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.

Check out Vince Caro’s other FC posts here

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

30 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: The Omen (1976)

  1. This film definitely has its moments and Peck and the kid give great performances. Some very interesting trivia! Spooky stuff! I’d like to see the rest of the trilogy but shiver at the prospect of the redundant remake.

    It’s unfair maybe to compare but this is just so very tame compared to many other horrors of the 70s. The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just blew horror apart and introduced the world to a whole new level of terror. The Omen feels like a step back to me.

    1. rockerdad

      I see your point Pete – The Omen’s simplicity and old fashioned style is fairly dated. But I find that charming. I’m a fan of the old black and white Twilight Zone episodes (Donner directed the classic William Shatner episode Nightmare at 20,000 feet). While The Exorcist ages more gracefully (that is one of the scariest of all time), my all time favorite horror film is Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby which really had no gore whatsoever. Just brilliant pacing, atmosphere, etc. While The Omen isn’t the best out there, anachronistically it’s still quite good.

  2. PrairieGirl

    Not being a fan of horror, or even scary stories, I want to see this for Peck alone. Just like I have to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter just for Rufus Sewell, and Evil Dead for Bruce Campbell. (BTW, hot off the press: The Evil Dead remake started filming yesterday in New Zealand, BC producing ;-D)

    1. rockerdad

      I bet you would like this. It almost could’ve been released in the mid to late sixties – sort of sugarcoating the creepiness. It’s got a nice lush 70s film stock look with blurred edges. It won’t scare the bejesus outta you but quite entertaining.

  3. Aha!! finally, a movie by Peck that I had seen 😉

    I saw this movie ages ago..not that scary but quite enjoyable.
    Great review Ruth…brings back my chilhood memory

    1. Oh no, this is my pal Vince’s review 🙂 I actually have seen this too before I even knew who Peck was, it’s so darn freaky I don’t think I’ll watch it again.

        1. Well I know you have nerves of steel 😀 It’s not as scary as ‘Exorcist’ though, but then again, few movies are as scary as that one!

        2. rockerdad

          Yeah, me neither:) It did creep me out later in life – as I was watching this late at night, my 4 year old cried out in his sleep. That made my heart race a bit!

  4. jackdeth72

    Hi, Rockerdad and company:

    Great review and photos!

    I’ve always thought of Peck’s role in ‘The Omen’ to be one of re-acting more than of acting. Of course, Peck acts and emotes quite well. Getting slightly
    darker and more skittish and paranoid as Damian flexes his evil muscles and

    An all around decent flick that radiates atomosphere. Well deserving of some extra loving.

    1. rockerdad

      Yes! Re-acting is well done here. Peck just blends in the story and you are not distracted by overacting, etc. A good actor knows his role within a narrative. Even such a presence did not overtake the film. I feel he succeeded in making Robert Thorn more of an archetype – very dreamlike if that makes sense…

  5. I have fond memories with this ’76 shocker. Boy ‘o boy did this one have people antsy in the aisles. I love the atmosphere of dread Richard Donner got into this film. While I don’t think it’s anywhere near on par to something as seminal as ‘The Exorcist’, it still has a lot going for it in the pure entertainment department. I think if I show it to my kids, they’ll get a good scare of it. Fine review, Ruth.

  6. Hey Rockerdad!

    I saw this many many years ago. The set pieces were something for the ages, but I think that if I were to catch it now I would be a little less impressed.

    When I was going through my William Holden Obsession Phase (everyone should have one), my interest veered in the direction of The Omen 2. But I knew my betters and eventually avoided this film.

    Great write up!

    1. rockerdad

      Thanks idawson – part of this movie’s initial success was being (to my knowledge) the first movie directly referencing the biblical 666. In the 70s it elicited an “ooooooh”. Novelty has worn off but it paved the way for lesser films like the Prophecy, Prince of Darkness…

    1. rockerdad

      Kristin, I just saw the trailer for the remake – Damien actually said a line in it that immediately made it hokey. Damien in the original had no spoken lines. Although, it looks like they added some guys in cloaks for druid effect. Entertaining maybe.

  7. Ted S.

    Nice review Vince, totally forgot that Richard Donner directed this one. It was couple of years before he did Superman and he sort of got the repution as an action director after that. Yeah the film didn’t really aged that well if you watch it today but I think it’s still holds up pretty well if you don’t mind the 70s look of the film.

    The remake lacks creativity so I don’t know why they bothered making it in the first place. Such a waste of time and money/

    1. Hi Ted, this movie actually launched Donner’s career as he was mostly a TV director at the time. I never bothered to see the remakes/sequels and like you said, they likely don’t live up to the original.

  8. Nice write-up, Vince. I have feelings of ambivalence about The Omen, actually. Not because i think it’s a bad film; far from it, but I don’t find it as eerie as, say, it’s more famous cousin, The Exorcist, or even the gobsmacking Rosemary’s Baby. Honestly, I found Peck’s performance in this a little bewhildering, since he seemed a tad wooden to me. Rochard Donner’s direction, as you rightly pointed out, is highly antmospheric, and i think this is what lends The Omen it’s overall “scary” quality, rather than the concept of a devil child. I know, I know, i’ll be flamed off the internet for speaking a bad word about this film, but I just never quite found it the scary, creepy film everyone else did!

    That said, it’s in no way a bad film, and if I was to make a list of influential horror films that I enjoy, The Omen would be included simply for casting Gregory Peck in a horror film.

    1. rockerdad

      Hi Rodney – admittedly, I’m biased and influenced by nostalgic reasons. Also, the fact that it isn’t that scary, plays into it too. It should be classified more as a thriller perhaps.

  9. Like you, I was about 5 years old when “The Omen” was released. The first time I remember seeing it was just a few years later when it came out on network TV. I was probably too young and it was a little unsettling at the time.

    I’ve seen it once more since then but that was a long, long time ago. I definately need to revisit it. Very nice review.

    1. rockerdad

      it’s funny – a lot of folks I’ve talked to saw this movie when they were really young. I guess it translates well onto network tv – seems like an old school movie trait.

  10. This was a fantastic film and I found it was the camera shots and colour palette with its greys, blacks and then bright red which really made the film so haunting and scary.

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