First off, THE OMEN is so much more than David Warner getting his head sliced off by a sheet of glass. So much more.
By 1976, we’d already had ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST. Audiences were expecting to make the leap across religious dogma to be scared at the theaters, whether they were following Mia Farrow or Max Von Sydow. They had already seen the devil on screen and had seen what he could do, so when THE OMEN came along, audiences thought they knew what they were in for. They thought they’d seen it all.
Maybe they had, but THE OMEN isn’t about what you see, it’s about what you feel.
Taking its cue more from JAWS than from previous religious horrors, Richard Donner’s tale of Damien Thorn is the definition of understatement. As written by David Seltzer, the story follows American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) as he adopts an orphaned boy in Rome to replace the son he and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) have lost in childbirth. It’s a dark moment, the replacing of a child without the mother’s knowledge, that underscores every scene to follow. No matter what happens, Thorn can never tell his wife the truth about Damien, so he’s alone to get to the truth.
This makes THE OMEN sound like a Lifetime Movie of the Week from thirty years ago, and that’s because on paper the story is hardly new. The anti-Christ returns all those around him either try to protect him or destroy him. Nothing new yet. It’s the unveiling of these ideas that’s the key to the film.
Instead of Damien sitting in his bed with eyes afire and pentagrams carved into his forehead, we have a cute kid enjoying his fifth birthday and riding his trike. Is he the devil’s spawn? Are his parents going crazy? Is the church conspiring against the Thorns? The subtlety employed to keep these questions vague would normally make for a rather bland movie, but here they employ the JAWS technique of showing less, but with a twist.
Showing less is good way to make the audience fill in the gaps in their minds. JAWS couldn’t get their robo-shark to work, so we were treated to John Williams’s score as we saw barrels bob in the ocean. The same trick works here but for different reasons. Donner didn’t want to show the monster. He wanted to leave it up to the viewer, so to keep the audience involved he used the amazing score of Jerry Goldsmith. Like the theme to JAWS, the score here is its own character, signaling the presence of the superbeast without having to see it. The dogs, the guardians of the devil child, are visually just rottweillers, but when backed by Satanic Gregorian chants and sharp orchestration, become something that sticks to your psyche.
The “is he or isn’t he” approach in THE OMEN wasn’t that novel. No one leaving the theater ever doubted that Damien was the anti-Christ, but it was a way to make the supernatural seem very real. Gregory Peck’s reactions to the supernatural are compelling, but it’s the way he treats his wife, and the way he dances around the lies, that make him more than just devil fodder. After a nanny jumps to her death, it’s not the sight of her swinging corpse that troubles you, it’s the way Damien clings to his mother, and the way Peck yells at his employees to cut her down.
Today’s audiences have only had the FINAL DESTINATION movies as a tease of what kind of unease they can get from an accident waiting to happen film. If you think you can’t escape death, try escaping Satan himself.
The remake is on its way, and I’m not the type to slam a movie before I’ve seen it, but very little has dated the original. Sure, some of the clothes should be forgotten, but the effects are just as good now as thirty years ago. The texture of the film, the mood set by the score, and the superb characterizations are still pitch perfect. Maybe instead of a remake, the producers should’ve again followed examples set by THE EXORCIST and released the original film as is to theaters. Give modern film makers a chance to see how it was done.
All just to again see David Warner’s head spin from his neck in slow mo from five different angles up on the big screen. I know I said that THE OMEN was so much more than that, but c’mon. It’s from five different angles.