“Never work with children or animals.” – W.C. Fields
Now, I’m quite sure Gregory Peck very likely wasn’t thinking of this well-aged quote while shooting The Omen, but I get a chuckle out of maybe thinking he was because he surely goes through all nine circles of Hollywood hell in dealing with his demon-bred son with the quirky birthmark (Harvey Spencer Stephens) and a couple of dogs that get to attack him (and his stunt double) with relish (or whatever it is dogs use as a condiment. Maybe… Chow Chow Picalilli?).
If his character had lived to be in the inevitable and somewhat silly (but still kind of scary) sequel, Damien: Omen II, I’m sure he would have also wanted to kill a few mockingbirds (a murder of crows, if you will) if one of them had ever decided to give him the old “good luck” airdrop plop, but (uh, spoiler alert?). he doesn’t live to see that happen (end spoiler). I’d make an Atticus F(l)nch joke here. but I don’t want to push my luck.
Then again, there’s an air of bleak inevitability in Richard Donner’s film that pervades every frame and it’s not hard to see from the opening titles onward that Jerry Goldsmith’s sole Oscar winning score (more on that later) was predicting some very bad things to come. I was too young to see this back in 1976, but I recall a schoolmate telling me his parents took their four kids to see it and they were all traumatized to some extent, but it was all they talked about for weeks. As the family was pretty religious, my guess now is that was one surefire (heh) way of keeping them in church.
(Thanks, 20th Century Studios!)
Peck plays the unfortunate wealthy American diplomat Robert Thorn who’s married to the even more unfortunate Katherine (Lee Remick), whose newborn son dies in a Rome hospital at the beginning of the film, but she’s not yet aware of this. Robert is coerced by a priest to quickly adopt the child of another woman who just so happened to die during childbirth and he agrees, party to save his wife from the trauma of losing her child and hey, what fortune for such a miracle to take place, right? Boy, it’s a good thing that priest was there just at the right time with that offerta speciale extra, no?
Robert, Katherine and their new son, Damien have a few peaceful years until Robert becomes U.S. Ambassador to the UK, then you could say all hell literally (or is it figuratively? I forget.*) breaks loose as a stretch of very bad things begin to occur. There’s a big, cranky Rottweiler that pops up at the family home and won’t leave, then Damien’s young nanny decides to hang herself very publicly at his 5th birthday party. A replacement nanny, Mrs. Blalock (Billie Whitelaw, who I mistook years back for Martine Beswick, oops!) appears very conveniently after this and is hired to help Katherine. Damian’s mere presence causes animals to freak out during a zoo trip with his mom. who’s equally freaked. Damien himself later freaks out while being driven to church, which leads his mom to getting a wee bit paranoid that her son really doesn’t like her much… but she’s actually right about that part, as we’ll soon see.
In the midst of all this, there’s a rather strange priest named Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who’s been trailing the family and he’s got something urgent to discuss with Robert. A meeting is arranged and the priest tells Robert that his little devil of a son just might be exactly that, in the biblical sense, among other warnings. Naturally, Thorn dismisses his rantings and leaves him to his fate, which involves a very hot date with a stripper, or rather, a lightning rod stripped by a hot bolt of lightning that adds insult to injury because it happens as he’s about to reach the safety of a nearby church. The priest had also warned Thorn about his wife’s new pregnancy and that somehow, Damien would be a threat to it. The kid has taken to threatening his mom with his videogames played too loudly and Mrs. Blalock hand-feeding him strawberries and generally acting a bit less Mary Poppins and a bit more like Cruella De Vil.
Thanks to pesky and persistent paparazzi Keith Jennings (David Warner), Thorn sees a link to something nefarious going on and both men decide to investigate the matter after Jennings reveals a photo of himself with unusual markings like the photos he’d taken of Father Brennan and Damien’s first nanny. He thinks his days are numbered, so he and Robert are practically conjoined twins at this point (but they don’t go by code names Dominique and Danielle, before you ask). meanwhile, at the Thorn home, The now holier by impalement than thou Father’s predictions come true when Katherine literally (or is it figuratively? I forget.) falls for Damien’s shenanigans when he knocks her off a high railing while riding his bike indoors and she suffers a miscarriage and some other serious injuries.
Meanwhile, Robert and Keith roam Rome and its outskirts to discover the truth about Damien’s parentage and both good men discover they can’t handle the truth when it literally (or is it…. oh, never mind!) it trying to bite them both on the ass and a few other places when dogs suddenly assault them after they unearth a pair of graves in a decrepit cemetery. Both men survive and Robert phones a still hospitalized Katherine to tell her to get out of Dodge, but Mrs. Blalock has already phoned up that stunt woman from earlier and that hospital room is a much further drop than the fall at home was. Mrs. Blalock in the hospital room with a shove = a Clue poor Katherine gets a wee bit too late.
A shattered Robert, still intent on finding out what’s going on with all these predictions coming to fruition, heads to Israel with Keith to meet Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), archaeologist and expert on all things Antichrist. Carl confirms everything is happening for a reason and Thorn needs to dispatch Damien for good using a set of special knives he’s got socked away for such a purpose. Robert takes them, but throws them away afterward, saying he won’t kill a child and Bugenhagen has to be mistaken in his belief that a monkey-frightening, church-hating, unholy terror that’s not even his son (even after discovering his own real son’s skeleton in that old grave) is somehow EVIL. Keith, daggers in his eyes, goes to retrieve the knives, thinking Robert has lost his mind with his sudden change of heart, but loses his head in the process. That kind of convinces Thorn that he’s got to get Damien on down to Highway 61 and pronto.
Well, first, he needs to do a bit of dog catching, then see if what Bugenhagen says about Damien’s odd birthmark is true (it its). It also turns out Mrs. Blalock is a light sleeper and fiercer than a Rottweiler, but not invincible. Scooping up Damien, it’s off to the races but with the police now in tow despite Thorn drivin\g like a speed demon. That air of bleak inevitability mentioned above leads to the ending and a creepy coda that’s still nicely unsettling after all these years. With such a fine cast here, performances are excellent in every part and in a way, this and later installments almost predicted the Final Destination franchise as the kills in later films went more for their over the top, almost Rube Goldberg style complexity or were just straight up Diabolus en machina in some cases. Personally, I say the first film is the best of the bunch and thought Omen IV: Awakening was one hell of a bad TV flick. But the series really ran its course by the third one with a few moments that were pure shock value and almost too comical in their set up and execution.
Oh, as for the music here? It’s still outstandingly chilling and I vaguely recall that for the Academy Awards the next year, the main title “Ave Satani” was performed as a live interpretive dance number that I recall made me crack up as 12-year old. The music was frightening enough, but seeing it danced to was something else. Also something else was the weird fact that during a career with an amazing output of films and TV shows, composer Jerry Goldsmith got his single Oscar for that score, a film with the devil as a centerpiece and Bernard Herrman, who also scored many outstanding film, TV and radio scores, got his Oscar for a film about the devil, The Devil and Daniel Webster (or All That Money Can Buy). Things that make you go “Hmmm…” Right?
Peck would still continue to work with children and animals in 1978’s The Boys From Brazil, where he gets it but good in the ending and it manages to be a chiller of a film that’s also unintentionally hilarious despite the overall content. Peck chews up the scenery somewhat terrifically in that film, but I’ll let you go read my older review of it if you so desire. Hey, I’m working at home here, so my sense of time is pretty much “Which Monday is it today?”. That clock needs to be readjusted, but being correct once a week sort of works. Oh yeah – there was a remake made in 2008, but that’s going to be on the plate in a bit. It’s… interesting to say the least. The same film in a number of respects,only we didn’t get sequels out of the deal and no one won an Oscar even with the score borrowing from the original for thematic effect.