FILM REVIEW: The Omen (1976)

The Omen (UK/ USA, 1976)
Directed by Richard Donner
Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Patrick Troughton

The Omen follows in a long line of films from the 1960s and 1970s which focus on the fear of children with a basis in the supernatural. The extent and role of the supernatural varies, as does our knowledge of its influence. For instance, in Rosemary’s Baby the Devil is clearly involved from an early stage, while in Don’t Look Now, we do not know how much the spirit world is in control.Much like Village of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen is upfront in its treatment of the Devil and it makes no bones about the level of dramatic irony involved on the part of the audience. But no amount of unveiling or explanation can prevent it from being one of the creepiest and scariest films of the 1970s. Its simple but effective premise is explored in chilling detail thanks to a series of convincing performances, a brilliant score and solid direction.

When lecturing about suspense, Alfred Hitchcock would often cite Sabotage as an example of how such a device can be misused. Sabotage features a sequence of a small boy carrying a parcel which turns out to be a bomb; after building it up and up, the bomb blows up on a bus, killing the boy and many others. Hitchcock subsequently realised that he had put his audience through the mill and not rewarded them, and that if suspense of that kind is to work, there has to be some form of resolution to prevent an audience from being alienated.It is ironic that in the year that Hitchcock made his last film that a work should come along which completely breaks one of his golden rules. When it comes down to it, The Omen is just that: a evil portent or harbinger of a greater evil to come. Unlike in End of Days, there is no big special-effects ending in which the apocalypse arrives (or in the case of Omen III, Christ returns). The film builds up tension and fear to an unbearable level and then bravely refuses to mitigate it with any kind of reassurance.

Because of this, The Omen raises deep questions about predeterminism. The unstoppable nature of Damien, and the ruthlessness with which the forces of good are dispatched, seems to paint us mortals as nothing but pawns in a spiritual war between God and Satan. We have no real influence or control over the events which transpire, and faith becomes little more than a crutch of fear, a desperate hope that we are not destined to be cannon fodder in a war for human souls. The photographs which foretell the gruesome deaths cannot be changed; the camera doesn’t lie, and the future is fixed.In line with this fatalistic message, the characters in The Omen have clear, pre-ordained motivations. Both of Damien’s nannies turn out to be Satan worshippers – we don’t get an upfront revelation like in Rosemary’s Baby, but their creepy characterisation and Jerry Goldsmith’s nerve-shredding score have essentially the same effect. Though it may appear that Robert Thorn’s decision to kill his son is one of free will, it could equally be another element of Damien’s plan; there is no point being born into a wealthy, powerful family if you have no means of inheriting said wealth or power. Thorn is like a modern-day Thomas, believing in the truth only when he has seen the devastation Damien has wrought.

The Omen raises a troubling supplementary question: if everything about this war is predetermined, what is the role of the church? Are the priests genuinely working for good, or are they somehow complicit? On the one hand, it is a priest who first suggests that Robert Thorn adopt; on the other hand, we have Father Brennan, who is desperately seeking forgiveness for his part in Damien’s conspiracy. Brennan is a classic Cassandra character, whose incoherent babblings from the book of Revelation contain clear and accurate warnings of what will come. But of course, his warnings are not heeded and thing play out as the Devil intends.But it is not theology which makes The Omen so scary. This lies in the full-on nature of the deaths achieved by brilliant camerawork and special effects. By having the omens appear only as black lines on photographs, the film pulls a clever trick: we know who will die, but we are never exactly sure how. Hence when the nanny hangs herself or the priest gets impaled with a flagpole, it’s a real shock.

The death of David Warner’s character is a perfect example of this. We first realise that he is destined to die when we see a photograph of him with a black line through his neck. We then follow his every movement closely, looking out for any object that could possibly achieve that effect. After Leo McKern fills us with some form of hope, we stop worrying about him and start to relax. But jut at that moment, Warner’s head is cut clean off by a sheet of glass. We sit there open-mouthed, wondering how they did it and recovering from the fright of our life.The Omen has a brilliantly creepy atmosphere, making you feel constantly surrounded by the very essence of evil. Richard Donner draws on the rich traditions of Gothic horror and the more serious end of Hammer (like Village of the Damned), using architecture and pace to create deep-seated unease. The Thorns’ home in England is full of high staircases, dark passageways and open rooms with large windows. The churches are forbidding fortresses, and the weather is wild and unpredictable.The Omen is also a demonstration of how effective horror can be achieved through a simple choice of editing and camera angles, something which has often been neglected at the gorier end of the spectrum. Take the use of close-ups at the hospital, as the camera cuts back and forth between Kathy Thorn and Mrs. Baylock. It’s a simple device which easily creates tension and prevents the score from descending into melodrama. Brennan’s death is another example of effective editing: the camera cuts back and forth between the falling pole and his scream, before cutting to the wide shot of the pole passing straight through him.

The one weak spot in The Omen comes in the lengthy exposition as David Warner and an on-form Gregory Peck attempt to decode the warnings in Revelation and apply them to the present day. Their initial encounter in Brennan’s house is well-played, but when they start talking about the ‘eternal sea’ and the common market, it starts to get a bit silly. It’s nowhere near as po-faced or ridiculous as the ‘1999’ twist in End of Days, but it treads so uncomfortably close to this that the whole project threatens to be derailed.Despite this niggle, The Omen remains a classic horror film, every bit as terrifying after nearly thirty-five years. Neither the inferior sequels nor the pointless shot-for-shot remake have taken the edge off either its premise or its place in horror history. For Peck fans, it’s a rewarding autumnal performance which is more satisfying than his role in The Boys from Brazil. For Donner fans, it’s a compelling calling card and evidence of his strengths as a director. And for everyone else, it’s a well-constructed, deeply creepy chiller, which still has the power and the potency to scare one half to death.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: A chilling horror classic


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