THE OMEN (1976)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Richard Donner

Written by: David Seltzer

Starring: Gregory Peck, David Warner, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw, Harvey Spencer Stephens, Patrick Troughton & Martin Benson

The 1970’s were a definitive decade in the horror genre. Scary movies were quickly shifting from giant monsters and schlocky effects into classier, more terrifying territory. THE OMEN came hot off the heels of THE EXORCIST and there’s no doubt in my mind that this film would not exist without William Friedkin’s 1973 classic. The key difference here is that while THE EXORCIST still remains a terrifying masterpiece and easily the best demonic possession flick of all time, THE OMEN took a bleaker and more nihilistic route. While it may not be as stellar as THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN spawned one of the most unusual film trilogies in the horror genre. This is a definite slow-burn, but one that rewards patience with plenty of pay-off.

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American diplomat Robert Thorn and his wife, Katherine, are having a baby. After rushing to the hospital, Robert discovers that his son died moments after being born and Katherine doesn’t know about it. In an effort to shield his wife from the tragic truth and still come out with a child of his own, Robert makes a split-second decision to adopt another baby in his deceased son’s place. This secretly adopted boy is named Damien. Life seems to going well for the Thorn family, that is until Damien’s fifth birthday party. A nanny commits suicide in front of the party-goers. Before killing herself, she yells “Damien! It’s all for you!” Obviously, an event like this might leave any normal child traumatized, but Damien seems to be his usual chipper self. Robert is soon approached by a priest who claims to know the truth about Damien. Meanwhile, a photographer is taking mysterious pictures of Robert and a strange new nanny enters the Thorn household. Something eerie is going on and it has something to do with Damien.

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One name in the OMEN’s cast should immediately stick out to most people, but Gregory Peck isn’t exactly at the top of his game as Robert Thorn. Supposedly, Peck was the choice from the very beginning, but (despite what he claimed in interviews) it feels like he took the role for a quick paycheck. Besides appearing far too old to play the father of a five-year-old child, Peck is phoning in most of his performance as a grumpy old man faced with a supernatural mystery. Even when he’s slumming it though, Peck still packs more talent than most other performers from his time. David Warner (who went on to star in TIME AFTER TIME and TRON) makes his role of Jennings, the photographer, into a memorable one. Lee Remick is okay as Katherine Thorn, but isn’t exactly given much to do. Billie Whitelaw is appropriately creepy as the sinister nanny. Finally, there’s young Harvey Spencer Stevens as Damien. Though he only has maybe 10 lines (at the most) in this entire film, Stevens is damn scary as Damien. Every little grin or chuckle that might seem cute or innocent from any other child, becomes menacing from this creepy little kid.

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It should be said upfront that there isn’t exactly a mystery at play for the audience. We all know that there’s something up with Damien. If he was a perfectly normal little boy, this wouldn’t be much of a scary movie. Still, most of the deliberately paced story consists of Gregory Peck’s character discovering the truth behind his little hell-spawn. That isn’t a bad quality though. Each sequence is well-constructed and slowly builds a sense of unease. This is a perfect example of early cinematic dread, the likes of which previously only seemed possible through Alfred Hitchcock. The music adds a lot to the proceedings too. One of the scariest moments in the entire film doesn’t have much of a soundtrack to it at all, but lets the music build before it occurs and then explodes after that scene. The soundtrack is also misleadingly cheerful during the beginning of this film, before turning into in all-out satanic choir free-for-all later on.

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What hit me the most upon my umpteenth rewatching of THE OMEN is that I noticed this movie combines a lot of different horror elements into one seriously scary story. There are stalker-like qualities in Miss Baylock’s nanny and those have a couple of pay-offs. Meanwhile, the movie also evokes evil animal flicks through an especially well-done scene at a zoo and a few bloodthirsty dogs who make appearances throughout the story. The script also has shades of an early FINAL DESTINATION-like slasher with characters meeting tragic ends that arrive through deadly situations that might seem like accidents…but we know better. Finally, there’s the obvious satanic and supernatural plot combined with an evil kid movie.

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1976’s THE OMEN is a special horror film for many reasons. It’s bleak as hell. There’s a sense of omnipresent dread in every frame. Though Gregory Peck may not exactly be perfect in the role of Damien’s father, he still delivers a good performance. The plot is also made up of many different horror subgenres that blend together far better than you might expect. All of these things make for one of the best satanic horror movies in film history!

Grade: A

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