They’re quite the handful, right? Always getting into mischief, antagonizing their siblings, tormenting the family pet, tossing their mother off the balcony.
If there was ever Hollywood-sponsored public service message for birth control, it’s The Omen.
Forget play dates and little league; little Damien’s parents have to worry about how to keep him from sicking a pack of demonic hounds on their friends and miking sure they impale him with all seven mystic daggers in the perfect shape of a cross in order to keep their pride and joy from turning into the Anti-Christ. But what’s child-rearing without a little Tribulation?
The Omen took the world by storm four decades ago and still gets referenced in everything from talk shows to stand-up routines. It’s become an icon of the genre that’s haunted pop culture, but it still stands fast on Biblical truths.
Is it still worth a look, all these years later?
All signs point to yes.
Who knew the spawn of Satan would be so darned adorable? Seriously, it’s like Mikey from the Life Cereal commercials and Danny Torrence had some weird, reproductively anomalous lovechild. Maybe that’s why his earthly adoptive father has such a hard time killing him. Of course, the demon-possessed Rottweilers don’t make it any easier.
Way back in 1976, long before Richard Donner was directing Mel Gibson to walk the line between suicide and salvation in Lethal Weapon, he was getting Gregory Peck to lament the fact that he’d been duped into raising Satan’s I’il’ blue-eyed bastard in The Omen.
It was high-brow horror with big names and big budgets; heavy on mood and peppered with just enough memorable gore to satisfy devotees of top-shelf shocker, The Exorcist. It never cheapened its villain with cheesy effects or sophomoric make-up. But it used enough subtle horror to make you leery of seven-year olds in private school uniforms for years to come.
While on assignment in Rome, American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck) is called to the Catholic hospital where his wife, Kathy (Lee Remick), is in labor with their son. Once he arrives, he’s told the child did not make it. The chaplain convinces him to take custody of another newborn whose mother had also passed during delivery and to pass him off as their own to Kathy, who was unconscious during the death of their real child. They name the boy Damien. Soon after, the family moves to England when Robert is appointed Ambassador to Britain. And it isn’t long before things start getting weird.
During a lavish, press-thick birthday party, Kathy takes Damien from the arms of his nanny (apparently to look good in front of the cameras).
A huge Rottweiler wanders onto the edge of the property and when the nanny catches sight of it, the dog seems to hypnotize her. Within minutes, she enters the house and climbs out to the roof. She yells down to the party declaring that she is “doing this” for Damien, before swan diving off, the rope around her neck killing her instantly. Photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) shoots the whole grizzly scene and then begins following Robert a little more closely. Soon, a new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) arrives at the Thorns’ home claiming that she was sent by an agency that’d heard of the tragic suicide and wished to help.
Robert then receives an unannounced visit from a priest named Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who begs Robert to accept Christ, in order to confront the evil that is to come. He warns that Damien is dangerous—and not altogether human. He tells Robert to keep Damien away from Kathy (who is pregnant once again) fearing that the wicked child will do something to kill Kathy and her baby. Robert has security remove him from his office, and Jennings, ever-vigilant, is waiting outside. He photographs the priest, and gets another shot of him after a second meeting between he and Robert, in which Brennan reveals that he had been at the hospital the night of Damien’s birth.
Father Brennan admits to being complicit in paring Damien with the Thorns. He hints that Damien’s real mother was some type of demonic creature and says that he is trying to help so that he may be absolved for his role in the adoption plot. He advises Robert to kill Damien, predicting that the boy will rise to become the Anti-Christ. He leaves, but dies soon after when a lightning rod from the roof of his church falls during a storm and impales him. Meanwhile, tensions rise between Robert and Kathy when she announces that based upon her tenuous relationship with Damien, she wants to terminate her second pregnancy.
Jennings begins going through his photos after the priest’s death. He notices that on the shots of the priest and his lone picture of the nanny before her death, odd shadows appear that seem to predict the mode of their deaths. A reflected photo of Jennings also has a jagged shadow that cuts across his torso. He expresses concern that the priest may have been correct and together he and Robert begin investigating Damien. But when they travel to Rome and begin uncovering the demonic details of his origin, they comely little tyke is hard at work at home, ensuring that his adoptive mother and unborn baby brother don’t get the chance to thwart his plans…
The Omen is sure-fire spooky, so much so, that it is still regarded as a classic. The cast (who, reportedly all jumped onboard once Peck agreed to participate) is solid—subtle but believable, despite the fantastical plot so far removed from their usual fare. And despite its forty-year shelf-life, it never feels dated. The tense, just below-the-surface eeriness draws you in and holds the plot together to the last frame…which, unfortunately, allowed for less-impressive sequels.
Despite the obvious commentary on good versus evil (and the church’s role in that battle), The Omen is, at its heart, a story of penance and the the individual need to be absolved from it. Father Brennan will never get to experience the Hell on Earth he helped to unleash, but he suffers his own private Purgatory before his journey into an uncertain Eternity. Thorn likewise endures heartache and loss thanks to his decision to deceive his wife and lie about Damien’s true patronage. Once Kathy decides to abort their second child, she is crippled by Damien, loses her baby and is then killed by Mrs. Baylock.
What are we to make of such implications? Does God have a hand in such actions and (the eternal question enduring) why do bad things happen to good people?
It is our free will, that bittersweet double-edged sword that does us–and the cast of The Omen–in.
In the Biblical account of The Fall, (Genesis 3) Adam and Eve are given free reign in Paradise, save for one rule handed down by God: don’t eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. When they give into temptation and eat from it, they get a taste of all the bleak and ugly things that can’t be found in Paradise. They learn what evil is. It wasn’t that God wanted to withhold knowledge from them (as opponents of the faith sometimes argue), he just didn’t want them to be exposed to the sin that would separate them from Him. If He’d wanted to, he could’ve forced them not to eat and kept them—and us—with Him there forever. But that’s not how God works. He gives us the opportunity to live our own lives, even if it means we’ll never share ours with Him. It’s sometimes tough to wrap our heads around, but what parent worth their salt would operate any other way?
We have the opportunity—the free will—to choose each and every day how we will live our lives. Will we follow our own path or will we follow Christ?
Let’s hope we don’t wait until the end credits to decide.