Movie Review: “The Omen” (1976)

The Omen posterThis film is the apex of horror for me. It’s about an American diplomat named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who gradually comes to believe that his son is the antichrist. As eerie events surrounding the child escalate, spearheaded by the mysterious governess, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), he eventually becomes convinced he has to take drastic measures to save the world from Satanic annihilation.

This film was made as part of the 1960s-’70s spate of what MAD magazine called “Devil Flicks”—demonic horror movies kicking off with Rosemary’s Baby and most famously represented by The Exorcist. People often call the latter one of the scariest films of all time, but in my opinion, it’s just a distasteful exercise in gross-out scenes and cheap parlor trick special effects.

The Omen isn’t like that. Oh, sure; it still involves a child who is somehow an agent of Satan, but what I like is that nothing he does is clearly supernatural. The most action we ever see Damien take is throw a tantrum when he is near a church. But even that isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for a small child.

The horrific things are what unfold around Damien—the mysterious black dogs that appear, the way other animals seem to fear the child, and of course, Mrs. Baylock, the seemingly sweet but also sinister woman who cares for the boy.

Think about the level of confidence this takes. It’s easy for a writer to make the villain a winged demon, or a hideous ogre, or some other well-worn theatrical manifestation of evil. The on-screen antagonists in The Omen are (1) a five-year-old kid (2) a quiet, polite woman and (3) some dogs. That doesn’t sound particularly scary, but they make it work—thanks in large part to Whitelaw, who was a terrific actress capable of conveying subtle menace with just a look.

Now, while the film isn’t a gore-fest, there are still some violent scenes. The most shocking is probably the suicide by hanging early on, though perhaps the impalement midway through or the decapitation or the death by plunging from a tall building close to the end are worse. But while these are powerful and disturbing, they aren’t what make the movie scary. What makes it scary is the slowly growing feeling of menace as Thorn, with the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), gradually pieces together the eerie coincidences and unsettling circumstances surrounding Damien’s birth. Starting with the scene in the obsessed priest’s apartment—wallpapered with Bible verses and newspaper clippings, like any good conspiracy theorist’s would be—there’s a part of the film that’s basically a horror road picture, culminating in what might be the creepiest revelation of all, set in an Etruscan cemetery.

And the soundtrack! I’ve talked about this before; but I can’t overstate how terrifying it is. Just the opening theme by itself is scarier than all but about a half-dozen of the horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s bone-chilling.

Now, there’s the elephant in the room: the religious themes of this film. It’s about the Antichrist, so naturally, the film is filled with references to scripture, in particular the Book of Revelation, and it tracks fairly closely with the prophecies recorded in the final book of the Bible. 

Ha! Gotcha!

Did I say “tracks fairly closely?” Sorry, no—what I meant was, hasn’t really got much of anything to do with it at all.

The main prophecy that the film wants us to believe Damien is fulfilling is this poem, which Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) quotes to Thorn:

 When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky

And the Holy Roman Empire rises

Then you and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore,

Turning Man against his brother

Till Man exists no more.

He says this, and then adds, almost as an aside to himself “The Book of Revelation predicted it all.” Troughton really sells this line too, like the Biblical scholar just can’t get over the uncanny way events are playing out just as scripture foretold.

He says it so convincingly that I totally believed it. It was decades before I discovered that the poem is, in fact, completely made up for the movie and has basically nothing to do with the Book of Revelation. In fairness to me, I saw The Omen for the first time as a 12-year-old kid who most certainly would never win any prizes for scripture knowledge. (And yes, I know the movie is R-rated and a 12-year-old really shouldn’t see it. But that is also exactly why 12-year-old me just had to see it!)

The only real ties the movie has to anything Biblical is the quote from Revelation 13:18 at the very end: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” And, as we’ve just seen, Damien has the mark of the Beast on his scalp.

So, yeah. A number. That’s basically all they used from the Bible—that, and of course a bunch of religious imagery. Damien is scared of churches. A church steeple gets struck by lightning. Damien’s shadow forms an inverted cross in the opening credits. There are a bunch of references to the Christian religion and symbols, but really none of it feels integral to the plot. In principle, I think you could, without too much effort, make Damien an avatar of Nyarlathotep or some other “generic” evil instead.

You see, fiction writers love prophecies. I think it’s because it can help to give your story weight if you say it’s all the fulfillment of something foretold long ago. But you have to be careful, because if you just make up a prophecy out of nowhere, it feels contrived and silly. (Hello, Anakin Skywalker, the “Chosen One!”)  

The Omen’s fundamental trick is to take a prophecy that has rather a lot of cultural clout backing it up. Christian texts are so familiar to virtually everyone in the United States, Christian or not, that it gave the movie instant weight. You don’t have to be Christian to know 666 = Bad News.

I can see that Christians might be offended by this, since this film is essentially trading on their holy texts in order to give extra weight to the apocalyptic plot. And, weirdly, I can also see how non-Christians might be offended because the film seems to implicitly endorse Christianity… kinda.

I tried reading the Book of Revelation as a kid after I saw The Omen. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, even though I think the Biblical Beast is supposed to have lots of both. Although I think that might be a metaphor? Anyway, you see what I’m saying: I was not cut out to be a Biblical scholar.    

But getting bogged down in ecclesiastical scholasticism is just not what this movie is really about. The religious imagery is just a convenient shorthand for Good and Evil. 

The Omen is really about a child who, for various reasons, a bunch of people believe is going to destroy the world. The child himself never does anything especially out of the ordinary. And this fact lends itself nicely to my personal hobby: alternate interpretations of movies.

Come on; you knew it was coming.

Father Brennan thinks Damien is going to destroy the world and tries, in his own cryptic, abrasive way to prevent it, in the process bringing all sorts of bizarre ideas to Thorn’s attention. Mrs. Baylock thinks Damien is going to destroy the world, and is all about keeping him alive so he can do it. All of this triggers a weird and ultimately tragic series of events, but at no point does Damien deliberately do anything evil. (He does seriously injure his mother, but that is obviously orchestrated by Mrs. Baylock.)

Now, as much as I would love to argue for this being one of those unreliable narrator deals where there’s nothing supernatural going on at all, there’s just no way to make that case. There’s no rational way to account for stuff like the weird images that Jennings captures in his photographs or six Rottweilers showing up staging an ambush in an ancient cemetery. Clearly, some sort of unseen malevolent power is at work in this universe.  But is it really Damien? Or is he just an innocent kid, caught up in events beyond his control that make people around him do insane things? The film doesn’t say.

Well… okay, this film doesn’t say. But The Omen was a box office success, and that of course meant they just had to make a sequel. And so we have Damien: The Omen II.

The Omen II It's Still The Antichrist

I haven’t actually seen this film, so don’t take this to be a review of it. But I have read a summary with spoilers, and I know the basic plot of it: it follows Thorn’s brother, Richard, who gets custody of Damien after the events of the first film and…

…wait for it…

…gradually pieces together bits of evidence which ultimately lead him to believe that…

…are you ready?

…DAMIEN IS ACTUALLY THE ANTICHRIST.

Yes, the plot of the sequel is just the first one over again. Now Damien is older, and now there are different prophecies involved, but… yeah, it’s the same thing.

Watching a guy gradually come to believe that his son is probably the Antichrist was interesting the first time. Watching another a guy come to believe that the guy we already discovered is probably the Antichrist is still probably the Antichrist is boring. But when movie producers know they have a title that they think is a safe bet to sell tickets, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

So, yeah; the first film in the Omen series was interesting. The second seems to be just a re-hash of the first. I don’t want to comment on it beyond that, because I don’t think it’s very fair to discuss a film I haven’t seen. I’ll just conclude with the simple fact that they made a sequel to a film I loved, but it had a premise so lackluster it couldn’t convince me to see it.

The Omen III The Antichrist Now Has a Hat

Ugh. Make that two sequels.

Right then, Omen III: The Final Conflict. I’ll keep it short, as I have also not seen this film. Damien is still the Antichrist after all these years, and has now become the ambassador to Great Britain, just as Thorn once was. However, this time, after the good characters once again uncover that the Antichrist is, in fact, the Antichrist, they take decisive measures, bringing an end to “the Omen trilogy.” This is, after all, the final conflict.

Omen IV The Antichrist on Ice

ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

I can’t even follow the synopsis of this one… there are two Antichrists, I think… one of them is a girl, maybe? It seems like they did come up with a different plot for this one, replacing “people gradually realize someone is the Antichrist” with “a bunch of weird Devil-type stuff happens.” I don’t know, and I don’t care.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t have a problem with sequels as such. If you’ve created a world that is so rich it has room for more than one story in it, then by all means, tell all of those stories across multiple installments. Likewise, if you’ve created a sprawling, epic tale best told in episodic format, then sequels are completely fine. 

Neither of these things can be said about The Omen. The first film was a simple concept well-executed, with good writing, intelligent direction, and strong performances from a good cast. But that’s all it was, or needed to be. To me, the thing that proves beyond a doubt that this parade of Antichrist movies was driven by studio executives is the fact that they clearly didn’t even understand what made the first film good. 

If you’re going to make a sequel to a successful film, it’s logical to include the central character from that film. And Damien isn’t the central character of The Omen.  I mean, sure; he’s the center of the plot, but he might as well be a McGuffin as far as what he’s required to do from an acting perspective.  Which is smart, by the way. You don’t want a child actor to have to carry the movie. 

Baylock.jpg
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock

And no, Robert Thorn isn’t the central character either. I’m sure Gregory Peck got paid the most for being in the film, but that’s just because he was Gregory Peck. The central character of The Omen is Mrs. Baylock. She’s the driving force of the whole thing.

Or, maybe more accurately, Billie Whitelaw’s character is the driving force. If they were going to make more Omen movies, they needed to bring Whitelaw back as a similar character. Or just straight-up give Mrs. Baylock the Captain Phasma treatment. But she had to come back in some form for any sequels to work. Having a sequel to The Omen without Mrs. Baylock or someone like her is like having a sequel to Star Wars without Darth Vader. It just reduces the series to an uninteresting mess.

But the original Omen will always be memorable to me. It remains the most scared I’ve ever been of a film. I first saw it on the day before Halloween, and I will never forget lying in my bed early that Halloween morning, worrying that there might be demon dogs breaking into the house. (This pales next to my mom’s experience of the film. She saw it in theaters when it originally came out, and the next morning, she stepped outside her apartment to see, standing around in the morning fog, a bunch of Rottweilers.)

So, bottom line, it will always be a favorite horror film of mine, no matter how many uninspired sequels they may have churned out. The original is good enough that it can survive that. The only thing worse than unnecessary sequels is second-rate remakes produced solely for the sake of a marketing gimmick like releasing on a specific date. 

It Never Ends This $41T

🤦

3 Comments

  1. Don’t like scary movies and I left Rapture theology so I skipped The Omen. My brother had to tell it to me anyway. I watched Omen III on HBO way back when. It was not scary, but it was incomprehensible. The only thing I remember about it was it introduced Sam Neil, and he’s turned out to be a rather good actor in spite of this one.

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