There’s more than meets the eye in Richard Donner’s classic, 1976 horror film The Omen. At first glance, it’s the third (false prophet) film in a highly successful and influential unassociated trilogy of Satanic children films. The Omen follows 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby (the devil) and 1973’s The Exorcist (the beast). At a second glance, there’s more to The Omen’s common theme these films share, that of ol’ Scratch himself infiltrating the American middle-class family. It’s not just the family the devil is playing with, it’s also planting himself in our political process (and later in The Omen’s own trilogy, our military industrial complex).
Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn, an American ambassador to Great Britain. He’s in Rome at the start of the film, and his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) has just given birth to a son. However, their son has died shortly after being born, or so the suspicious priest tells Thorn. The priest suggests that Thorn should take another child as his own. Conviently, his mother died around the same time as the Thorn’s child. Thorn, ever so politically astute, agrees to take the orphaned newborn as long as Kathy doesn’t find out about the diabolical switcheroo.
The Thorns name their new brood Damian, forever connoting that name with sly evilness. By the time of Damian’s fifth birthday party, he’s living on a lavish, bucolic estate outside of London and being showered with gifts and affection. Everybody loves the cherubic lad, as evidenced by the amount of his father’s important friends that show up to the little guy’s birthday party. Hell, there’s a mini-fair going on in the courtyard complete with clowns and a carousel. However, someone takes their love a little too far. After holding Damian, his nanny spots a snarling, drooling Rottweiler by the treeline. A few minutes later she’s outside the mansion’s top ledge with a noose around her neck. After telling Damian how much she loves him, she makes the plunge. Shrieking and cowering ensues.
After the nanny’s suicide, the ball gets rolling. A mysterious priest shows up at the American embassy to warn Thorn to accept Jesus Christ, that his son is none other than the Antichrist. Another nanny enters the film, the enigmatic and dark Mrs. Baylock (played by veteran English stage actor Billie Whitelaw, the female equivalent of Julian Beck), who’s accompanied by the same Rottweiler that was spotted earlier. A swinging Mod photographer (the great character actor David Warner) has been snappin’ photos of people surrounding the Thorns, and he’s noticing some slight aberrations in his dark room. Objects seem to appear around his subjects before they die - there’s a faint light of a noose around the nanny before she jumped, a pole seems to be embedded in the mysterious priest before he’s impaled outside of a church, and as cruel fate would have it, even Warner isn’t spared. Taking a photo of his reflection in the mirror, this Mod’s days and nights down the King’s Row are soon to be over. He notices an object obstructing his neck - and it isn’t his swanky scarf.
Bodies start to pile up, including Mrs. Thorn. Peck has had it at this point, and after he and Warner do some research, they find out it’s true - little Damian is indeed the spawn of Satan. He struggles with what he must do, but he can’t ignore the violent deaths of everyone around him anymore. He resolves to kill the boy, with a sacred dagger, on a church altar. At the film’s climax he’s about to do just that, but… the film has several sequels, know what I’m saying?
It’s a flawless film, and as a horror movie, it’s one of the all-time best. Composer Jerry Goldsmith deserves a lot of credit here. His score is both ominous and pushing the boundaries of high-camp at some moments. Once you’ve heard it, you won’t forget the choral segments sung in Latin (“Sanguinem bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani...Ave Satani!”) for some time. Oddly enough, it’s the one Oscar the prolific Goldsmith was awarded, and this is the man who composed Chinatown! The atmosphere in The Omen is unbeatable; the scene where Peck and Warner dig through an old Italian graveyard for the remains of Damian’s mother is a high point. It’s an obvious soundstage, but it works. It bridges the then “modern” horror film theatrics with a touch of the old, as if the cast and crew were transported back to an old Universal studio horror film lot.
The devil has given his son to an appropriate host - a politician. There’s many aspirations to a higher seat of power from Peck throughout the course of the movie, he talks about the President several times, and by the end of the film Damian has placed himself on the lawn of the White House. The Omen went into pre-production in 1974 when Richard Nixon was still in office, smack-dab in the middle of the Watergate scandal. Couple that fiasco with the seemingly never ending Vietnam conflict, I’m sure that more than a few folks figured Satan was behind the political wheel. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and countless imitators all came out at a time when the U.S. was under extreme duress. Families were being pulled up apart by their stance on the war, much like the families in these movies were being pulled apart by unworldly sinister forces. If you look at the film through another prism, Damian, who is arguably the hero of The Omen, is the son The Establishment has always feared - a long haired (child actor Harvey Spencer Stephens had a fashionable shaggy ‘do) heathen who has upset the balance of power. It’s all for you, Damian!