The Omen (1976)
It makes sense that the success of The Exorcist would spawn a rash of imitators and similarly themed films. Some were low-rent (Abby, Beyond the Door), most were low-quality. However, The Omen, distinguished by a deadly serious tone and a large studio budget, outpaced them all.
The child is dead. He breathed for a moment. Then he breathed no more. The child is dead. The child is dead. In a moment of moral crisis, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) agrees to take another child home from the hospital. He and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) are delighted to bring home their adopted boy, Damien. However, this child is hardly ordinary -- strange and deadly things always seem to happen around him. Robert and photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) eventually set out to get to the bottom of the mystery, one that leads to the very heart of Armageddon.
The power of The Omen is the sadistic game it plays with the audience. One of the basic rules of cinema is that you don't kill the kid. The modern addendum is that anybody who breaks that rule on-screen must be a terrible person who likes to kick puppies. Therefore, the Damien problem places the audience in much the same quandary as Robert. The child must die to save the world, but how do you murder a five-year-old boy? We know there's no other way, but we also can't blame Robert for rejecting that. The devil's scenario is perfect -- it plays on situational morality rather than absolute truth, and thus Damien may safely ascend to power. Worse, we are complicit in wanting Robert to turn away from the violent path. Putting Gregory Peck into a fatherly role was a shrewd move on director Richard Donner's part -- the association makes us connect Robert with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus cannot be a killer.
Donner approaches the work with an air of inevitability. He uses Warner's character as foreshadowing -- presenting us with strong evidence that the pictures he takes reflect the eventual fates of the subjects. If horror has taught us anything, it's that attempting to defy fate is a fool's game. He ladles on more dread with the Academy Award-winning score by Jerry Goldsmith, famous for the Latin chanting throughout that seems to hearken the end of days. Halfway through the film, you realize that all of the protagonists are marked for inescapable death; they're fighting a losing battle against an opponent they cannot defeat. Some films would lose their audience at this point, but The Omen encourages us to see how far these people make it in their battle.
Perhaps, though, it's not so much that the characters are ones we can care about (although we can), but that they die so marvelously. People are impaled, beheaded, hung, hideously burned, and other nasty things. If the occasionally shoddy theology doesn't draw you in, the horrible death will. All of the deaths are handled as tragedies, incomprehensible acts of fate. They are solemn ends, and relatively bloodless - as is the film itself. A single drop of blood beyond the absolutely necessary would have undercut the gravity of the events (a fact which other filmmakers have used for comedic advantage -- Sam Raimi in particular comes to mind).
Acting all around is fairly fantastic. Peck lends necessary gravity to what might have been a very silly exercise. Billie Whitelaw is fantastic as Ms. Bayless, Damien's nanny and acolyte, and gives her winning best to being the Mary Poppins of the damned. Troughton and Leo McKern ("The Prisoner") are fine in supporting roles, although we don't see enough of McKern.
Fox has released this gem on DVD once again, in a two-disc edition timed to coincide with the remake. Disc One, on top of containing a great transfer of the film, also features two commentaries (one by Donner and editor Stuart Baird, and the other by Donner and writer/director/Omen fan Brian Helgeland). Also on this disc is a featurette on the so-called "Omen curse" and an interview with Jerry Goldsmith commenting on his score. Disc 2 features an introduction to the film by Donner (which would make more sense on the first disc), a deleted scene (with optional commentary by Donner and Helgeland), two documentaries, and "An Appreciation by Wes Craven."
Thirty years later, The Omen remains one of the top names in glossy, studio horror. Some elements seem out-of-date, but the heart of the story itself is a timeless entity. Stories of evil triumphant still fascinate us, which is why The Omen will always have a place with the greats.
Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar for his terrifying score.