'From The Eternal Sea, He Rises'
45 Years of The Omen
Johnny Restall celebrates 45 satanic years of British horror classic, 1976's The Omen...
‘If something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It could be The Omen.’
The tagline for director Richard Donner’s 1976 smash-hit supernatural thriller The Omen is an almost perfect distillation of the film. Objectively, it is an absolutely ludicrous statement, yet it is delivered with a boldness, style, and conviction that makes it almost irresistible – much like the movie itself.
First released 45 years ago on the 6th June 1976, it tells the story of the unfortunate Thorn family, led by powerful patriarch Robert (Gregory Peck). When his newborn baby dies shortly after birth, Robert is persuaded to adopt a substitute child by the hospital’s priest, Father Spiletto (Martin Benson). He does not consult his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) and keeps the adoption a secret from her. When strange events and deaths seem to converge around little Damien (Harvey Stephens), Robert is slowly forced to confront the possibility that there may be a conspiracy at work around the boy, involving forces more diabolical than mere human agency. And as he is the American Ambassador to the UK and a personal friend of the US President, the stakes are greater than the fate of just one family – they may affect the course of the whole world…
Though it was produced by 20th Century Fox with an American director and Hollywood leads, The Omen has strong British elements and connections. The majority of the film is set in the UK, alongside brief sequences in Rome and Jerusalem, and was filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, with distinctive location work at Windsor Safari Park, Guildford Cathedral, and Bishop’s Park, Fulham. (The screenplay’s author David Seltzer has cheerfully admitted that he basically chose the settings as he fancied a trip to England[i].) It also features an outstanding supporting cast of distinguished UK character actors, including David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton, and Leo McKern.
Many sequences from the film have become iconic and it retains a significant place in popular culture (bearing this in mind, this article will contain spoilers). However, despite its impact, The Omen did not have the most auspicious of beginnings. According to Seltzer, the idea originated with producer Harvey Bernhard, who was keen to cash in on the success of The Exorcist (US, William Friedkin, 1973), with the writer only accepting the project as he was broke[ii]. Few people on the cast and crew had direct links to the horror genre; Donner’s background was in television, Remick was best known for her drama and stage work, and Peck was renowned for his dignified roles in classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird (US, Robert Mulligan, 1962). Even genre stalwart Warner was perhaps better known at the time for his idiosyncratic character turns in films like Morgan – A Suitable Case For Treatment (UK, Karel Reisz, 1966) and his roles for Sam Peckinpah.
Arguably, this lack of prior connections to the horror genre actually worked to the film’s advantage. Donner has stated that he approached The Omen as a ‘mystery suspense thriller’, and he removed the more outlandish elements of Seltzer’s original script, such as covens and demonic creatures[iii]. Crucially, this was not motivated by genre snobbery, but for the purpose of ensuring that the film remained believable, directed and played straight, without either knowing winks to the audience or overtly fantastical contrivances. To my mind, as an agnostic sceptic, this gives the film an advantage over many of its similarly Satanic-themed contemporaries. Despite its frequent and often completely fictional references to The Book Of Revelations, it wears its theological and supernatural aspects lightly, always leaving room for doubt and never requiring absolute belief from its audience. Conversely, its intimate scale and refusal to overplay its hand help make its outrageous conceit – that the Anti-Christ has been born and plans to take over the Earth – more convincing.
The casting of Peck was something of a coup for The Omen, with the actor having virtually retired some years before, only returning to screen work following tragic events in his personal life. He brings his established cinema persona of dignity and authority to the role of Robert Thorn, and his charisma retains audience sympathy for a character who is in many ways quite unsympathetic, despite his belief in the morality of his choices. Thorn is responsible for secretly adopting Damien; perhaps due to his political profession, he seems to view his own deceased baby as a problem to be solved rationally and smoothed over, rather than confront the messy emotions honestly with his wife. He never confesses the truth to Katherine, even as she is torn apart by doubts regarding the child she believes is hers. It is only once his lack of honesty has cost the lives of many around him that he firmly commits to decisive action.
Reflecting the changing social mores of the time, the film is implicitly critical of the traditional benevolent patriarch, acting as they see fit without consulting the feelings of others. Peck effectively undermines his own screen image, with his powerful authority figure revealed to be unequal to the task of effective leadership. The relationship between Robert and Katherine is a fascinating microcosm of besieged nuclear-family values; clearly sincere and very much in love, but old-fashioned and unable to adapt to the crisis. Katherine’s faith in his judgement is misplaced as, with the best of intentions, he makes a terrible decision that totally betrays her trust, and she is left with little avenue to express her growing suspicions and doubts in the face of his evasive, misguided paternalism. She is probably the most tragic and ill-used character in the film, and Remick does sterling work in the role, never playing her as a fool or a weakling but as an intelligent woman stranded in the dark by decisions beyond her knowledge or control.
Unlike Katherine, many of the supporting characters do have at least some idea of what they are getting involved in, despite their inability to escape their fates. The slightly sleazy but sympathetic photographer Jennings (Warner) is the closest thing to an independent observer of the events, becoming embroiled in the plot through professional bad luck rather than religious conviction or family connection. Cleverly, Jennings is drawn to investigate the Thorns through objective evidence – he finds inexplicable marks on photographs he took of people connected to the family, who later met violent deaths. The marks are not present on the negatives and seem to foretell the circumstances of their grisly demises. Once he finds an identical blemish on a photograph of himself, his stake in solving the mystery becomes personal…The character’s practical approach helps persuade the audience to accept each step of the conspiracy’s unveiling, even as Warner is obliged to spout some highly dubious cod theology while maintaining an admirably straight face.
On the more villainous side, Billie Whitelaw is chillingly restrained as Damien’s sinister nanny, Mrs Baylock. She is frequently unnervingly still, conveying her true emotion through her powerful eyes alone. Her stony zealot is an understated but plausible threat, all the more effective for withholding her overt intentions until her final terrifying explosion into violence. Meanwhile, Patrick Troughton (no stranger to bringing the fantastical to persuasive life from his tenure as Doctor Who and roles for Hammer and Ray Harryhausen) is typically convincing in the small but pivotal role of Father Brennan, the corrupt but repentant priest who first tries to warn Robert Thorn about his adopted son. He resists all urges to ham up the role, portraying Brennan’s frantic, sickly monomania without ever resorting to histrionics.
In line with the film’s relatively ‘realistic’ approach, some of the creepiest moments are among the most subtle. Father Brennan’s claustrophobic room, compulsively wallpapered with Bible pages and covered in crosses, is a memorably comfortless set. Although it features in just one scene, as Robert and Jennings investigate the priest’s life after his fatal ‘accident’, it plays on my mind – how did he live like that? How paranoic and terrifying must his day-to-day life have been? As Jennings wryly observes: ‘I think he was trying to keep something out, don’t you?’ Likewise, Jennings’ eerily distorted photographs provide a rewarding chill, particularly on a re-watch, once the characters’ fates are known.
Despite its restraint, The Omen does not skimp on its big set-pieces. It is full of moments that still pack a punch, no matter how familiar they have become: the first nanny’s suicide; the baboon attack at the safari park; Damien cycling around in circles, winding himself up like a homicidal toy, before he pedals away to knock his Mother off the balcony; Robert finally uncovering the Satanic birthmark; the terrible smile on Mrs Baylock’s face as she approaches Katherine at the hospital. The death of Father Brennan is almost a short film in its own right, a brilliantly staged lesson in how to get from mildly unsettling to a jaw-dropping finale in barely five minutes without missing a beat, with editor Stuart Baird brilliantly creating a sense of inexorable, doom-laden rhythm. Perhaps most celebrated of all is Jennings’ decapitation – once seen, his spinning head is not forgotten, and it remains an outstandingly arranged moment of shock.
The icing on The Omen’s Devilish cake is Jerry Goldsmith’s OSCAR-winning score, the only Academy Award the composer won, despite 18 nominations over the course of his acclaimed career. Genuinely hair-raising, it is almost an extra character in the film and contributes immeasurably to its success. Utilising an orchestra, choir, and electronic effects, the music has a convincing liturgical quality, mixing the portentous austerity of Gregorian chant with the thunderous forebodings of a ‘Dies Irae’ (the ‘Day of Wrath’ from the classical Catholic requiem mass). The Latin lyrics are actually a loose interpretation of a black mass, inverting the traditional Christian phrases. Goldsmith’s soundtrack subtly returns to centre stage the covens and demonic creatures cut from Seltzer’s script; his masterstroke is that they are now all the more terrifying for their almost subliminal presence, being heard but never seen.
Although it opened to a somewhat mixed critical reception, The Omen has weathered 45 years extremely well, holding its own against sequels of variable quality as well as an unnecessary remake in 2006. With strong performances, expertly-mounted horror sequences, sharp editing, and an eldritch soundtrack held together by Donner’s terse and realistic direction, the film’s enduring appeal shows little sign of waning. Not bad for an Exorcist clone written for money, and a strong reminder that blockbusters do not necessarily have to lack quality and integrity.
[i] ‘666: The Omen Revealed’, The Omen Blu-ray Special Feature (2009, 20th Century Fox).
[ii] ‘Screenwriter’s Notebook’, The Omen Blu-ray Special Feature (2009, 20th Century Fox).
[iii] ‘666: The Omen Revealed’, The Omen Blu-ray Special Feature (2009, 20th Century Fox).
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