|I have this very poster on my wall.|
To this day, The Omen is a film that I absolutely love and, for my money, is the superior movie when it comes down to the eternal "which is better" conversation between it and The Exorcist. While I can respect The Exorcist for its stellar acting, craftsmanship, and the profound effect that it had when it was originally released, I had heard so much about it that, by the time I finally got around to seeing it, it had lost a lot of its impact, whereas The Omen sort of crept up on me, with my only learning about it gradually instead of it being talked about to death (which leads into its rather odd place in film history and reputation amongst the general public, which I'll get into shortly). Plus, The Omen's classier, subtler, and less overtly shocking approach to the material has always appealed to me much more, whereas The Exorcist, although undoubtedly effective in its own way, has always felt like it was mostly just trying to bash you over the head with its graphic content and vulgarity. It also helps that I like this cast more and really enjoy the mystery aspect to this film, especially during the second half.
On a June night in Rome, U.S. diplomat Robert Thorn rushes to the hospital upon hearing that his wife, Kathy, gave birth to a baby who died moments afterward. Dreading telling his wife about the death because of how much she wanted a child, Thorn is talked into adopting a newborn baby whose mother died at the exact same time as his own son by the hospital's chaplain, saying that Kathy needn't know. Some time after the adoption, Thorn is appointed Ambassador to Great Britain and he and his family move to England to begin their new life. The first few years there are normal and happy for the family but when their "son," Damien, reaches his fifth birthday, unsettling events begin to occur: Damien's nanny hangs herself during his extravagant birthday party, a priest named Father Brennan shows up at Thorn's office and tries to warn him that there's something sinister about his son, a mysterious new nanny calling herself Mrs. Baylock arrives at the house out of the blue, Damien throws a very violent tantrum when his parents attempt to take him with them to church, and animals at a zoo that Kathy and Damien visit appear absolutely terrified of the boy. When Thorn meets up with Father Brennan again, he tells the ambassador that Damien is the son of the devil, that Kathy has become pregnant, and that Damien will kill the unborn child, Kathy, and eventually Thorn himself when he's set to inherit everything that he has. Thorn writes off the priest as a madman but, after Brennan is impaled by a spear atop a church in what appears to have been a freak accident, Thorn learns that Kathy is indeed pregnant and, immediately afterward, she's knocked over a railing by Damien, causing her to miscarry the baby. While Kathy is recovering in the hospital, Thorn is contacted by Keith Jennings, a photographer who's been covering various events Thorn has been involved in, and is shown some pictures of their first nanny and Father Brennan with unexplainable marks that seem to correspond with how they later died. Upon showing Thorn some disturbing things about Brennan that he's uncovered, as well as a photograph that seems to foretell that Jennings himself is marked for death, the two of them venture to Rome to investigate Damien's past... and discover horrifying clues that seem to point to Damien being the Antichrist, whom Thorn must kill using some daggers given to him by an archeologist Brennan implored him to seek out.
As I said in my introduction, there's an odd dichotomy with The Omen's impact and legacy. While it was a big hit when it was released in June of 1976, got really good reviews for the most part, and is fondly remembered by many and considered one of the best horror films of all time, often appearing on various lists on the subject, it nevertheless hasn't been heralded as a classic in quite the same way as other horror films of the time, particularly The Exorcist. It's often overshadowed by that film, sometimes looked at as nothing more than a cash-in on its success and influence, and because it's nowhere near as edgy or graphically intense, it doesn't elicit the same kind of fearful response from people as that movie does, even from people who've only heard of it instead of having actually seen it. Both it and Rosemary's Baby are often seen as pretty famous but not nearly as legendary Satan-oriented horror films that came out around the same time as The Exorcist and got lost in the huge cloud of dust that it left behind. One possible reason for its lack of major impact according to 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die is the sheer fact that it's a very polished, classy film (there's not a single swear word here; not even damn or hell), with a legendary actor like Gregory Peck in the lead role, a number of beloved character actors in the supporting cast, a score by high-profile composer Jerry Goldsmith, and an overall slick look with fairy high production values (I say "fairly" because the movie's budget was only $2.5 million); in short, it's too Hollywood to have the same confrontational punch as some of its peers. In my opinion, however, I think it's awfully shallow to dismiss a horror movie as not being as effective just because it's not an anti-establishment, independent movie made outside of the Hollywood system. While that has certainly produced some great flicks, throughout the history of film, studios have certainly been no slouch in making great horror movies either. Look at all the classics Universal made back in its heyday, including the immortal Jaws the year before The Omen, as well as the stuff Val Lewton produced at RKO in the 40's and the classic film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Paramount and MGM. And let's also not forget that The Exorcist was a big studio film as well. For me, it's all about execution. If a horror film has enough talent behind it to pull it off as effectively as possible, as I feel The Omen did, what's wrong with having the resources to get big-name actors, create well-designed sets, and make the film look good? In my opinion, horror never has and never will be a genre that only the independents are allowed to tackle. Again, as long as you get a well-done and effective movie, who cares whether it's polished and expensive or really gritty and low-budget?
Jerry Goldsmith won the only Oscar of his career for his creepy as hell score for this film and, while it's a shame in that he deserved to win so many more since he did so much great, classic movie music, it's nice that the Academy recognized his accomplishment, especially for a horror film. This is one of the scariest, most utterly evil-evoking scores ever and it, more than anything else in the movie, gives off the feeling that the devil is everywhere in this bleak world, with how the music is so often intermixed with the distant sounds of people chanting in Latin. The film immediately begins with a creepy vibe as the shot of the 20th Century Fox logo is completely silent and as the opening credits begin, we hear this quiet, eerie piano piece that leads into the main theme, Ave Satani, which is basically the sound of a black mass singing about how they worship Satan, with Latin cries of, "Hail Satan!" and, "Hail Antichrist!" heard here and there, as a drawing of Damien's silhouetted body whose shadow forms an inverted cross appears off to the side. This main theme is played in full at the very end of the film and during the credits, making it more apparent in my opinion that evil has most definitely one in this story, especially when it's juxtaposed with that last shot of Damien smiling and that passage from the Bible. Like I said, you often hear the distant chants of that black mass throughout the film, be it very loudly and in a way that emphasizes the idea of evil overriding good, which is many scenes like the lead-up to Father Brennan's death, the dog attack in the cemetery, and Mrs. Baylock slowly approaching Kathy before she throws her out the hospital window; starting out low and then rising to a crescendo, like in the lead-up to the opening of the grave of Damien's real mother; or distant but steady, like when the giraffes at the zoo run away from Damien in terror. The creepiest use of it is during the scene where Thorn arrives back home and is stalked by Baylock's dog. It's so quiet that you can just barely hear it but, if you listen closely, you can hear some people chanting, "Antichristo, Antichristo," in tune with the dog's panting, highly suggesting that he's just as evil as everyone else who follows Satan in this film. I really like the music that plays during the climax as it emphasizes the chaos and the desperation of what's going on, with those chants coming in here and there. My favorite part is when Thorn tumbles down the stairs and, as he gets back up, Goldsmith plays the same tune three times in a row, adding more to it in each go-around to get across a sense of quickly mounting menace.
Not all of the movie's music is so dark and foreboding, though. Goldsmith also wrote some very nice, lush and loving music for the scenes of the Thorns' initially happy home life, which starts when Thorn brings baby Damien in to Kathy at the hospital, continues when the couple have a look around their new home in England, and reaches its peak during the scene where they take a walk across a field with their son as the sun sets beautifully in the background. It's really lovely, pleasing to the ear, and is so indicative of how nice their life is now that it makes the horrible turn that it takes later on all the more impactful. Another powerful piece that Goldsmith creates is this really sad theme that you hear when Thorn returns home after Kathy has been placed in the hospital and he goes up to the spot where she feel and he looks over the railing, down to the floor. It's played again during the scene near the end where Thorn carries Damien into the church and prepares to stab him with the daggers and both times, it emphasizes the tragic hell that his life has descended into, especially during that second time where his wife is dead, the police are after him, he's probably going to either die or be locked away as a madman even if he does succeed, and, most affecting of all, he's learned that this child that he did love as his own is the spawn of Satan and he must now kill him in a grisly way. Again, it just makes you feel like God is nowhere to be found here.