, however, tragedy strikes when their son is delivered seemingly stillborn. While Kathy is recovering, Robert is pulled to one side by hospital chaplain Father Spiletto who persuades Robert to adopt another child born at the same time. Without informing Kathy of the truth, the two of them adopt young Damian as their own and soon head off together as a family to London where Robert is taking on a new role as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Five years later and the Thorns are still in the UK, celebrating Damian's birthday. However, it isn't long before a series of inexplicable events begin to manifest around the family - Damian's nanny commits suicide in front of everyone, a mysterious dog appears around the house and a new nanny, the softly spoken Mrs Baylock, arrives seemingly out of nowhere. While Kathy begins to suspect that Damian may be at the centre of it all somehow, Robert is approached by Father Brennan who has some seriously disturbing revelations about the boy...

Trailer

What's to like?

It can be hard to watch The Omen without a lot of preconceived ideas or notions because the film has become so synonymous with cinematic horror, the Devil and tales of the coming of the Antichrist. But watching it for the first time yesterday, it's easy to see why it had that impact. From the incredible power of Goldsmith's spine-tingling score to the emotional heft of the lead performances, the film is an atmospheric and dark tale which manages to overcome its own hokeyness. It gets under your skin, building the tension brilliantly well to create a swirling maelstrom of fear. There are no jump scares to speak of or gory scenes to satisfy the blood hounds, although the film certainly doesn't skimp on some truly brutal death scenes. Instead of simply trying to get a quick scream from you, the film works well at making you feel genuinely uneasy as the story unfolds. It's a more psychological experience than something like The Exorcist, which is exactly the kind of horror film I enjoy the most.

The film benefits from some wonderful performances as well, led by the always watchable Peck as the man not quite figuring it all out before the audience does. He may be slightly too old in the role (the relationship between him and Remick is a prime example of Hollywood's inherent problem with ageism) but his gravelly smooth voice gives the material a weight behind it that might not have been there with a less performer in the role. He and Remick (who excels as the tortured mother convinced something isn't right with her 'son') are brilliantly supported by Whitelaw and Warner, despite having an almost comical haircut that really doesn't suit him. Whitelaw in particular is chilling as the demonic Mary Poppins, exuding evil in every scene and feeling just as much a villain as young Damian himself who actually has relatively little screen time. The best horror films work best using the power of suggestion instead of exposing its boogieman, allowing your imagination to do the work. And The Omen is a great example, giving you enough clues to work it out but never quite revealing itself properly until the very last shot which doesn't do much to dispel any fears you may have about politicians.

The film is very effective at getting under your skin and unsettling you at every turn, despite its hokey story

The film is very effective at getting under your skin and unsettling you at every turn, despite its hokey story

Fun Facts

  • Peck was more-or-less retired by the time the film came around but he took the role on at a greatly reduced rate but with a percentage of the profits. He later admitted that he only took the role because he himself was a father consumed with guilt after his son's suicide in 1975. After the film's success, Peck's performance was the highest paid one of his career.
  • Stories about the so-called 'Omen curse' began circling during production after a number of unexplained incidents and accidents behind the scenes. Peck and screenwriter David Seltzer were on separate flights to the UK which were both struck by lightning, dogs hired on set attacked their handlers, producer Harvey Bernhard was almost struck by lightning in Rome and several crew members were involved in a head-on car crash on the first day on shooting.
  • Stephens wouldn't appear in another theatrically released film until 2006 when he had a cameo in the remake The Omen as a journalist. He was later convicted of a road rage attack in 2017 on two cyclists in Kent.
  • Goldsmith had been nominated for an Academy Award eight times before earning two nods with this film. Convinced that he wasn't going to win again, he skipped the ceremony but in fact, he did win for Best Original Score. He would later earn another eight nominations (the last one in 1999 for his score for the Disney film Mulan) but he never won another Academy Award.
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What's not to like?

The film looks comparatively tame compared to the more blood-drenched horror efforts we're used to today, despite the frequent Final Destination-style dispatching of characters via freakish accident. There are occasional glimpses of blood but if anything, it undermines the film because it highlights some low budget effects which ruin the film's illusion. This is especially true during the famous decapitation scene which almost looks comical if it weren't for the film's overall context and atmosphere. There are also scenes that clearly aren't filmed on location, giving it a feel similar to the old Star Trek TV series.

There are also a few performances that are a bit much such as Troughton's fire-and-brimstone holy man which have the unintended effect of making the film feel like a dark pantomime. At times, it does threaten to derail itself as the story gets ever more silly. But it never quite feels like a parody - the film is a straight-faced examination of an insidious supernatural force despite Troughton's performance and Warner's daft-looking, underwritten character. It's just good to see a horror film that works hard to unsettle its audience instead of just aiming for quick jump scares and while it doesn't quite reach the same heights as The Exorcist, it is every bit as frightening. Make no mistake - this is every bit the classic horror film I'd been led to believe and for someone who doesn't normally watch horror films, I can't recommend it enough.

Peck may be slightly too old for the role but he brings a level of gravitas to the film that elevates the tension by itself.

Peck may be slightly too old for the role but he brings a level of gravitas to the film that elevates the tension by itself.

Should I watch it?

For anyone who considers themselves a horror aficionado, The Omen should be essential viewing. Dark and disturbing in equal measure, it's a film that doesn't need the myths and stories behind it to make it a truly unsettling film to watch. Forget the sequels and remake because this is the real deal. It doesn't rely on cheap jump scares, buckets of blood or monstrous creations depicted in latex - just very angry dogs, clever screenwriting and one of the unholiest (and brilliant) soundtracks you'll ever hear.

Great For: terrifying audiences, evangelical Christians, Satanists

Not So Great For: anyone called Damian, Rottweiler owners, Catholic priests

What else should I watch?

The Seventies really were a golden age for horror cinema with classics such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jaws, Alien and Halloween all being released during the decade and all bringing something different. Influenced by the likes of Psycho and Rosemary's Baby, these films would then themselves go to influence the next generation - A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday 13th and so on. The Omen very much deserves to be included in such esteemed company so any fans of the genre owe it to themselves to watch it.

In fact, The Omen did such a great job of depicting the Antichrist that not that movies touched the character in the aftermath. His daddy, on the other hand, has enjoyed a long and prolific cinematic career in a wide range of genres. Satan pops up in comedies like Bedazzled and Little Nicky, dramatic films like The Devil's Advocate (where he's memorably placed by an explosive Al Pacino), horror films like the imaginatively titled Devil and dumb action films like End Of Days. Much like Big Red himself, the character can seemingly appear at any time and in any guise although not every film is worth watching, obviously. So whatever you do, don't be tempted to watch him in anything.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Gregory Peck

Robert Thorn

Lee Remick

Katherine "Kathy" Thorn

David Warner

Keith Jennings

Billie Whitelaw

Mrs Willa Baylock

Harvey Spencer Stephens

Damian Thorn (aged 5)

Patrick Troughton

Father Brennan

Martin Benson

Father Spiletto

Leo McKern

Carl Bugenhagen (uncredited)

Technical Info

DirectorRichard Donner

Screenplay

David Seltzer

Running Time

111 minutes

Release Date (UK)

16th September, 1976

Rating

15 (2006 re-rating)

Genre

Horror, Mystery

Academy Awards

Best Original Score

Academy Award Nominations

Best Original Song

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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