This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
It may be day twenty but today’s piece is all about the sixes.
The decidedly unholy offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist led Richard Donner to making his name. This was The Omen, first of a satanic quartet to chart the rise of the Antichrist. Over the years, talk of a curse has surrounded the production, with cast and crew subjected to a succession of eerie and sometimes fatal incidents. For Donner, however, the film proved a lucky charm: a commercial hit that launched his career towards Superman, The Goonies and Lethal Weapon. Never mind Damien, is Donner the ‘real’ Antichrist?
Conceived in the mind of Christian cum ad exec Robert Munger, The Omen may owe its commission to the earlier successes of Polanski and Friedkin’s films but it is a beast very much able to stand on its own legs. The central idea is a corker – even if the sequels were anything but – whilst, in eschewing horror typical paranormality, screenwriter David Seltzer focused his script on a subversive and thought-provoking impetus of terror. For all that occurs in the film, there is a real world explanation to quell arguments of supernatural occurrence. When little Damien Thorn (Harvey Spencer Stephens) smiles to the camera, and his audience beyond it, it is paranoia not evidence that stirs fear in the soul.
Contrary to societal belief, Damien is not the son of Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick). Her child died – or did he? – in birth and was swapped by Katherine’s husband Robert (Gregory Peck) with an orphan baby of allegedly similar features. A normal childhood for Damien mark two – captured via a lovely photomontage – takes a darker turn on the boy’s fifth birthday, as the family nanny hangs herself from the family mansion, whilst declaring her love for him. When her governess replacement turns out to be a bit of a Mrs. Danvers, and a guilt-ridden priest (a haunted Patrick Troughton) announces that the Thorn’s have baby swapped with Satan, it slowly dawns on Robert that trouble is brewing. Then, the bodies begin to pile.
Peck came out of virtual retirement for The Omen and he’s just one in an excellent ensemble cast. David Warner is strong as the photographer who begins to inadvertently predict character deaths, whilst there’s a neat, doom-laden cameo from Leo McKern. Five-year-old Spencer Stephens is the perfect pick as Damien, cast after viciously attacking Donner in his audition, bearing an uncanny ability to shift between heavenly and hellish at the drop of a hat. Or, perhaps, at the fall of a lightning rod – there are some truly gobsmacking deaths in here. Deploying his special effects frugally, Donner makes sure each one hits the mark.
Jerry Goldsmith won his first, and only, Oscar for the film’s music score – although, ironically, didn’t show up, having grown tired of losing – but I find it a little overwhelming and too bombastic against the film’s wider tone. There are, it must be said, a handful of splendid choral beats to get the heart racing but too little nuance. There’s a fine line between startling and silly in religious horror and Goldsmith walks it. That aside, this is deft work indeed.