Tale as old as time, the adopted son of an older American diplomat and his wife turns out to be the antichrist. It could honestly happen to just about anyone. The Omen is not some taunt, dread-filled masterpiece of horror. Too much of it plays out like kitsch, and some of it is just downright loopy in its overheated Catholicism and moral panic. Still, there’s some jewels of sustained horror, solid performances, and Jerry Goldsmith’s pulpy, overbearing score make The Omen more than worth the trip.
The Omen’s concept is at once audacious and steeped in the imagery and mythology of its Biblical inspiration/aspiration. Satan is here in the form of a toddler, and the entire narrative thrust is about the father possibly striking down the babe as if he’s Abraham binding Isaac. There’s also intervention to prevent the child-killing, but it’s less divine then from murkier and darker quarters. No angel hand to prevent the striking knife blow here, instead it’s a bullet from cops who think the ambassador has lost his damn mind.
And perhaps he has. The strongest parts of The Omen are when the incidents occur and we question their validity. Are these two merely struck with bad luck and the easiest explanation is to blame it on the newest member of the family? Or are there really demonic forces at play? The air of sustained dread and slow-burning doubt and terror is immediately evaporated by the presence of Mrs. Baylock and her gigantic Rottweiler, in effect acting as a protective hellhound for the demonic child.
Granted, Billie Whitelaw’s performance as Mrs. Baylock is effectively peculiar and sinister wrapped up in a polite-but-stern Irish nanny exterior, but the character is so clearly evil that she’s nearly cartoonish in comparison to the rest. There’s no shock when the depths of her derangement are revealed as there was when the first nanny hangs herself at the birthday party. Roles like this require a more subtle touch, think of Ruth Gordon’s warmly daffy neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby. She’s the last person you’d expect to act as a midwife for Satan’s progeny, whereas as Whitelaw plays like an anti-Mary Poppins that’s clearly up to no good.
Although Whitelaw and Lee Remick get to partake in one of the most bravura pieces of film-making in The Omen. Remick is in the hospital recovering from a fall when Whitelaw shows up in her room. Remick gets stuck in a white viel looking either like a virginal bride or a holy Madonna, and Whitelaw appears with a burning and intense gaze. It’s a quiet showdown punctured by the sight of Remick falling out of her window to her death. It’s shocking and horrific, and a point where The Omen shows its cards. The good guys may not win, and the devil may take dominion over the earth.
It is with the introduction of the more outrageous elements of the plot that the dialog and character actions take a turn from deeply rooted in reality towards gloriously zany pulp. The sight of Gregory Peck tearfully reciting an imaginary passage from the Book of Revelations after learning of his wife’s death is dangerously close to camp. And the sight of him and David Warner digging up an infant’s grave in an obviously artificial set standing in for some indeterminate European location is dangerously close to the hysterical.
None of this is to say that Peck is slumming it here, or that he’s giving a bad performance. He’s not. He successfully traces the line from happy nuclear family to crazed religious conspiracy theorist, and he manages to find pathos in the scene where he realizes it’s all true as he cuts his son’s hair to find the Mark of the Beast. Same goes for Remick as his wife, who manages genuine terror in a zoo trip gone wrong and gets another stellar set-piece where Damien lets her fall off of a ledge that’s filled with her maternal desperation and panic.
Harvey Stephens makes the biggest impression as Damien. His dialog amounts mainly to shrieks, giggles, and a few utterances of “mommy” or “no,” but Stephens is positively terrifying. Has evil ever so looked so banal as it does here? I don’t know what they did to get him to stare so intensely, but it unnerves and works. His sweet smile at the camera as the closing image is a gut punch of evil triumphant.
For all its silliness, of which there is ample amount, and gauzy cinematography to give it a veneer of period respectability, The Omen is still a well-made thriller. It’s best when it focuses on the psychological terrors and less so when it transitions into more conventional scares. But it also offers up the sight of Remick and Peck wrestling with a toddler that’s freaking out about going into a church. I think any parent can relate to their exasperation in that moment. Just beware of Irish nannies that show up with large breed dogs.