A few days ago, Arleigh shared the theme song from 1976’s The Omen as Monday’s horror song of the day. As I sat there and listened to Jerry Goldsmith’s award-winning hymn to Satan, it occurred to me that I happen to have all five of the Omen films sitting in my movie collection. Seeing as how this is Halloween and how the world seems to be getting closer to ending with each passing day, I decided that this would be the perfect time to rewatch the entire franchise and consider whether or not The Omen films are truly as scary as a lot of people seem to think.
So, that’s what I did.
How did things turn out?
Well, in the long history of sequels and remakes, The Omen franchise is one of the more uneven collections. This is one of those franchises where things tend to get less impressive with each subsequent entry. However, 38 years after its initial release, the first Omen remains effective and, in its way, genuinely scary.
If you’re a horror fan, you probably know the general plot of The Omen regardless of whether you’ve actually watched it or not. It’s one of those films that has been so frequently imitated that it’s almost possible to watch it by osmosis.
The film opens in Rome with diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) being rushed to the hospital where his wife, Kathy (Lee Remick), has just given birth. A priest (Martin Benson) tells him that his son died shortly after being born but that he can always just go home with an orphaned newborn that he just happens to have handy. Robert agrees and decides not to tell his wife the truth about the child. Robert and Kathy raise the boy and they name him Damien. Four years later, the politically ambitious Robert is named as Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
The Thorns move to London and soon, odd things start to happen. Damien (now played by Harvey Spencer Stephens) is a quiet boy with a piercing stare who throws a fit whenever he’s taken inside of a church. When Kathy takes Damien to the zoo, they’re attacked by angry baboons. A large Rottweiler mysteriously appears on the grounds of the Ambassador’s estate. A mysterious and sinister nanny (Billie Whitelaw) shows up and explains that she’s been sent by an “agency.” A crazed priest (Patrick Troughton) starts to stalk the Ambassador, demanding a chance to speak with him and insisting that Damien’s mother was actually a jackal.
Even more mysteriously, people start dying in the strangest of ways. A young woman (Holly Palance) smiles as she shouts, “Damien, it’s all for you!” and then hangs herself, thoroughly ruining Damien’s fifth birthday party. A freak lightning storm leads to a man being impaled by a weather vane. Another person who suspects that there might be something wrong with Damien ends up losing his head in a graphic sequence that — even in this age of Hostel and Saw — is difficult to watch.
The Ambassador is contact by Keith Jennings (David Warner), a nervous photographer who fears that Damien may be planning on killing him. Soon, Thorn and Jennings are flying to Italy and to the Middle East and discovering evidence that five year-old Damien might very well be the Antichrist. Speaking of Damien, he and that nanny have been left alone with poor, victimized Kathy.
(“Oh, leave her alone,” I muttered as Damien attempted to kill Kathy for the hundredth time…)
As I watched The Omen, I tried to figure out why this film has held up so well. It certainly wasn’t due to the performance of Gregory Peck who, quite frankly, seemed to mostly be going through the motions. David Warner, on the other hand, gave such a good performance that it was almost difficult to watch. (Don’t get attached to any character who appears in an Omen film.) Some of the film’s effectiveness was undoubtedly due to Jerry Goldsmith’s intense score. Anything’s scary when you’ve got a hundred voice shouting “Ave Satani” at you.
But, ultimately, I think the reason why The Omen still works is because the film generates such a palpable sense of doom. This is one of those films that leaves you convinced that anyone can die at any minute and, considering that happens to be true in both this movie and in real life, that makes the horror of The Omen feel very real. By the time the film ends, you’re left with little doubt that nobody in the film had the least bit of power or control over his or her own destiny. Instead, they were all just pawns in a game that they had no hope of ever winning or understanding. Is there anything scarier than feeling powerless?
All I know is that, having rewatched The Omen, I will never look at a plane of glass the same way again.