Still a day behind and this was the film I’d originally scheduled for a few days ago before the schedule went all over the place. The Omen does get us back on track with my killer kids theme and really, does anyone do it better than Damien? Damien (Harvey Stephens) came to personify the evil child even though there were earlier films with murderous children (my review of The Bad Seed for instance from a few days ago). Where The Omen takes a turn is that Damien isn’t murderous or a sociopath he’s the freaking Antichrist. You don’t get more evil than that in my opinion. I do enjoy this film, actually I liked it better than I did the first time I saw it, but I still take issue with it especially the relationship between our leads. Let’s get to the review and you’ll see what I mean.
Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is an American ambassador who loses his infant son at birth. Miraculously, another child is born at the same time that Robert adopts, never telling his wife Kathy (Lee Remick). Five years go by and the little boy Damien (Stephens) is an odd-ball. He’s never sick and his nanny spontaneously commits suicide at his birthday party. When Robert is told his son is the spawn of Satan he’s initially dismissive until bodies start piling up and other strange occurrences cause Robert to believe.
The Omen is a movie that’s permeated popular culture. If you haven’t seen it you generally know 666, the name Damien, know the chanting soundtrack, or have seen that shitty remake that came out in 2006. While that can sometimes lessen a film’s impact once you finally see it, The Omen doesn’t lose that. It’s still an engaging and well-acted film that holds up against the test of time in a way the remake didn’t. I mean just notice that big stars like Peck and Remick are in this in contrast to Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles of remake. The remake’s main problem was in how proudly it seemed to shout it was a retread, making every scene overly artistic and with a stench of menace. Harvey Stephens is a terrifying Damien because he never acts like the Devil but a small child. He’s cute and chubby with a smile that can simultaneously frighten and endear him to you. Contrast that with the little boy who played Damien in the remake…he couldn’t look less evil if he was sitting down with a puppy!
My only main issue with this film is in the gender relations. I have problems with this in several horror films of the 1970s with Rosemary’s Baby being another prominent one. There’s been articles written about horror films responding to the rise in feminism with dominant men and shy women and you see that here. Peck opens the film by secretly adopting a baby without telling his wife purely to prevent her from being upset. When Kathy is being driven insane by Damien and seeks psychiatric help one of the things she mentions is she doesn’t feel Damien is her’s. Kathy is not a stupid woman, at least in that one scene, but the film writes her as such and wants her to be infantile The only time you see Kathy gain any teeth is in shutting down nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) about taking Damien to Church. Then again Mrs. Baylock is a woman so there meant to be equals in that regard. As the relationship between the Thorns deteriorates Robert becomes less and less sympathetic (or dense depending on your interpretation) to his wife’s issues. In one scene Damien is running around making noise and giving Kathy a headache. When Robert asks why she’s yelling at Damien, Kathy says it’s the noise he’s making to which Robert responds that it’s not that much. Robert is meant to be the cool, laid-back guy whereas Kathy is demonized and seen as weak and/or crazy which irritates the piss out of me.
Mrs. Baylock is the antithesis of this; a dominant, maternal woman…who’s the nanny of the Devil. Mrs. Baylock dies for Damien. When Kathy finally dies, at Mrs. Baylock’s hands it’s laughable. I mean Kathy is in an arm cast and Robert calls her telling her to hurry up and leave….I’ve been in big casts, you can’t do crap in five minutes! As she’s struggling to put on a top she gets surprised by Mrs. Baylock and the camera just lingers on both women’s faces. Why doesn’t Kathy scream or, I don’t know, smack the woman with the 30 pounds of plaster on her arm? Kathy’s just a weakly written character so it makes sense to have her stand there and stare as Mrs. Baylock takes her sweet time striding over to throw the pretty woman to her doom. At the end of the day writing about the women of The Omen would be worthy of a college paper (hey that’s not a bad idea) but that’s something that’s always bothered me. I will say I love the women of this film. Lee Remick is gorgeous and is just sweet and sunshiny throughout the entire movie. If only she played the character a wee bit stronger. Billie Whitelaw is utterly terrifying as Mrs. Baylock. For starters, the woman knows how to make herself at home from telling the missus what’s what and getting a dog for the house! You don’t want to mess with this woman and Whitelaw makes you fear her. She does get the best death scene as well that’s painful and creative (both a BBQ fork and a screwdriver to the neck).
I’ve praised Harvey Stephens already but I continue to assert he’s a great Damien! He’s cherubic which is one is a slew of perverted religious references the film makes. I always forget David Warner is in this film but he’s great as the partner in crime to Robert, the reporter Jennings. Gregory Peck…I’m always taken aback he’s here as well. I mean can you imagine a time within the last 10 years where an A-list star made a horror movie that was good! That last part is the stumper. Peck is commanding for sure but as the film progresses, as Damien’s reign of terror reaches a crescendo, you see Robert start to crumble. For Peck this is probably the bleakest film of his I’ve seen. I mean he’s terrorized in Cape Fear for sure but you always expect him to triumph in the end unlike here.
I mentioned already the perversion of the religious iconography that this film does in such a masterful way. The film opens with an inverted cross at his birth but there’s other, more subtle allusions I noticed. When Robert gets Damien it’s such as a miracle and a virgin birth in the way considering there’s no parents mentioned until the end (and even then Damien’s mother isn’t exactly human). The birth is consecrated and connected to Christ with the priest ominously telling Robert “God has given you a son.” When we cut to Damien’s birthday party, Jennings mentions how big the party is and that Damien is either “the heir to the Thorn millions or Jesus Christ himself.” The one image I liked that I might be stretching is the final image of Kathy with the thin, gauzy shirt pulled over her head like a veil. Possibly the Virgin Mary? Told you that might be a stretch. Regardless, I think this does a far better job of presenting the religious connections with subtly and grace unlike other films….The Exorcist.
I should bring up one additional issue I have and that is the rather heavy tone of the film. I’m a fan of drama no doubt but at times it feels like The Omen is trying so hard to one-up it’s predecessor, the aforementioned Exorcist which came out in 1973. It’s best exhibited in the character of Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton). Father Brennan wants to tell Robert that Damien is evil but Robert won’t talk to him. The problem is Father Brennan talks in Scriptures and acts like a crazy man! I never understood why he didn’t just tell him straight and calmly what he knew. By walking into the guy’s office spouting Bible quotes and telling the man to kill his kid with no explanation…yeah I can’t figure out why Robert doesn’t take you seriously! There’s no way not to make a little fun of The Omen considering how heavy the film is. I mean it ruined chanting being present in soundtracks for everyone and birthday parties (although I maintain that Damien’s party is the best. Sure you have a suicide but they had a freaking carousel…so did Mommie Dearest). Also, between this and The Shining, little kids on bicycles had to be getting the stink eye after a while. And what five-year old sleeps through a person pawing through their hair and cutting it because I have a sandbox in Florida to sell you.
I make fun of this yes but I do like it. I found myself engaged with it more than I did the first time I saw it. The film sets up the story well and your never expecting murder to happen, instead swept up in the weird antics of Damien that aren’t quite right but have logical explanations. When the first death arrives about forty minutes in the religious story takes over and is well-written, well-performed and just well-done. The acting is superb as to be expected considering the caliber of acting talent, I just feel the film is too serious and in competition. Not to mention the relationship between our leads….still bothers me. I recommend The Omen. An essential killer kid film!
Type of Horror: Satanic, Atmospheric
Fright Meter: 7
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.