It’s smiles and cries with Richard Donner’s devilish horror epic
There’s something terrifyingly ancient, unknown and immense about the best religious-themed horrors, where humankind and human achievement are made very small and insignificant in the face of apocalyptic, supernatural and monolithic power. Even when it’s the good side dispensing justice, the results can be terrifying — think of all the biblical epics where divine judgement lays waste to unrepentant sinners, or take the unforgettable ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is not a horror but certainly one that, with its supernatural leanings, has more than its fair share of very scary scenes. When the Nazi villains are laid to waste by a vengeful, all-powerful God, it is on one level an utterly triumphant and satisfying pay-off, but on the other, it is absolutely horrific and nightmarish — such immense use of power, the kind that can utterly destroy, is pretty terrifying no matter who wields it or who receives it.
Because it can’t be killed, locked away or tamed, the power unleashed in these films is utterly frightening. Unless of course you’re a hardcore atheist or someone who isn’t prepared to suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours, which is why the most common pejorative word applied by critics towards these films is ‘silly’. Don’t get me wrong, films like Richard Donner’s 1976 chiller The Omen and its kind do skirt the edge of credibility, which is why they’ve proved so easy to mock. However, if you’re prepared to meet them half-way, they can be sensationally effective, especially if you’re a younger viewer, where your imagination can really go into overdrive. Many children of a certain age (like me in the early 1990s) most likely first encountered The Omen during a late-night television screening, and were left terrified by its downbeat, doom-laden onslaught of horror, spectacle and grisly death.
The Omen is one of the very best horror movies of all time. Yes, its once-fearsome reputation may have been compromised by increasingly inferior sequels, a horrible remake and merciless parodies, but the film itself still has a majestic, wicked spell, thanks to the courage of its convictions, the classiness of its execution and strength of its writing, direction, performances, music and effects. Saying that, it has often lurked in the shadows of that other major-league classic of 1970s satanic shock, The Exorcist, a film that even today still feels dangerous, off-kilter and edgy, especially in the UK where it was banned for so long. It’s amazing to think a major-studio film went as far as William Friedkin’s film did. Compared to that The Omen is very much a safer affair. There’s little that would offend or provoke the same intense reactions its predecessor did a few years earlier. Saying that, it does go to other places that The Exorcist doesn’t. For all of the intense horror of that film, and the death and violence that results from the exorcism itself, it does have something approximating a happy ending. Ultimately evil is defeated, characters are redeemed and there’s not even a ‘he’ll be back’ epilogue. The Omen, on the other hand, regularly hints at evil succeeding and then actually sticks to its guns at the close. It is a remarkably bleak horror, totally in keeping with the more downbeat tone of 1970s cinema, where lots of mainstream, major-league movies had the nerve to end unhappily.
Building on the kind of super-hyped, summer blockbuster entertainment established by the previous year’s Jaws, The Omen is a similarly superbly orchestrated, cannily marketed rollercoaster ride. It was trailed with a terrific advertising campaign, which played on audiences fears of superstition. Check those taglines: ‘If something frightening happens to you today, think about it – it may be The Omen‘, ‘You Have Been Warned’ and ‘Good Morning — You are One Day Closer to the End of the World’. Because of The Omen, the number 666 (the number of the beast, lest we forget) and the now-synonymous-with-evil name of Damien became part of popular culture. There was also the unsettling matter of ‘The Omen Curse’, where real-life events that took place around the filming and release of the film were said to be influenced by the malign nature of the movie. Some of these events were chillingly coincidental, some were disturbingly uncanny, and some were outright tragic and horrific.
Damien: Did I scare you, Mommy? I didn’t mean to.
The Omen begins in Rome, at 6am on the 6th of June (uh-oh), where US politician Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is in a taxi rushing to reach his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) as she gives birth. Tragically, it is revealed to Robert that their son has died after being born, although Kathy does not yet know this. Distraught, Robert is persuaded by the hospital’s priest to pass off a recently orphaned baby (whose mother, we are told, died just as Robert and Kathy’s son passed away) as their own, with Kathy never needing know the truth. Robert agrees, and so the seed is sown for the gradual downfall of the Thorn family. Several years pass blissfully and without consequence — indeed, we discover later that young Damien has never had a sick day in his life — and the Thorns, thanks to Robert’s elevation to the level of Ambassador to the court of St. James and their relocation to London, become wealthier and happier than ever before.
However, on the day of Damien’s fifth birthday party, ‘something terrible’ happens, to quote the film’s portentous trailer. Damien’s nanny, after having stared into the eyes of a particularly evil looking Rottweiler (dogs are very much a BAD THING in this film), proceeds to hang herself in front of everybody. Then, other things start happening. A frenzied, guilt-ridden priest named Brennan (Patrick Troughton) barges into Robert’s office insisting he knows who Damien’s real mother is and that Robert must accept Jesus Christ as his saviour. What was that he said? ‘His mother was a….’ He didn’t say jackal, did he? Then there’s Damien’s shocking, violent outburst as he’s taken to church for the first time. The unpleasant trip to the zoo. The friendly but also scary replacement nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) who’s taken it upon herself to bring a dog in the house (a Rottweiller…) to protect Damien. The too-curious-for-his-own-good journalist Jennings (David Warner) who’s noticed a disturbing, supernatural motif occurring in all the photos he’s been developing.
When Father Brennan convinces Robert to meet for a very important conversation, there’s talk of the son of the devil, who will kill and kill anyone in his way until he has attained absolute power on Earth. Robert is in grave danger, he’s told. So is Kathy. So is everyone. A poem is quoted:
‘When the Jews return to Zion,
And a comet fills the sky,
The Holy Roman Empire rises,
And you and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother,
Till man exists no more’
Robert refuses to entertain Brennan’s talk anymore, and leaves, but he ends up being the last person to see the priest alive…something is happening, something terrible, and the screws are tightening…Kathy soon can’t bear to be around Damien — she’s gone from being wary to being terrified of him, especially after she barely survives a horrible ‘accident’, Robert now begins to realise that there have been too many freak occurrences and frightening coincidences for him to deny the possibility that something may be very, very wrong with Damien…
David Seltzer’s superb script is incredibly lean — this is one of those films where you really couldn’t take a scene out of the film without ruining it in some way. What’s particularly good is that its even better second half broadens its scope considerably and returns to Rome as Robert and Jennings develop their investigation into Damien’s true heritage, It’s difficult to consider now, especially with the following sequels insisting the contrary, but Donner and Seltzer’s intention was that The Omen could be read as entirely un-supernatural, that all of the horrible things that happen in this film were nothing but coincidence and that Robert was slowly losing his mind. I must say, these are pretty fucking wild coincidences, and it doesn’t explain the motives of supporting characters (especially Mrs. Baylock), but it’s a fun way to view the film alternatively. Saying that, if these are indeed totally natural events, no one gave Jerry Goldsmith the memo.
Yes, before we go into anything else, it’s time to discuss the film’s greatest asset — Goldsmith’s incredible, Oscar-winning score. When most people think of The Omen, they think of that music. With its miasma of malevolent choirs, Gregorian chants, pounding drums and terrifying strings, Goldsmith gives it absolutely everything in this score — I mean, you can’t do this sort of thing in half-measures. He wants to get under your skin and destroy your nerves, and he succeeds with absolute vengeance. Not content with delivering a brilliantly chilling main theme (‘Ave Satani’, which would be nominated for Best Song, the only example in Academy Award history of a contender being entirely sung in Latin), he unleashes over a dozen more killer pieces throughout. Horrifyingly exhilarating, it’s like a goddamn tsunami of terror — you have no choice but to surrender to it, and yes, while it’s indirectly responsible for every overblown, chant-heavy horror soundtrack that came in its wake, it was worth it for the sheer apocalyptic brilliance of this, probably the finest score in any Hollywood horror movie. Yet it’s not all sturm und drang – there are also some beautifully tender interludes too, as well as more subtly creepy, understated moments.
As for the very fine cast, well Gregory Peck was arguably a star from an earlier, more classical era, before the easy riders and anti-establishment types came in on the scene to shake Hollywood up good and proper. He was still mightily respected and rightly considered as a screen great, but by the time the 1970s were halfway done, he was, dare I say it, not considered cool or exciting, which made him absolutely perfect as Robert Thorn. We needed an actor who was truly established, someone who we could believe as a figure of authority — a father, a leader, someone you could look up to, someone you could respect. I mean, this guy was Atticus Finch. Peck gives a great performance, and it only gets better and better as the film progresses — by the film’s end, Robert is broken, desperate — you just want to weep for this man, who made a desperate, misguided decision at the start and is now paying for it dreadfully.
Peck is beautifully matched by Lee Remick as Kathy — younger than Peck but still of an earlier, classically glamorous era, she is the film’s most cruelly treated character — completely oblivious to Robert’s lies at the start, all she has to go on throughout is a dreaded feeling, a sense that she knows Damien is not like other children. She suffers the most, wracked with fears that she’s losing her mind and soon enough worrying for her very life, it’s the moment when she is shockingly murdered by Mrs. Baylock (pushed out of a hospital window and through the roof of an ambulance) where you realise that — shit — this film isn’t going to go easy on its lead heroes. Great, memorable supporting performances really strengthen the drama too — the always great Warner has such a knack for conveying quietly intense dread with that marvellous voice of his, be it playing good or bad guys. Patrick Troughton gives it full portent, fire and brimstone and Billie Whitelaw proves to be the nanny from hell — insidiously passive-aggressive, wickedly evil and very handy in a fight too, as her final scrap with Robert proves. Leo McKern only gets one scene as Bugenhagen, the old man who seems to be the only one who knows how to kill Damien, but it’s a memorable, brilliantly portentous one.
Finally, of course, there’s Harvey Stephens as Damien. Remember, in this film, Damien doesn’t know who he is or who his parents are. He doesn’t kill anyone. Therefore, we have an AntiChrist unaware that he’s the embodiment of Evil; he’s just a normal boy, albeit one who has an inexplicable fear of churches and who you could argue is just a bit too much of a boy racer on that tricycle of his. Stephens is perfectly cast — cherubic, innocent, and yet with the slightest hint of mischief behind those eyes. Unlike the next two films, where he increasingly becomes the star attraction, Damien is very much on the periphery of things and remains an enigmatic, mysterious presence.
Of course, despite the all-star cast, and the Oscar winning score, some might say the real scene-stealers of The Omen were the deaths. Grisly, shocking and elaborate dispatchings usually executed in the form of freak ‘accidents’, they involved a character who either had to be put out of the way to make room for a more malevolent influence, or someone who knew too much and had to be dispatched, post-haste. This is what happens to Father Brennan, who is caught in a monstrous thunderstorm and attempts to find sanctuary in the nearest church, only to end up spectacularly impaled by a falling lightning rod. Most of the time Lucifer himself is the perpetrator, although we never see him, just his indirect influence, be it via nature or technology. Sometimes it’s one of his minions or representatives on Earth who do the dirty deed. And sometimes it’s an animal, who can either look into your eyes and make you kill yourself, or will kill you itself with its bare teeth or claws. There was something always horribly inevitable and utterly unavoidable about these scenes because Evil here cannot be negotiated with, you couldn’t outwit or escape death once it had its sights on you, even in broad daylight, which is when most of these killings occurred. That’s what made these Omen films so bloody scary. In the first two instalments in particular, this brand of ominous atmosphere has rarely been matched.
Of the entire trilogy, the most memorable and astonishing death scene, and in fact one of the most breathtakingly frightening of all cinema, is the one bestowed upon poor Jennings. Apparently the first decapitation in a Hollywood movie, it shocked the absolute hell out of me when I saw it as a child. Having only just walked into the room a few minutes earlier, where it was already playing on the telly, and as such not forewarned by the film’s earlier M.O of killings, when I saw that truck going for Jennings, I just thought it was simply going to run him down – I NEVER thought that the pane of glass on the back would be propelled forward and slice his head clean off! I mean, did anyone? Very, very little in horror has left me as absolutely stunned, shocked, scared and speechless as this moment.
Robert Thorn : [ignoring Brennan’s warnings about Damien] … Now, I’ve heard you. I want you to hear me: I *never* want to see you again.
Father Brennan : …You’ll see me in *hell*, Mr. Thorn. There, we will share out our sentence.
Donner might not be considered a director of horror (this remains his only film in the genre) but, if we excuse the unavoidable, monolithic presence of Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho, no-one in the field, not De Palma, not Craven, not Romero…hell, not even Argento staged a death and its immediate aftermath as shocking and instant as Donner did here. In a move that’s as ingenious as it is sadistic, he and editor Stuart Baird, expecting the more squeamish viewers to close their eyes, replayed the scene multiple times so that when they opened their eyes, thinking it was all over, Jennings’ head was still spinning in the air! To (de)cap it all, Jennings’s head, fixed in a shocked expression, then rests on the ground next to a reflective surface, staring at itself. Robert runs back to the now-crowded scene, sees Jennings head lying next to his own feet and that’s when, recoiling in terror, he just knows he can’t pretend anymore — there can be no more doubt. This is really, really happening. Those howling shrieks of ‘Ave Satani’ at the end of this bit, they are the sound of nightmares. Goddamn, Goldsmith truly deserved his Oscar for this. I think everyone involved in this scene should have got an award of some kind. It truly is horror cinema at its most unforgettable, its most astounding.
After Jennings’ death, the scene is set for the ending, where Robert sees the tell-tale 666 birthmark that proves once and for all who his ‘son’ is, barely survives a vicious attack by Mrs. Baylock, and kidnaps Damien, taking him to the holy ground that is the required place to kill him once and for all. Everything is set-up, we’re all ready to see this little bastard put away for good, and then the film does an absolutely remarkable job in making us double-take – after all’s said and done, Robert is still attempting to kill a child, and the moment when Damien pleads ‘No, Daddy, no!’ is astonishing. I mean, could you do it? Could you really do it? Robert ultimately could — he’s about to deliver the killer move when the police open fire, which is captured in a remarkable slow-motion extreme close-up where you see the bullet leave the gun. We then fade to a funeral — Robert and Kathy’s funeral, with the President of the United States in attendance, and this is where Donner and Seltzer’s final, most malevolent masterstroke is delivered – that amazing closing shot. Think about it, all the way through The Omen, both director and writer have played it totally, totally straight – no nods to the audience, no jokes, no irony. And then Damien turns to us and stares directly into the camera.
And he smiles.
It’s an absolutely, deliciously wicked ending, one of the best breakings of the fourth wall in cinema history. Whether Damien really knows his destiny with that wickedly knowingly smirk of his or not is beside the point — it’s the film itself that’s making the real gesture, giving us the chance at last to breathe and to even laugh in despair at just how dreadful things have become. I mean, Damien is now being looked after by The President of the United States. The world is in serious trouble.
We should remember that there was never meant to be a sequel to The Omen, at least according to Seltzer. It was not a preordained trilogy. Indeed, Seltzer doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of the next two films. And if you imagine an alternate reality where The Omen was the one and only film of the lot, its open ending works just as well. However, after its enormous success, sequels were utterly inevitable, and while Damien: Omen II and The Final Conflict deliver more than their fair share of nasty amusements, for sheer weapons-grade, knock-your-block-off satanic entertainment, nothing beats the sheer class of the original.