I'm sure that at one time the name "Damien" was a respectable name. Maybe not the most popular name, but a fine name nonetheless. Then along came The Omen, and "Damien" became about as favored a name as "Judas" or "Lucifer".
I can't say I'm surprised. Little Damien Thorn has been adopted by Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck, probably wondering how he went from playing Atticus Finch to this) and his wife Cathy (Lee Remick) after their baby was allegedly stillborn. Despite the fact that the Thorns know nothing about Damien's parentage (Cathy doesn't even know Damien isn't her son), everything seems fine until Damien's fifth birthday, when his nanny hangs herself in front of Damien and all the other kids. That wouldn't be so bad, except that there's also a big scary Rottweiler hanging around, Damien has a spooky new nanny, Damien has a massive freak-out when he gets near a church, and a wild-eyed priest who claims to know about Damien's true parentage ends up shish-kabobbed. Of course, there's a perfectly legitimate reason for all this, and it's that Damien is the Antichrist, the son of Satan.
Tremendously popular and influential in 1976, The Omen doesn't really hold up well today. You don’t even need to have a passing interest in the horror genre to be well aware that Damien is the Antichrist, so consequently all the characters in The Omen who are painstakingly realizing Damien’s true nature come off as incredibly dense. The sole exception is David Warner as a photographer who has noticed some odd distortions in photos of the nanny and the priest, and who does the most and best investigative work as to Damien’s origins. Warner’s character isn’t figuring out anything the viewer doesn’t already know, but he still makes it work.
One of the keys to The Omen’s success back in the day, and why it doesn’t hold up today, is its tone. The Omen is a Very Serious Movie. And while I’m no fan of today’s wink-at-the-camera, oh-so-ironic horror films, The Omen is proof that it’s possible to go too far in the other direction. It’s almost as if the film-makers want you to believe all this is actually going on, and push the buttons so hard that the closing quote from Revelations (one of the only verbatim Biblical quotes in the entire movie, I do believe) is more giggle inducing than the dread-inspiring shocker it wants to be.
It doesn’t help that no character with a hint about Damien’s true nature can simply come out and say so. Instead, they beat around the bush and waste precious time being bug-eyed and babbling. Again, the exception is Warner, who comes off as intelligent and rational, but willing to believe in the fantastic nature of what’s happening, and not just because he’s seen one of those spooky distortions in a photograph of himself.
Which brings us to what does still work in The Omen; the death scene set-pieces. For a movie famous for its gory death scenes, there is surprisingly little blood, even in the celebrated decapitation scene. The two most effective death scenes, the aforementioned decapitation and the nanny hanging, work because of their timing. You know what’s going to happen, but they happen sooner than you expect, before you have time to prepare yourself. Plus, the nanny looks so damned happy to be hanging herself (“Damien I love you! It’s all for you!”) that the scene is all the more disturbing. Also effective is the dog attack scene, in which the dogs are genuinely scary (most dog attacks in cinema look like the dog just wants that Milk-Bone in the actor’s pocket).
David Seltzer’s screenplay is clever on the surface but stupid underneath. Would Ambassador Thorn really not even look at his stillborn child? Why would it take five years for Damien to start showing signs of Satanic-ness? If the mere sight of a cross is so affecting to Damien, how come the spike that impales the priest comes off a church? And so on.
Still, The Omen is fun if you (like me) are a big fan of Catholic horror. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is wonderfully overwrought, sounding at times like Carmina Burana on steroids, and keeps things moving along. And while Harvey Stephens as Damien is mostly there to look evilly cherubic or cherubically evil, his last scene, smiling directly at the camera, is one of the film’s few genuinely spooky moments.
The DVD has a fine set of extras, including an informative documentary, the theatrical trailers, a feature about the various “curses” that plagued the film’s shooting, a feature about Goldsmith’s score, and a commentary by director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird.