The Omen


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Omen
"Despite his illustrious career, Peck has never bettered his performance as the tortured father, torn between duties to his family and to the wider world."

Some films develop such a powerful reputation that it's difficult for the real thing to compete. The Omen - remade in 2006 - stands out as one of the classics of Seventies horror. Coming just three years after The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now, it helped to define a new era in horror - one that recognised changing social mores and focused as much on human psychology as on external threats. It signalled a maturing of the genre even whilst it harked back to very old themes. 30 years earlier it would have been hard to find an English person who did not believe in the Devil (indeed, it's said that this is a fear people cling to long after they have forgotten God). In the increasingly secular Seventies, however, such belief was rapidly coming to seem alien, and The Omen, by asking what might happen if the Bible were true after all, caught at a still deeper insecurity: what if reason could not be relied upon? What if no human ability were adequate to contain a threat from beyond the comprehensible world?

The story here will already be familiar to most readers, whether they've seen the film or not. After his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) apparently suffers a still birth, diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is persuaded to accept a motherless infant as his own, keeping the switch secret from her so that she might be spared grief. The provenance of the child, however, is suspicious, and as time goes on he starts to behave strangely, throwing a tantrum when thy attempt to take him into a church. A mysterious death and the arrival of a priest with a dire warning (Patrick Troughton at his most unhinged and smarter-than-thou) begin to suggest that something is very wrong. When Peck hooks up with a photographer (David Warner) who has uncovered related secrets, they begin to suspect that the child, Damien, represents a terrible threat. But by then, of course, Thorn has come to love the boy.

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Despite his illustrious career, Peck has never bettered his performance as the tortured father, torn between duties to his family and to the wider world. He and Remick have real chemistry, and they get splendid support from Billie Whitelaw, the nanny who arrives out of nowhere to care for Damien. Over the years since the film was made, the boy himself has been parodied and reimagined so many times that the raw, natural performance given by Hervey Spencer Stephens is all the more disconcerting. He's a far cry from the scary monster children or recent years, with their singsong voices and weird looking eyes - though sometimes sinister, he is often sweet, or mischievous and playful, or difficult in the ways all small children are, so the idea of hurting him is as horrible as it ought always to be. It's the humanity in the film that gives it its potency, creating multiple levels if horror as sign after sign suggests impending doom.

Adding to the power of the film and contributing a great deal to its lasting status is Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful orchestral score, with imposing choral sequences, which deservedly won an Oscar. As much as any of the scriptural reference, it accords the film a sense of historical weight and contributes to the impression of an unfolding destiny in which the adult characters - and perhaps even Damien himself - are mere pawns.

Often described as one of the world's scariest films, The Omen delivers a few sudden shocks but is most effective when it comes to creating a sense of foreboding. In this regard it has much in common with its predecessor in Antichrist depiction, Rosemary's Baby, and it has a more chilling impact on those who share the religious ideas at its core. Its influence on the genre makes it an important reference point for fans and guarantees it a lasting place in cinematic history, but it remains well worth viewing for its own sake, no less affecting for the passing of time. It would seem to have a destiny of its own.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2014
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A diplomat and his wife begin to suspect that there is something inherently evil about the child they are raising.
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Director: Richard Donner

Writer: David Seltzer

Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Harvey Spencer Stephens, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson, Leo McKern

Year: 1976

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK


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