The Omen (1976)
An American ambassador learns to his horror that his son is actually the literal Antichrist.
"Look at me, Damien! It's all for you."
At one time supernatural horror films normally dealt with assorted monsters, vampires, ghosts and things that go bump in the night, but in the sixties and seventies the fashion arose for what might be called the theological horror film, dealing with such matters as Satanism, demonic possession and the end of the world. "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" are films of this type, and "The Omen" is another in the same tradition.
The central character, Robert Thorn, is very much a part of the American establishment- scion of a wealthy old-money family, a close friend of the President and his country's Ambassador to Italy. While they are living in Rome, Robert's wife Katherine gives birth to a stillborn child, and he is persuaded to adopt a baby born on the same night in the same hospital, and whose mother died in childbirth. They name the child Damien, a name presumably chosen because of its closeness to "demon". Soon afterwards Thorn is appointed US Ambassador to Great Britain- Italian viewers may not be pleased to note that in the movie this is regarded as a promotion- and moves with Katherine and young Damien to London.
As Damien grows up, however, he becomes the focus of a series of strange and unsettling events, including the suicide of his nanny at his fifth birthday party. Thorn is warned by a priest that his adopted son is in fact the Antichrist, the son of Satan himself. At first he dismisses the man's warnings as the ravings of a lunatic, but later begins to suspect that there may be some truth in them, especially after the priest dies in a bizarre accident. Desperate to find out the truth, Thorn visits Rome and Israel with a photographer named Keith Jennings and realises that Damien is indeed the Antichrist.
From a technical point of view, the film is well-made. This was Richard Donner's first major film and he showed the abilities he was later to bring to other action films such as "Superman" and the "Lethal Weapon" series. The action sequences are well handled and contribute to a growing sense of tension; only occasionally, as in the scene where Jennings is decapitated in a freak accident, do the rather primitive seventies special effects show through. This scene was clearly intended to be horrific, but today it comes across as inadvertently comic. The look of the film is dull and autumnal, regardless of the ostensible time of year, with a muted colour scheme, and this adds to its sinister atmosphere, as does Jerry Goldsmith's musical score.
Gregory Peck was not the first choice to play Thorn- the producers originally wanted Charlton Heston in the role- but he plays it so well that one cannot imagine any other actor in the part. Thorn is similar to some other Peck characters, such as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Sam Bowden in "Cape Fear" in that he is a decent, liberal man suddenly confronted with the problem of evil, except that Thorn is confronted with evil in its purest form and with a dilemma- whether or not to kill his adopted son- even more stark than anything which confronted Finch or Bowden. There is another very good performance from Billie Whitelaw as the sinister Mrs Blaylock, who becomes Damien's new nanny after the suicide of her predecessor and quickly becomes his guardian angel. Or rather his guardian devil, as she is a servant of Satan sent to protect the boy form harm.
My reservations about this film are largely theological. I am normally prepared to suspend my scepticism about supernatural phenomena in the interests of good entertainment; I have never, for example, allowed the fact that I do not believe in witchcraft to spoil my enjoyment of the Harry Potter films. I tend, however, to make an exception in the case of films which ask me to accept the literal existence of Satan, or which preach that the end of the world is nigh, and there is a reason for this.
A literalistic interpretation of the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of a coming Armageddon has always struck me as a hallmark of the most reactionary and intolerant sort of Christianity, the sort which is always more ready to hate one's enemies than to forgive them and which finds it easy to identify the Antichrist with whichever enemy (the Pope, Muslims, the United Nations, whoever) is at the top of that particular sect's hate-list. I doubt if the makers of this film made it with the explicit purpose of furthering a Christian fundamentalist agenda; a much more likely motive was to emulate the financial success of "The Exorcist", which had been one of the biggest films of 1973. Nevertheless, I feel that that is the sort of agenda which this film, and others like it, may well inadvertently further.
Have you seen it? If so, what's your opinion?