Devil’s Advocate: The Omen (1976)
By Andrew Neil Cole
(The following contains SPOILERS. You might not want to read beyond this point if you have not seen The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Exorcist.)
Released to great critical and commercial acclaim in 1976, The Omen is aptly named, but for all the wrong reasons, as the film is a harbinger of terrible things to come in the world of mainstream American cinema. Of all the so-called “classic” horror films made in the ’70s, The Omen is the one film whose status as a “classic” is the most difficult to successfully argue. The film set a standard in lazy, pandering, corporate storytelling that unfortunately continues to flourish today. It is, in fact, one of the films most responsible for the let’s-keep-doing-the-same-thing-until-it-stops-making-money formula that continues to find favor with the current crop of elite Hollywood players, specifically those with the ability to green-light projects. Here’s an example of how the formula works: In 1996, Scream, with its simplistic slasher storyline written by Kevin Williamson and emotion-heavy lead performance from Neve Campbell, a sexy brunette cast member of the TV show Party of Five, rakes in more than $100 million at the domestic box office … So, therefore … released one year later, we get I Know You Did Last Summer, a movie with a simplistic slasher storyline written by Kevin Williamson and an emotion-heavy lead performance by Jennifer Love Hewitt, a sexy brunette cast member of the TV show Party of Five. Get it? Thanks to movies like The Omen, which exists only because of the monumental success of two films: Rosemary’ Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), this is how mainstream American cinema works. Why innovate when you can simply reiterate? For all its accolades and its iconic status in the world of American horror cinema, The Omen is every bit as creatively impotent and insultingly pandering as I know What You Did Last Summer.
The story of The Omen, which concerns the spawn of Satan being adopted by the newly appointed U. S. ambassador to Great Britain, is ultimately little more than the haphazard cobbling together of concepts and philosophies found in the respective narratives of Rosemary’s Baby (the story of a woman coming to realize she’s given birth to the Antichrist) and The Exorcist (the story of a woman coming to realize her child is possessed by a chorus of demons). While Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are actually two very different films, they do share an essential theme: the horror of parenting (and unconditionally loving) a child that personifies evil, a theme that is shamelessly pilfered and carelessly repackaged in The Omen. At the same time, unlike Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen’s attempts to appeal to a more intellectually mature audience always either flat-out fail or are undermined by any number of the sillier elements of its story. For starters, setting the film in the world international politics is a promising idea; however, the film never follows through on what it begins. We know that Robert Thorn (played with low-key gravitas by Gregory Peck) is an important man; hell, he’s the ambassador to Great Britain. But we never actually see him doing his job. We never hear him have an earnest or intelligent political conversation—not once. When we finally see him at work, his office is so plain and unimpressive that it looks more like the office given to the worst salesman at a used-car dealership as punishment for selling the fewest Fiats during the annual President’s Day Weekend Sell-A-Thon than the office of the freakin’ U. S. ambassador to Great Britain. There is even a scene in which, during a moment of clunky expositional dialogue, we are informed that Thorn is an old friend of the current American president. In other words, we are told that Robert Thorn is an important man. We are never once given the opportunity to come to that conclusion ourselves.
This total lack of character depth isn’t limited to the film’s lead. Literally all of the film’s characters come off more like cardboard supermarket standees than flesh-and-blood people. Lee Remick is the vanilla wife with the beautiful smile who, if nothing else, supports her man. The great David Warner plays a photographer—that’s it. A photographer. Does he work for a newspaper? A magazine? Is he a freelance photojournalist? Who knows? He exists simply to move along the plot when a photographer is needed. Billie Whitelaw fares a bit better as a satanic governess/clandestine protector of the young Antichrist. But this character, like Warner’s photographer, exists only to grease the wheels of the story, to be creepy and mysterious when the story requires someone to be creepy and mysterious, and nothing more. And then there’s Harvey Stephens as Damien, the devil baby at the center of the film. (By the way, when considering the film’s lack of originality, let’s not forget that even the name Damien was lifted directly from The Exorcist. Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller, is one of The Exorcist’s lead characters.) Little Damien seems only to smile, giggle, furrow his brow, and scream his demonic little lungs out whenever he’s in close proximity to religious objects or edifices. Just like the Robert Thorn character, he is evil because we are told that he is evil. The result is a film populated by empty costumes that desperately wants to be taken seriously but just isn’t smart enough to pull it off. Consider the following example: Late in the film there is a scene in which a priest named Bugenhagen correctly suggests that Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw’s satanic governess character) is nothing but trouble. However, he refers to her as an “apostate of hell!” This is, of course, the incorrect usage of “apostate,” which refers to someone who betrays a loyalty, a double-crosser, as it were. Clearly Mrs. Baylock is in league with the forces of evil, so apostate is completely wrong. Bugenhagen probably meant to use the word apostle, which suggests a loyal, ardent supporter. This may seem like nitpicking, but mistakes like this are indicative of a film that is trying to appear more intelligent than it actually is. It’s like watching a punch-drunk boxer attempt to appear more intelligent by peppering the post-fight interview with misused five-syllable words. The audience isn’t fooled.
This intellectual deficiency is made even more apparent by both the abject silliness of the overall story and in the inclusion of one of the most baffling subplots ever rendered on film. For a movie about the son of Satan being adopted by a powerful American couple, The Omen spends very little time exploring this concept, let alone the actual parent-child relationship. Instead, the “horror” of the film relies on the incredibly lazy conceit that scary, unexplainable things just seem to happen simply because of Damien’s presence. The film goes so far as to transform the concept of evil into an actual character, Evil. The results are often laughably silly. In one scene, a nanny hangs herself in full view of everyone in attendance at little Damien’s birthday party after being hypnotized by a dog possessed by Evil. In another scene, Evil appears as sentient weather—that’s right, weather!—and chases a priest around the streets of London, eventually corralling him like a herded sheep to the very spot where he is impaled (shish kabob-style) by a freshly struck lightning rod plummeting from the roof of the church whose locked doors have just denied him sanctuary.
Which leads me directly to one of the most bizarre and superfluous subplots in the history of horror. For some reason, right in the middle of the film, we learn that the pictures taken by David Warner’s photographer character contain a strange anomaly that predicts the manner in which the subjects of the photographs will die. If a strange dark slash appears across your neck in a photograph, you are going to be decapitated. And, yes, if that same slash appears diagonally through your torso, you are going to be shish-kabobbed. Is this crackpot subplot just an ill-conceived continuation of the strange-things-happen-because-Damien’s-in-town construct? If so, what’s the point? What the holy hell does any of this have to do with the spawn of Satan being adopted by the Thorns? This narrative detour is so out of place, so random that it feels like it belongs to an entirely different movie. Obviously this nonsensical storyline exists solely to justify the inclusion of a few gory death scenes. Here we have a textbook case of pandering to the bloodlust of contemporary horror fans, which, in turn, exemplifies The Omen’s desire to appear as intelligent as The Exorcist while satisfying the grisly expectations of horror audiences created by a wave of popular films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. But by trying to please (and cash in on) every possible demographic of horror fan, the film blasts gaping holes in its own logic. Why bother killing priests and a photographer, especially under such strange circumstances? Wouldn’t these ultra-bizarre deaths train a great big spotlight on the weirdness surrounding Damien, creating the kind of attention that those in league with Damien—people like Billie Whitelaw’s governess character—are clearly trying to avoid? Furthermore, if this strange Evil force can manipulate weather to lethally target priests and make nannies hang themselves, why not just drop a bulldozer on Ambassador Thorn once he becomes a threat to little Damien and be done with it? As the film strays further and further from its central concept the narrative becomes unnecessarily muddled, effectively marginalizing the characters and deflating any remaining potential for genuine moments of suspense or terror like air from a punctured balloon.
And then there’s the ending.
Once Ambassador Thorn realizes that Damien must die, he is presented with a complex checklist of idiotic murder rituals. It seems that you can’t just kill the little bastard with a gun or a knife or baseball bat to the head. Nope, you have to kill him in a church, on hallowed ground. Moreover, he must be killed by stabbing him seven times in specific areas of the body with—get this—seven mystical daggers that were forged in the holy city of Megiddo: “The place where Christianity began,” according to Father Bugenhagen, the vocabulary-challenged priest. What? Mystical daggers? Seriously? Remember that scene in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday where mysterious bounty hunter Creighton Duke shows up and tells Jason’s relatives that only a Voorhees can kill and Voorhees … oh, and in order to kill Jason you have to use—you guessed it—a mystical dagger? Remember how ludicrous that seemed? Okay, okay … the point has been made. No reason to repeatedly stab a dead horse with a mystical dagger, after all.
Finally, any discussion of The Omen must include a mention of the final shot. After being rescued from multiple mystical dagger stabbings, little Damien holds the hand of the president (presumably his new daddy) while attending the funeral of Robert Thorn (his now-deceased old daddy). Breaking the fourth wall for the one and only time in the entire film, Damien turns to the camera, as if to address the audience, while a shit-eating grin slowly consumes his entire face. Is this a chilling moment meant to signify the beginning of the Antichrist’s rise to power? Or is it one last reminder of how obnoxiously silly the film really is? Who knows for sure? Maybe we should be asking if a film this consistently disappointing is really worthy of any serious measure of contemplation at all.
Ultimately, The Omen is a stupid religious-themed horror movie adorned in smart-movie vestments. The whole thing feels like an assignment from studio brass rather than a work of cinematic art. It feels like something that began in a boardroom rather than in the brain of a creative artist. To be fair, the film isn’t completely without its merits. The scene at the zoo certainly has its inspired moments, like when a tower of giraffes gets spooked and dashes away from tiny, innocent-looking Damien. But The Omen simply takes itself much too seriously for fun moments like this to have a lasting impact. For every enjoyable, well-crafted scene (like the one at the zoo) there are several that drown in heavy-handedness and poor execution, such as the scene in which Damien grows increasingly squirmy and twitchy in the backseat of the family limo as the Thorns approach a church. His torment intensifies until the scene culminates with arguably the least-believable conniption fit every captured on film.
And yet, it’s easy to understand why so many people love The Omen. It’s moody and dark and more atmospheric than a lot of horror films. It has absolutely earned the right to be categorized as a “fan favorite” or a “guilty pleasure,” but to call it a full-blown “classic” would require a severe redefining of the word classic. The film is just too lazy, too uneven, and much, much too derivative of truly great films that have come before it to be given serious consideration as an all-time great, despite the participation of all-time-great actors like Peck and Warner. Luckily, for those who love The Omen, the film’s place in history is secure. At this point, criticizing a movie as beloved as The Omen is like throwing jelly beans at a battleship. The damage will in no way be noticeable.