Release year: 1976
Director: Richard Donner
Screenwriter: David Seltzer
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton, Martin Benson
Ratings: 1 Oscar: Best Original Score. 1 Oscar nomination: Best Original Song.
Moviegeek Sunday Classic #19, week 42 2014
To spare his beloved wife (Lee Remick) from the sorrow of losing a newborn, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) agrees to adopt a motherless newborn as their own without telling his wife. Five years later strange things start happening around the family and Thorn slowly begins to look at his son Damien (Harvey Stephens) with new eyes. Could the mysterious priest (Patrick Troughton), who showed up at his office be right; is he raising the Antichrist?
The Omen has long passed a quarter of a century in age yet it is to this day still one of the most frightening and most effective horror movies about. The story is gripping and told through magnificent editing and with one of the creepiest soundtracks available. Donner (Lethal Weapon 1987) effectively centers the movie around the family, their reactions, and the consequences of the events. As a consequense,The Omen feels eerily close to home in a very uncomfortable way, and the fact that you know no more than the characters leave you wondering along with the parents while the suspicion crawls under you skin and curls up next to the fear and terror. Played out almost like a crime movie we follow Thorn as he unravels the truth by digging up the past and trying to survive the foretold horrors. The casting is almost well-chosen and very talented, in particular the then and now unknown Harvey Stephens as one the best casting choices ever. Stephens is a perfect mixture of rosy-cheeked angelic sweetness and a sense of evil and an inexplicable creepiness I can only assume is due to great direction. I don’t know why he hasn’t really made any other movies but wouldn’t be surprised if noone dared to cast him! Peck (Spellbound 1945) is a revelation as the the father torn between faith and doubt as his world collapses around him. He has an authority and calmness over him that fits the part perfectly and he brings a substance to the movie not many could have copied. Remick (Anatomy of a Murder 1959) is a good match to Peck as the more fragile of the couple, while David Warner (Black Death 2010) is brilliant as the doomed journalist. Among all the diplomatic and religious characters he functions as the everyday man we can all relate to, reminding us that noone is safe. Troughton (Scars of Dracula 1970) has a quite small but significant part and he is one of those who stays with you after the movie, as is Billie Whitelaw (Deadly Advice 1994) as the creepy Mrs. Baylock who appears out of nowhere to help raise young Damien. The movie is more an intellectuel than in-your-face horror movie, the scares more coming from what you don’t see as well as a sense of dread and disaster clinging to the movie like an infected bandage. It all adds up to a genuinly scary movie that grips you right from the start and never lets go, not even at the end credits where the creepy-as-hell soundtrack follows you like darkness follows night.
Having changed its title from “The Antichrist” to “The Birthmark,” the film seemed to fall victim to a sinister curse. Star Gregory Peck and screenwriter David Seltzer took separate planes to the UK…yet BOTH planes were struck by lightning. While producer Harvey Bernhard was in Rome, lightning just missed him. Rottweilers hired for the film attacked their trainers. A hotel at which director Richard Donner was staying got bombed by the IRA; he was also struck by a car. After Peck canceled another flight, to Israel, the plane he would have chartered crashed…killing all on board. On day one of the shoot, several principal members of the crew survived a head-on car crash. The jinx appeared to persist well into post-production… when special effects artist John Richarson was injured and his girlfriend beheaded in an accident in 1977.
Harvey Stephens, as Damien, was largely chosen for this role from the way he attacked Richard Donner during auditions. Donner asked all the little boys to “come at him” as if they were attacking Katherine Thorn during the church wedding scene. Stephens screamed and clawed at Donner’s face, and kicked him in the groin during his act. Donner whipped the kid off him, ordered the kid’s blond hair dyed black and cast him as Damien.
Mrs Baylock was originally written as a warm, effusive Irish nanny. For her audition, Billie whitelaw significantly changed the dialogue to create the cold, slightly sinister character that was subsequently used in the finished film.
Picture copyright: SF Films