Ed. note– THE OMEN is important on many levels. It was a huge blockbuster in the summer of 1976, and made so much money that Fox Studios was able to fund George Lucas’ STAR WARS. But for me, it’s important because it’s the best horror film ever made. It’s my favorite, with good reason as you’ll see when you read on.– P.F.
If there’s such a thing as the perfect horror film, it’s THE OMEN. Script, direction, acting, score and editing all come together to tell the story of the birth of evil, in a film that’s both horrifying and classy. Since the very first time I saw it as a child, THE OMEN has been my favorite horror film, and even watching it again the other night, Satan knows how many times I’ve seen it, it’s still scary. I stand by my word that it’s the best horror show ever made.
It starts with the concept. The film taps into our primordial fear that the greatest of evils is out there among us, ready to bring down death and utter destruction without a moment’s notice. Religion was kind enough to embody this in the form of the devil, and in the New Testament to further that perfection of evil as the Antichrist, the balance to the perfection to all benevolence, the Christ. Devil stories were popular in the early 70s, when the social and political structures were a mess, oil embargos were in vogue, and people were questioning God. THE OMEN captured the zeitgeist sweetly, not only by giving birth to Satan, but giving him as a father a politician.
Its story structure is simple and classic. Robert Thorn discovers his child has died at birth. As he and his wife Kathy are older, this may have been their last chance to have a family. A priest offers a solution: there’s another child, whose mother died at birth the same morning, and Thorn can take that child as his own. No one need ever know. Thorn takes Damien, and on his fifth birthday, violent tragedies start to strike the Thorns. A nanny commits suicide, animals at a zoo go berserk at the sight of Damien. When a priest shows up to tell Thorn that his son is really the son of Satan, Thorn refuses to believe. But when paparazzo Jennings provides some interesting details, the ambassador to England’s Court of St. James starts to question whether maybe Father Brennan was right after all.
The film also works as a character study. Robert Thorn is a classic example of the I’ve Got a Secret archetype. He’s harboring it to protect his reputation, but more importantly his wife’s fragile sanity. It’s a dark secret with severe consequences, that Thorn refuses to tie to it. For much of the movie, he’s the classic disbeliever, refusing to accept any supernatural reasons for the tragedies that suddenly surround him. Even after he comes to think that his son is in fact evil, when it’s suggested to him that he’s got to kill Damien, he goes straight back to denial. Interestingly, Thorn is an extension of the film’s director, Richard Donner, who sees the whole film as a series of coincidences instead of a story of the Antichrist here on Earth.
The acting makes THE OMEN stand miles above other horror flicks. Casting Gregory Peck as Robert brings to it a gravitas. This wasn’t a marginal actor well past his prime taking a role just to have work, as with Arthur Kennedy in those trashy Italian horrors. This was the man who played Atticus Finch in the Oscar winning TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in a movie about the devil. Peck is great as always, nailing the emotions of a conflicted man. Matching him perfectly as Kathy is Lee Remick. She plays a character falling apart at the mental seams, and does so admirably. THE OMEN could have been absolute schlock, but the two leads never pander. They give the film a pedigree that no other horror flick can attest to. Donner surrounds them with great secondary players, with David Warner as photographer Jennings, Billie Whitelaw as the second, evil nanny Mrs. Baylock, and Leo McKern as Bugenhagen, the archaeologist who knows a thing or two about how to stop Satan’s clock. And little Harvey Stephens as Damien does a great job as a regular kid, who knows nothing about his nefarious powers. It’s an impressive cast that plays the material to sweet perfection.
THE OMEN wouldn’t be a great horror flick if it didn’t satisfy on scares, and it’s got some of the best. The script’s built around a series of high spots, brilliant set pieces that stand up nearly 40 years later. There’s a baboon attack at a zoo that’s ratcheted up by the use of real baboons; an impalement that’s become iconic; and a creative beheading that Donner tricks the audience into seeing even if they’re covering their eyes. The scene that stands out for me has always been the dog attack in the ancient Etruscan burial ground. Donner takes the set at Shepperton studios and through editing, cinematography and music crafts a terrifying scene not only because of the attack, but because of what Jennings and Thorn find there. It’s my favorite horror scene in any film. These scenes propelled THE OMEN into great horror territory, and were the genesis of the whole “creative kill” concept that so many films employed in its wake.
THE OMEN also has a classic score, for which Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar. It’s so important not only to this film, but to the history of horror movies, that I covered it in a separate review. Without this score, THE OMEN still would’ve been a great film, but probably not as great as it is.
For me, THE OMEN will always be the best horror film ever made. It takes the classical concept of Satan among us, and makes a very human drama out of it. Something like 30 years after I first saw it, it still delivers the scares for me every time I watch, the sign of an effective horror. Everything came together on THE OMEN, and it deserves its status not only as a classic, but as the perfect horror film.