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The Omen
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE OMEN (1976)

Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Stephens

Written By: David Seltzer Directed By: Richard Donner

The Short Version

Apocalyptic doom goes mainstream, with mixed results.

In case you’re wondering, half of the “Biblical” stuff in this movie was made up.

Along with the “even Dan Brown does a better job” scholarship.

It’s amazing that the kid playing Damien didn’t get a ton of roles after this; he’s good.

The Omen has creepy and even excellent moments, but really, it’s a mediocre film.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

BLACK PEPPER SWISS.

A somewhat off-key combination of something mild and full of holes (hole-y, even) with a few sharp bursts of spice.


Pairs Well With...

SHIRLEY TEMPLE.

Something less than intense; besides, the AntiChrist isn’t old enough to drink yet.

“Wrong?  What could be wrong with our child, Robert?  We're the beautiful people, aren't we?”


Oh, yes, what indeed, from the “beautiful people” with a house larger than many hotels and servants to cater on them hand and foot and to actually go about the business of raising your child while you associate with other “beautiful people”?  Let your kid be raised by Satan worshipping nannies, and of course he’ll grow up to be the AntiChrist.  Stupid rich parents.  Always blaming things on the Devil instead of taking responsibility for themselves and their own children.

Doesn’t help when you start out by lying to your wife right after she’s given birth.

Our story begins in Rome, Italy.  On June 6, at 6am, Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick, Telefon) manages to give birth without getting a good look at her son right away.  Her husband, Robert (Gregory Peck, Spellbound), is told upon arriving at the hospital that his son was stillborn, but that his wife doesn’t know yet.  The priest who delivers the awful news then informs Robert of a fortuitous coincidence: on that very night, another woman died giving birth to her own son.  That boy survived, but no longer has any family to care for him.  Perhaps the babies could be switched.  There’s even a reasonable resemblance, he says; surely, this must be a blessing, and no need ever know, not even Katherine.  It takes Robert little time to agree, and so the die is cast.

Soon after, Robert is named Ambassador to Great Britain by his former college roommate and best friend, the President of the United States.  Everything seems to be idyllic for the next five years, and after a very quick montage, we catch up with the family again just in time for the fifth birthday party of one Damien Thorn (Harvey Stephens, who’d later cameo in the 2006 remake).  Given the carousel, the clowns, and the general impression that this more resembles a carnival midway than a birthday party, one can assume that Damien is incredibly spoiled.  But his nanny, Holly (Holly Palance, who would later briefly cohost “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” with her father), has an extra special gift for him today.  She steps up onto the room of the house and yells down at him:

“Damien!  Look at me!  I love you, Damien!  It’s all for you!”

She then jumps down and hangs herself.  What the horrified guests don’t realize is that this is exactly the kind of gift that makes Damien happy, because there’s something sinister that the priest didn’t bother to tell Robert on that fateful day in Rome…

The Omen was conceived of on the amazing wave of success experienced by The Exorcist in 1973, with a fair amount of Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for flavor.  It would be hailed as a classic almost immediately upon its release, but stepping back... let’s just say that the fact that the marketing budget for The Omen was double the amount spent actually producing the film ended up paying a lot of dividends, and when the film is separated from that hype machine, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely not great, either.  The Omen is, in a word, mediocre, peppered with a few fine moments.

We’ll start with the fine moments.

The first to really stand out is mentioned in the intro above: the nanny’s hanging.  Just when I was really rolling my eyes at how spoiled all of these people were (one character remarks “I don't know if we've got the heir to the Thorn millions here or Jesus Christ Himself,” and I was in full agreement with him even without the irony), this moment just struck like a thunderbolt from the blue.  While some sense of unease is built in the seconds leading to it, the camera is directed elsewhere, so that when the nanny does appear, it’s a true surprise.  The scene is made all the more creepily effective by the beatific sincerity on the face of Holly Palance as she delivers her only major lines of the film; lines which, by the time it’s all over, remained for me the movie’s most memorable.  Everything comes together and clicks perfectly for this decisive moment.  Had the rest of the film lived up to the promise shown here, it would indeed have been superb.

The nanny scene is punctuated by a flash of the single most consistently excellent element of the film: a shot of child actor Harvey Stephens as Damien.  It is said that when making a movie, the worst things to deal with are children and animals, but Director Richard Donner coaxes a marvelous performance out of the young boy in front of the camera.  The child’s smiles are disturbing, especially since his demeanor is normally calm.  Stephens really does look like there’s something sinister biding its time behind his otherwise innocent appearance, and those brief looks the audience gets from him truly sell the character of Damien for what he is supposed to be.

The other great standout is the character of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) and everything that surrounds him, though one does not get to appreciate that until halfway through the film.  Initially seeming to be an “odd man out” character, Jennings becomes interesting thanks to both an outstanding performance by David Warner and the script’s most interesting twist, which I will not spoil here save to say that it involves the photographs he takes.  (Something that would likely be less credible set in a modern age of Photoshop, making for an interesting anachronism.)  From first to last, Warner takes charge of every scene he’s in while still being thoughtful and understated, even upstaging Gregory Peck at times, which is certainly no mean feat.  His last scene in the film also stands as one of the film’s most memorable, but again, I won’t spoil the surprise.

That’s the good news.

As for the rest of The Omen

As noted earlier, the hype machine was on full blast for this flick, and it played heavily on the “intensity” of the horror; indeed, some people at premiere screenings are reported to have fainted.  I can only assume that these people either were not regular horror moviegoers (quite possible, given the cast) or that they were paid to fake it.  Sorry, folks, but even by mid-1970s standards, The Omen is just not that intense.  There are exactly two moments in the entire film that have any real element of either tension or shock to them, and I’ve already told you what one of them is.  There’s also a third scene that works well from a horror perspective even if you have a fair amount of time to see it coming, but the rest?  Not so much.

It never ceases to amaze me when I hear or see people mention how “shocking” the deaths and other attacks in this movie are.  Only one death is shocking; everything else is telegraphed quite a bit in advance.  Indeed, when one of the priests dies (I’ll let you figure out which), not only does lead-up dialogue make it crystal clear that his time has come, but when, after a drawn out “chase,” the moment finally arrives, he stands there for so long watching the instrument of death come down at him that you can’t help but wonder, “why doesn’t this fool just move to the side and get out of the way?”  Seriously; from the time he sees what’s coming to the time it gets to him, he could have not only gotten out of the way, but made it halfway down the block.  How is this “shocking”?  The same goes for just about every other attack in the film; it is always so obvious that not only something is going to happen, but that exactly what does happen will happen.  At the risk of spoiling something so heavily telegraphed that I really don’t think it can be spoiled, just push her over the damn railing already, willya?  I’ve had time to use the bathroom and grab another drink since it became obvious that’s what you were going to do!

Nor is this overall lack of intensity limited to the attacks and kills; it also covers the entire movie between Holly’s leap at the ten minute mark to the revelation about the photographer about an hour in.  There’s simply no tension at all during this period, which essentially means that there’s no tension at all for roughly half the movie.  After all, rather than present any air of mystery to things, Donner makes it abundantly clear that Damien is really the AntiChrist.  There’s no suspense at all about it, and therefore, since the audience already knows what’s going on, it becomes rather tedious and almost a bore waiting for everyone else to figure it out.  Indeed, were it not for the photographer and his pictures coming in to save the day with something at least a little interesting at the one hour mark, it would be a bore.  For all the good work that Richard Donner does here with the child actor and with two or three outstanding moments, he does just as much if not more that goes hideously wrong.  Even though I know it to be true, it’s nearly impossible to believe that he actually cut a scene short because “it was taking forever,” simply because almost every scene in this movie “takes forever.”  If you want to make The Omen intense, consider losing a good 15-20 minutes; then it might happen.  Maybe.

The “intensity” is supposed to be helped along by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which Donner is said to have considered so vital that he begged the studio for extra money to pay for Goldsmith’s work… though it was apparently only “vital” enough to be worth a tenth of what Gregory Peck made even before profits kicked in.  (Peck took a substantial chunk off his normal fee in exchange for a part of the profits; the success of The Omen made it the biggest payday of his career.)  Not that Goldsmith complained; he got an Oscar for this, after all… and I’m flabbergasted by it.  Yeah, the choir is a nice touch, but it’s far too brash in tone, and honestly, I spent most of the movie thinking that the music actually seemed cheap.  I think that the metaphorical milk was spoiled for me early on when the hell hound makes its first appearance… to the sound of a disco note.  Nothing takes the intensity out of a moment like the sound of a disco note.

Also, after all of the expense obviously put to other parts of the film, the cheesiness of the graveyard set is simply inexcusable.  In a Roger Corman API picture with about 1/20th of the budget, that graveyard would pass, but here?  Wow, is that cheap.

But stepping back away from cheap, I don’t think that Gregory Peck would be capable of stinking up a room even if he wanted to, and he doesn’t do so here.  However, even though he isn’t bad, he also really doesn’t fit the part, nor does he give any outward change in performance when his character’s worldview takes a 180 degree shift.  One moment, everything is preposterous to him, and the next, it all makes sense, but his performance is exactly the same.  Again, it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t exactly show much range, either.  In the case of his costar, Lee Remick, she isn’t really given an opportunity to show range; her only job is to be unhappy and occasionally scared.  She’s definitely a much better actress than the role allows her to be.

But then again, she, like Gregory Peck, is only really here to add luster to the hype machine; a hype machine that has continued its work to this day, and made people tend to remember The Omen as a much better movie than it really is.

Tempting though it is to do so, one can’t responsibly discuss The Omen at any length without discussing its place in apocalyptic pop culture.  Without question, this movie has had a major influence on many others that have come after it, but it does so on the back of material which, it must be pointed out, is highly fictionalized.  For example, much of what happens in The Omen centers around a poem first recited by a priest-

“When the Jews return to Zion / And a comet rips the sky / And the Holy Roman Empire rises / Then You and I must die / From the eternal sea he rises / Creating armies on either shore / Turning man against his brother / 'Til man exists no more.”

-which is in turn implied to have come from the Book of Revelation.  Sorry to burst your bubble, folks, but it doesn’t.  Screenwriter David Seltzer made it up.  This in itself isn’t a problem, but implying that it came from Revelation is.  When a piece of alleged source material happens to be the most widely printed book on Earth… sorry, folks, there’s no room for fudging it.  Bad move.  Not that the “supporting scholarship” is any better.  Even if you don’t believe that now essentially accepted view that “666” equals “Nero Caesar,” the numerological explanation of the number given is still wrong.  (Six is not the number of the Devil; it’s the number of Man.)  Nor does the name “Megiddo” derive from “Armageddon;” it’s the other way around.  One expects apocalyptic films (or apocalyptic anything, really) to play fast and loose, but really, even Dan Brown would do a better job than this.

But, as with Mr. Brown’s work, people seem to forget the shortcomings of The Omen, numerous though they are.

Bottom line, though often remembered as a classic, The Omen is in fact a decidedly mediocre film that in no way lives up to all of the hype surrounding its “intensity.”  Yes, there are a few truly good moments here, but at the end of the day, while it may have been riding the coattails of The Exorcist, it’s not even close enough to belong in the same room.  The Omen is just okay, and that’s it.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


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