Classic Flix Review: The Omen (1976)

I was 5 years old when this came out – about the same age as Damien, the demon child destined to be the antichrist. While I didn’t see this movie until the mid-eighties (thanks to the advent of video rentals), I read screenwriter David Seltzer’s novelization just right before. It was a good and creepy read and encouraged me to check it out on the screen.

Almost 20 years later, and now in glorious blu-ray format, the film retains its fairy tale quality and lustre. And as a father of  2 very young boys, The Omen brings a whole new perspective on the parental tragedy along the lines of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and later Lars von Trier’s Antichrist). This perspective also made the film effectively disturbing.

Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), an American ambassador to the UK, and his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), lose a child at birth while in Rome. A Roman chaplain/priest convinces Thorn the unthinkable: adopt another child born at the same instant – its mother apparently dying at the same time – as his own without Katherine’s knowledge.  Things are perfect for a while until strange and macabre occurrences take place a few years later at the child’s 5th birthday party. A nanny’s suicide, a strange rabid dog and a journalist’s (David Warner in a non-villainous role) foreboding photographs of impending death. Add to that an evil and manipulative governess (Billie Whitelaw winning the Mrs. Danvers of the 70s award) and you have the Thorn family helpless and betrayed. Thorn discovers later that Damien holds the number of the beast on his scalp (it’s not a barcode though very graphic designed) and tries to kill the child.

Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) is very good as the toddler antichrist. In fact, some scenes, such as the meltdown at the Episcopal Church and the near fatal tricycle sequence are so matter of fact, you could mistake them for innocent child behavior – all the more creepy! Richard Donner keeps things simple here in a good way, letting the story which feels like a fairy tale (albeit a scary one), carry the movie. Donner, who is an alum of the classic Rod Serling Twilight Zone series, uses more atmosphere and light rather than fast-paced violence.  The fight scene between an aging Gregory Peck and the governess is about as fast-paced as the classic fight scene between Peck and Charlton Heston in The Big Country.

However, the real anchor here is Peck, who just exudes humanity within every scene. While still acting in the classic Hollywood style, Peck’s Robert Thorn is a dignified but flawed everyman. Credit that, if you will, to the story, the pacing and direction – but none could have carried this into the ‘Classic’ category as well as Peck’s very believable performance. Belated happy birthday to the GP!

– review by Vince Caro

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels

The Omen TRIVIA (per IMDb):

Having changed its title from The Antichrist to The Birthmark, the film seemed to fall victim to a sinister curse. Star Gregory Peck and screenwriter David Seltzer took separate planes to the UK…yet BOTH planes were struck by lightning. While producerHarvey Bernhard was in Rome, lightning just missed him. Rottweilers hired for the film attacked their trainers. A hotel at which director Richard Donner was staying got bombed by the IRA; he was also struck by a car. After Peck canceled another flight, to Israel, the plane he would have chartered crashed…killing all on board. On day one of the shoot, several principal members of the crew survived a head-on car crash. The jinx appeared to persist well into post-production… when special effects artist John Richardson was injured and his girlfriend beheaded in an accident on the set of A Bridge Too Far.

Harvey Stephens, as Damien, was largely chosen for this role from the way he attacked Richard Donner during auditions. Stephens screamed and clawed at Donner’s face, and kicked him in the groin during his act. Donner whipped the kid off him, ordered the kid’s blond hair dyed black and cast him as Damien.

According Gregory Peck’s biography by Gary Fishgall, he took this role at a huge cut in salary (a mere $250,000) but was also guaranteed 10% of the film’s box office gross. When it went on to gross more than $60 million in the U.S. alone, The Omen became the highest-paid performance of Peck’s career.

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Have you seen this classic horror? Well, what do you think?