Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw
Runtime: 111 minutes
What’s scarier than a cross-dressing psychopath or flesh-eating zombies? The Antichrist, of course! Though preceded by The Exorcist (1973), this movie would, besides spawning several sequels, help establish the Satanic/religious subgenre. Of the two most foundational and prominent examples of this subgenre, I think that The Omen is a far superior film. I always found The Exorcist to be more silly than scary (a young girl spewing pea soup seems a waste of the Devil’s time), while The Omen is more quirky, subtle, and more devastating in its implications—through his child, the Antichrist, the Devil plans to take over the world.
Despite its influence, and the instant recognition of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Ave Satani” theme (again illustrating the importance of music in a good horror film), I feel like the movie is underappreciated (in comparison to other classic horror). So many things go into the power of this movie, although there is no single overwhelming element that I can think of that centers the film, which perhaps helps to explain its lesser recognition. Peck, Remick, Warner, and especially Whitelaw as the exquisitely creepy Mrs. Baylock, all put in great performances, but none of them really overshadows the other actors. The pacing lets the mystery unfold smoothly, neither too slow or fast-paced: action speeds up at just the right moments, like when the father, Robert Thorn and the reporter, Keith Jennings, find the jackal skeleton, and are chased away by a pack of demonic Rottweilers.
The death scenes in this movie are also graphic and memorable: the nanny who hangs herself, the priest impaled by a lightning rod, and most famously, the decapitation scene! The glass plate which slices off Jennings’ head is often ranked on lists of most memorable moments or deaths in film history. Robert Donner planned that scene intricately, and was purposefully trying to make the audience uncomfortable; he figured that some viewers would cover their eyes to avoid seeing the head fly through the air for three seconds, so he intentionally kept the camera on the severed head longer.
The Antichrist himself, at least in this film, isn’t that memorable for me. The child (played by Harvey Spencer Stephens) is cute, but not quite creepy until the end, when the U.S. President (who is Damien’s uncle) takes his hand, and if I remember correctly, he smiles at the camera. This cues us in to the fact that if the country wasn’t messed up already, the Devil would soon be making it, and eventually the world, his personal playground, ushering in the Apocalypse. Speaking of apocalypse, the poem used in the film—I believe it was composed by screenwriter David Seltzer—is quite haunting and effective: “When the Jews return to Zion/And a comet fills the sky/The Holy Roman Empire rises/And 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 II focuses on Damien’s adolescence and his coming to terms with his role as the Antichrist, and The Omen III, with Sam Neil playing an adult Damien bent on world domination, are campy fun, even if they don’t capture the power of the original.