Let him who hath understanding reckon the Omen.
Finally, it's a movie that almost never got made. Once it did, some even claimed it was cursed. Robert Munger (credited here as "religious advisor"), who had recently become a Born Again Christian, came up with the idea of the Antichrist coming to earth in the form of a little boy. He pitched the idea to producer Harvey Bernhard, who immediately went home and wrote a ten page treatment. Then a series of writers declined to work on the "damned" thing. Finally David Seltzer (who had passed on it once) caught the bug and started reading the Bible for inspiration. It came, he wrote, and eventually parlayed The Omen into a fine career for himself.
Even with Donner on board, it couldn't get made. Fox passed on it. Warner Brothers optioned it for development, but then opted to make Exorcist II: The Heretic instead. (Bad move.) Finally, Donner, then a TV director who had made a couple of little, unsuccessful films, himself pitched it to Alan Ladd, Jr. who agreed to make the film (at Fox!!!) on a shoestring budget. Somehow Donner ended up with a veritable wish list of actors. The great Gregory Peck signed on to play the lead, Robert Thorn. Soon after, Lee Remick signed on to play Katherine Thorn. Donner asked for the involvement of two people he knew he couldn't get. Actor David Warner to play photographer Keith Jennings and composer Jerry Goldsmith to compose the musical score. He got them both.
Throughout filming, accidents happened, leading to the urban legend of an "Omen Curse". After filming, some critics considered the film itself to be an accursed accident. Curse them. The Omen is great.
Robert Thorn is the American Ambassador to Italy. He and Kathy have it all. A fine commission, the US President as a best friend, and a bouncing baby boy on the way. But when Robert is given the news that his son died immediately after birth (and that his wife still doesn't know) he unwittingly makes a deal with the devil for all the right reasons. Martin Benson's Father Spiletto presents to him a child born at the same time as his son, but immediately orphaned. That time, by the way, was 6 AM on June Sixth. 6... 6... 6...
At first everything is fine with the new Thorn boy, whom Robert and Kathy name "Damien". Things are even better, actually, as Thorn is given the cushy position of Ambassador to Great Britain, immediately after the adoption. What is immediately striking about The Omen is how normal and provincial it seems. It almost immediately becomes a sweet and romantic little family film with two parents loving their little bambino to pieces. However, things change at Damien's fifth birthday party, where we're shown the first of many memorable (and disturbing) death scenes.
The Thorns, specifically Kathy, start to realize that something strange is surrounding their boy. Young Damien (now well played by the creepy little Harvey Stephens) is turning into quite the little hell spawn. He's afraid to enter churches. He scares the musk out of animals (and almost gets killed by a bunch of angry baboons). He seems to bring darkness with him everywhere he goes... and he has a fondness for really stupid looking hats. That last one, though, I blame a little more on his nasty nanny, Mrs. Baylock (the as-scary-as-she-wants-to-be Billie Whitelaw)!
The Omen escalates at every turn, but somehow balances its mix of the supernatural with the coincidental. Yes, this is a thriller, but so much of it is plausible. It's the very ambiguity that keeps this movie going, and keeps the audiences riveted. Once the cryptic warnings of Patrick Troughton's Father Brennan are heeded, Thorn and Jennings (who has found himself inexorably linked to the saga of the Antichrist) travel to the Holy Land and back in search of answers, some of which come from fallen exorcist and all around creepy guy Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern).
Along the way, things get very scary. Never does The Omen stoop to cheap thrills or startles. Always the horror is subtle, frightening and mood-driven, even at its most surprising. It all leads up to two of the greatest endings in horror history, not to mention some of the most memorable and influential death scenes ever captured. Chief among these is the now-famous decapitation scene (ironic in that the chosen method was the second choice of Donner and Effects Guys John Richardson and George Gibbs)!
The acting here is top notch, specifically Gregory Peck. On the surface it seems odd that this five time Oscar Nominee (and winner for To Kill A Mockingbird) would choose to take part in a low budget horror film (as his comeback after a screen absence, no less). However, he gives his all here, and Thorn remains among Peck's best roles. Further Donner (and Ladd) made damned sure that this script was believable, asking for Seltzer rewrites to eliminate those crazy imagination stretches. This makes for even more of a great dichotomy here, as this shocking horror flick has become, fittingly, a Gregory Peck movie.
Further, Harvey Stephens makes an excellent Damien Thorn. His performance unquestionably influenced those of the other actors who would later play or spoof that character. When interviewing Stephens for the job, Donner asked the boy to fight him (to see how he might handle the car-fight with Remick). Harvey punched Dick right in the balls, attacked him relentlessly and had to be dragged away. Donner hired him immediately. Though Dick Donner called him a great kid, he also added "I wouldn't want him for my own."
Still as great as Stephens is, and he is; as great as Warner is, and he is; as great as Remick is, and she is, this is Peck's movie and it stands up as yet another great Gregory Peck role.
Donner's directing is fantastic, and is further proof of why he's one of my favorites. Seltzer's best work is found in this script. The producers and crew somehow managed to get exactly the right actors. But the one thing about The Omen which is, without question, the fundamental key, is the Music. Jerry Goldsmith (who had been nominated for several Oscars before) won his first Academy Award for The Omen, and any good listen will show you why. What is so amazing here, is that Goldsmith didn't turn in just some scary score and let it be that. The Omen builds to its terrifying finish by giving us beauty and peace. Goldsmith is brilliant in his use of music to accompany the light and the dark sides of this film. His love themes are wonderful and his action music is thrilling. But then there's the horror of it all. Taking cues from Latin Chants, Goldsmith constructed one of the scariest themes ever recorded, using a gripping, thudding bass, subdued brass and strings and a Latin Chorus singing out operatic lines like "Jesus... Christos..." and "Ave Satani". It's scary as hell, whether you're a Christian or not. Goldsmith, of course, is not!
For all its greatness (and great acclaim), The Omen still has its naysayers. There are a number of crap-shovel reviews out there, some by noted critics. As a not-so-noted critic I say... bite my middle toe, you hacks! Still, even I, as an enormous fan, wouldn't call The Omen quite perfect. I'm thrilled by the mystery that The Omen gives us, but I wonder how it's possible. Is a Coven of Satanists so careful as to bury (in MARKED GRAVES) the real Thorn baby and Damien's real mother? Would they leave a trail to them? I don't know. Many script elements are either turned around from the Bible, or made up without Biblical basis. Also, and this is a silly thing to say, even I know... it's kind of a downer! But hey... it's still the horror movie to watch, kids!
Luckily, people still are watching The Omen. With three sequels, a remake and an (ill fated) Television Series, most everyone has at least heard of The Omen. A lot of people credit The Omen with bringing them back into the Church. Most certainly the number "666" owes a bit of its notoriety to The Omen. Richard Donner, of course, owes The Omen his career. He had a fine living before, but kids, look at him now. This got him Superman, which got him the clout to do just about anything. Dick owes The Omen a lot.
So do movie fans. The little film with the big cast, shot for just under three million dollars went on to gross over Seventy Million, not counting Sales, Rentals and Re-releases. This great success was much more than just a direct influence to film and pop culture. Ailing Fox Studios was able to up the budget (and therefore successfully finish) a little flick called Star Wars, which, I've heard, has not gone unnoticed.
Four and One Half Stars out of Five for The Antichrist, The Birthmark... The Omen. It's a great classic film and the perfect way to end the Summer of Horror. Sometimes, things just go right. Ironically, The Omen went right in the telling of a story in which everything has gone horribly wrong. Now that the Summer of Horror has finally ended, I need to go get this Birthmark looked at. Don't worry, it doesn't display three sixes or anything, but I still think it needs to go. See, it's shaped vaguely like Gilbert Gottfried, and people keep coming to me just to knock the crap out of me. Look, I didn't choose this destiny, it chose me! Do you think I WANT to be the AntiComedy? No! Bite Me... in the next reel!
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