19 April 2014

(1976)

For everything holy, there is something unholy. That is the essence of temptation.
- A monk
If Friedkin's superb 1973 The Exorcist set the stage for over-the-top demonic possession, replete with loud audio dubs and graphic vomiting, then The Omen tweaked the formula in a slightly different direction with the story of a quiet, unassuming dark-haired boy who just so happened to be the Antichrist.

The Omen may be the best of the horror films inspired by the success of The Exorcist . In fact these two films, along with Rosemary's Baby, comprise the perfect troika of devil films. The atmosphere is chilling, the cast is first-rate, and the operatic score won an Oscar for Jerry Goldsmith. In hopes of drawing in the religious crowd, The Omen was successfully previewed on a Sunday.

Throughout the movie, we witness bizarre and imaginative deaths of people who try and thwart the ascension of the son of Satan, a cute and seemingly innocent child. Richard Donner, who would go on to direct Superman and the Lethal Weapon films, was the force behind this classic.

Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn, a high-ranking U.S. diplomat. It is the 6th of June at 6:00AM as he rushes to a Rome hospital after hearing the news that his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has miscarried their child. Before he sees her, a priest named Father Spiletto (Martin Benson) offers to switch the dead baby with another, whose mother died during delivery.

Despite some misgivings, Robert agrees. It is to remain a secret between he and the hospital officials.

The couple name the baby Damien (Harvey Stephens) and the child grows into a seemingly healthy, normal youngster. Robert is named Ambassador to Great Britain and the family moves into a sumptuous estate just outside of London.

For Damien's fifth birthday party, his parents hold an elaborate celebration for him. His nanny Holly (Holly Palance) makes Katherine uncomfortable by spending too much time with the boy. She takes her son away from the employee...while Holly sees a menacing black dog and becomes entranced by it.

As everyone is having a good time, they hear the nanny call out Damien's name. She's standing on a ledge with a noose around her neck and screams out "Damien I love you! Look at me Damien...it's all for you!" With a huge smile on her face, she hangs herself in full view of the horrified party guests. A photographer named Jennings (David Warner) captures the startling event.

At his office, Robert is inundated with questions from reporters about the suicide. He cancels a trip to Saudia Arabia because of the death. Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who was a witness to the birth of Damien, visits Robert and warns him that he has adopted the son of Satan.

He adds that the child will someday rule the world from a position of political power and tells Robert to accept Christ, before being escorted out by security. As the priest leaves, Jennings snaps a picture of him. When he develops it, he sees what appears to be a straight line going through Father Brennan.

The Thorns are looking for a new nanny when Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) shows up. Katherine offers to take the woman to Damien but she insists on meeting with him alone. The couple are confused because neither of them called for her. Mrs. Baylock says that the agency sent her after hearing of Holly's suicide. When she sees the little boy, the new nanny tells him, "have no fear little one...I am here to protect thee."

While Robert and Katherine are preparing to go to church to attend a wedding, Mrs. Baylock is resistant about letting Damien accompany them. She says a five year old will not understand what is going on. Katherine quickly becomes annoyed and insists that their son go.

As the car gets closer to the church, Damien begins trembling and erupts into a fit of hysteria. He refuses to enter and starts striking at his mother. His parents instruct the chauffeur to drive away immediately. Back home, Katherine dismisses the episode as a "bad moment."

Meanwhile, Robert discovers that Mrs. Baylock has brought a huge dog into the house to keep guard when he is away. He is not pleased and tells the nanny to get rid of it by the morning.

On a trip to Windsor Safari Park with his mother, Damien frightens the animals. His visit agitates a horde of wild monkeys and causes them to attack their vehicle. The stress is getting to Katherine and Robert becomes increasingly worried about her safety and health. That night, he agrees to help find her a psychiatrist.

During a soccer match, Robert is again approached by Father Brennan. The priest tells him to meet him at a park the next day because his wife is in danger and will die unless he comes. Jennings photographs Brennan once more. When he develops the film, he sees a line again through his subject - but this time it's more prominent.

Robert meets Brennan at the park and the priest begins talking about the Apocalypse. He tells Robert to go to the town of Megido and meet with a monk named Bugenhagen, who will tell him how Damien should die. He also tells Robert that his wife is pregnant again.

Brennan predicts that Damien will try to kill the unborn child, then his mother...and finally Robert himself to gain his father's power. Robert thinks the man is insane and leaves, telling him he never wants to see or hear from him again.

The park is suddenly hit by a ferocious storm and Brennan tries to make it back to the church. Fierce lightening strikes around him as he tries to enter it. One lightning bolt hits a pole at the top of the church and sends it crashing down, impaling the priest. The sky then abruptly clears up.

At the house, Katherine has lost patience with Damien. Everything he does seems to irritate her and Robert attributes this to her sessions with the shrink. His wife tells him she doesn't ever want to have children again.

Katherine delivers the news that she's pregnant and wants to have an abortion. Just then, Robert gets an anonymous telephone call telling him to take a look at the newspaper. There on the cover is a photo and article on Father Brennan's freak "accident."

Robert goes to see his wife's psychiatrist (John Stride), who tells him that Kathy is having fanatasies that Damien is alien and evil - and in fact, isn't really her own offspring. The doctor tells him that an abortion is the best option at the moment. Robert refuses because it was foretold that the baby would not be born...and leaves the office to rush home.

At that moment, Damien is riding around on his bicycle while his mom is hanging plants near a second floor railing. With silent encouragement from Mrs. Baylock, the boy intentionally collides into his mother. She falls and is badly injured. Robert rushes to the hospital but the baby has died. To his shock, Kathy pleads with him to not let Damien kill her as well.

Robert again finds the dog at his house keeping watch over his son. He gets a call from Jennings who wants to meet with him immediately. The lensman tells him that both the pictures he took of the nanny who hung herself and Father Brennan contained marks revealing how they would die. A photo of the dead priest also reveals the numbers 666 on his inner thigh.

Jennings takes Robert back to the priest's room, where the walls are covered with pages from the Bible. He shows him Brennan's diary and clippings which point out that the birth of Damien was predicted in the Book of Revelations. It turns out the priest was also dying of cancer.

There's one more thing. Jennings shows Robert a picture of himself which contains a similar marking found in the photos of the deceased.

Robert is perplexed to find out that his housekeepers have suddenly left his employ. Mrs. Baylock is now the only person in the house and she tells him she has gotten rid of the dog.

Together, Robert and Jennings travel to Italy and discover that the hopital where Damien was born burned down immediately after his birth. All records were destroyed and there is no evidence that any adoption even took place. Father Spiletto survived the fire and is now living in a monastery.

The two men read from the Book of Revelations for clues and drive out to the monastery where they find a group of monks praying. One of them is Father Spiletto, who is disfigured from the fire and unable to speak.

Another monk (played by Robert Rietty) tells them that Spiletto had abandoned Christ and is doing penance. He further exlains the significance of the numbers 666 - which are a sign of the unholy trinity.

Robert demands to know where Damien's mother is buried. Spiletto writes the word Cervete, the name of an old cemetery now in ruins and located north of Rome.

They arrive there in the evening and have to climb over an iron fence to get to the plots. Jennings locates the grave of Damien's mother. Next to it is the grave of her son, presumably Robert's real child.

When they lift up the first sepulchre, the men are horrified to find the skeleton of a jackal. In the second spot, they find a small child's remains. Robert realizes that hospital officials murdered his son as soon as he was born! The men quickly notice that they're surrounded by a group of huge vicious dogs.

As they try to escape, the animals descend on them. They make it to the gate but Robert gets part of his arm impaled a sharp spike. Safely back in the car, the dogs are left behind barking wildly.

Robert phones Kathy in the hospital and tells her to leave London right away. He wants her to come to Rome and has sent someone from the embassy to pick her up. Kathy gets up out of bed and as she's taking off her nightgown, Mrs. Baylock enters the room.

From below, a group of nurses watch as Katherine plummets out of her window to the street, crashing through the roof of an ambulance. Robert gets the awful news that his wife is dead.

Now certain that Father Brennan's prophecy is coming true, Robert believes that Damien must die. He and Jennings locate Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), the archeologist, who can tell them how to eliminate the boy. It is to be done in a church with seven daggers.

Damien's blood must be spilled on the alter of God, he tells Robert. Bugenhagen also implores him to look for the 666 marking. If it is not easily visible on the boy's body, Robert should cut his hair and look on his scalp. Robert hesitates but when Jennings is suddenly decapitated by a sheet of glass that falls off a truck, he realizes the only solution is to kill Damien.

Returning home to London, the big black dog is on guard but Robert manages to lock it in the basement. He sneaks into Damien's room and cuts the boy's hair while he's sleeping. The mark of the devil is clearly on his scalp. Intent on saving Damien, Mrs. Baylock savagely pounces on Robert.

In a fight for the child, Robert subdues her and grabs Damien. Mrs. Baylock leaps up to attack him once again. Finally, Robert fatally injures her by jabbing the nanny with a screwdriver and fork in her neck and face.

He drives Damien to a church, speeding through the streets with the police in quick pursuit. When he gets there, he drags the boy to the altar and prepares to kill him. The boy cries out "please Daddy, no!" Robert pauses for a moment...just in time for the officers to enter and shoot him dead.

Damien lives. The final scene at the funeral of the Thorns reveals that Damien has been placed in custody with an important family in the Thorns' political circle: the President and the First Lady.

The Omen is helped immensely by the leads, Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Both had impressive film backgrounds, with Peck winning the Best Actor Academy Award for his stirring role in To Kill a Mockingbird. That very same year Remick was nominated in the actress category for playing an alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses.

It goes without saying that if these vets had not acted their roles with such conviction, the movie would not have worked. Kudos also to director Donner for having Harvey Stephens underplay Damien. It's just the right performance for a role in which the other characters don't suspect anything out of the ordinary.

As for Jerry Goldsmith's score, it's difficult to imagine this film without it...hearing it is enough to send chills up your spine.

The movie's plot devices ultimately carve The Omen as a sociological horror movie, combining elements of religion, modern myth, pathos and family structures. The timeless theme of good versus evil is carried out in such a chilling way as to make this a definite horror classic.

Another element that makes The Omen work is that thecharacters' destinies are pre-ordained. The adoption of Damien by the Thorns is no accident, and anyone who gets in the Antichrist's way is killed. That is an absolute.

Writer Robert Bookbinder summed up the film's success perfectly. He called it "an expensive, lavishly made, and thoroughly enjoyable picture that, despite it's subject matter, had it's tongue firmly in it's cheek."

The Omen was followed by two sequels: the great Damien-Omen II in 1978 and the underrated The Final Conflict in 1981. The second part follows the pattern of this film very closely and was a fine continuation of the story, with Damien in his teens and attending a military school.

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