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The Omen (1976)

Take a moment to think about The Omen. What do you remember? Spectacular set-pieces, obviously - everyone knows what happened to David Warner and Patrick Troughton. The spooky music, Damien himself, and the warnings given by the shadows on the photographs? Think that's it? Well take the time to re-visit The Omen and you'll find that it's much more than a glossy Hollywood-funded cash-in on the success of The Exorcist. There's some big ideas going on there (for example - here's a thought - what's God doing during all these shenanigans? Eh? Eh?), and it's a shame that the film series is really only remembered for upping the violence (killer elevators and angry crows in Damien: Omen II) and for one of the lamest endings in film history (The Final Conflict).

The thing also seems remarkably prescient these days - I mean, have you seen who's in charge of the world at the moment? Methinks the Bush family nursery got visited by some evil Roman Catholics 40-odd years ago…

Another surprise is that the film actually starts with a graphical representation of the iconic image of Damien at the grave of his father, too, his shadow turning into that of a cross. It's something which doesn't mean anything to the first-time viewer as it appears next the credits, but it will…

When the Jews return to Zion,

And a comet fills the sky,

And the Holy Roman Empire rises,

Then you and I must die,

From the Eternal Sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore,

Turning man against his brother,

Until man exists no more.

The Omen is one of those "oft imitated, never bettered" films, which exudes class. Yes, Holocaust 2000 might be more entertaining, death-for-death, but The Omen is the kind of film which says "do we really need to see the birth?". If only such questions had been asked during the making of I Don't Want To Be Born, or To The Devil… A Daughter. In this film we're simply told through a voiceover that "The child is dead… it breathed for a moment, then it breathed no more… the child is dead…" as Thorn (Gregory Peck) makes his way through the streets of Rome on June the 6th at 6am. A baby is produced, and Thorn is told "Your wife need never know. It would be a blessing to her, and to the child" by the priest who offers it. "Yes, this night… God has offered you a son."

With mum blissfully ignorance of these shenanigans, Thorn gets offered the job of ambassador to Great Britain (cue red London bus, Big effing Ben… just once I'd like to see a classic British horror film which has to set the London scene and doesn't resort to this). Thorn is called "the future president of the United States" by his adoring wife (Lee Remick) and we find that he used to room at college with the current incumbent, with whom he's still great friends.

The scene-setting moves swiftly on from this point - Damien's childhood years are shown as snapshots of family life, with a brief interlude where the family, out for a walk by a river, think they've lost him. But then he turns up. Phew.

Things take a turn for the nasty at the child's birthday bash, when the world's press turn up only to see the boy's nanny tie a noose around her neck and jump off the roof, the limp body smashing spectacularly through a window. The girl's final words are: "Damien, look at me! I love you! It's all for you!"

Thorn is then visited by Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who sweatily exhorts the puzzled ambassador to accept Christ into his life. When asked what he wants, he replies: "To save you… so Christ will forgive me! I saw its mother!"

To which, without a hint of irony, Peck replies "You're referring to my wife!" (which in any other film, would probably be hilarious).

Brennan is forcibly removed before he can explain what "its" mother was (a hamster?), and the next arrival is the new nanny (Billie Whitelaw, who does "evil" very well). No-one's quite sure where she's come from, but she seems to have the kid's best interests at heart: "Have no fear, little one… I'm here to protect thee."

Damien's behaviour is now getting more odd - he freaks out when taken to a church (or as Remick puts it, "he just… had a bad moment"), and a trip to Windsor Safari Park results in all the giraffes clearing off and the baboons attacking the car (which seems like a normal trip to a safari park to me).

Remick is now wigging out, asking her husband: "What could be wrong with our child? We're beautiful people, aren't we?", and she announces that she's pregnant again, but doesn't want this baby.

Meanwhile Brennan has once again cornered Thorn and babbled on about his son being the son of the devil and some bloke called Bugenhagen, and then tells him that Damien must die. Understandably perturbed at this raving crackpot, Thorn makes his excuses and leaves, setting up Brennan's spectacular death at the hands of satanic forces (or shoddy church restoration, you decide).

There's a wonderful set-piece when Damien appears to give fate a helping hand by subjecting his mother to a nasty fall which makes her lose the baby (Damien on his trike is very similar to young Danny making his way through the Overlook in The Shining), and Thorn is approached by another crackpot (although this time a less raving, more reserved one, with a nice line in crevats) in the form of Jennings, a press photographer (David "it's not a classic 70s Brit horror unless I'm in it" Warner). He's noticed that strange shadows on his photographs have predicted the deaths of the nanny and Brennan, and he's got an extra reason to worry - a photo of himself has a shadow slicing right through his neck…

With Mrs Thorn recovering in hospital, Thorn and Jennings take a trip to Italy to find the hospital where Damien was born. It has burned down, but a badly burned priest points them to a disused cemetery where Thorn's son, and Damien's mother, are buried. The cemetery is an obvious set, which is very Hammerish, but a subsequent attack by "devil dogs" is extremely nasty and realistic, which isn't.

As Thorn begins to realise that all the nutters who've been approaching him may well have a point, the deaths get more spectacular (novel use for an ambulance, and three cheers for the plate of glass moment - although it's far more blink-and-you'll-miss-it than you might remember). The ending is truly disturbing ("No, daddy, no!") - after all, ask yourself - if someone told you that a child would grow up to destroy the world, could you kill it? Even if it was an odd-looking , blank-faced horror by the name of Damien?

"This is not a human child… make no mistake…"

And let's not forget that final image, as it becomes apparent just who appears to have taken the child under his wing…

The Omen is wonderful - taught, economical and terrifying. Its Brit horror credentials may be muddied by many foreign locations and a serious input of Hollywood cash and talent, but make no mistake - it's a fine English horror story beautifully told. Try to put yourself in the mind of a viewer watching it back in 1976 and see it again with new eyes. Rarely has a horror film been so thought provoking.

Last updated: February 25, 2010

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The Omen 1976

The Omen 1976

The Omen 1976

The Omen 1976

The Omen 1976

The Omen 1976

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