The Omen, an early film by Richard Donner (who would go on to make the first two Superman films and all four Lethal Weapon entries) certainly shows its age. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, a varied mix of satanic chants and classical music, rightfully earned an Oscar. So haunting is the recurrent “Ave Satani” (itself nominated for Best Original Song) and so different is it from his work on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown two years prior that it beat out Bernard Herrmann’s double-nomination for New Hollywood films Obsession and Taxi Driver. At the same time, though, the score is unashamedly overused as a queue for visual effects, scary moments, and close-ups of the film’s monsters that one would be quickly forgiven for laughing. The film takes itself so seriously—I don’t think there’s a single joke in the entire film—yet it is so filled with cheesy horror tropes that it’s occasionally difficult for the audience to do so. Performances are elevated to extreme levels, with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, as married couple Robert and Katherine Thorn, particularly melodramatic in the film’s opening scenes as they are talked into the adoption of the newborn antichrist after their own child is stillborn. Still, Harvey Spencer Stephens, as the child Damien, is blessed with large, piercing eyes and a larger, unsettling smile. He says very few words throughout the film and may not have a single line of real dialogue, but he is startlingly effective regardless. Billie Whitelaw goes the opposite direction with equal effectiveness as the family’s nanny, dressing her performance with so many layers of easy-goingness and confidence that she serves as a perfect satanic foil to the rest of the characters.
So while the acting comes off as dated, for those who can get into it, it’s strangely effective. The film starts off with a disturbing hook and rarely lets’ go, combing you over with an insane priest (Patrick Troughton) until the mystery begins to unravel. Donner never gives the less horrific side of The Omen a chance. His overuse of score and manic performances make it quite clear that this child and the nanny are pure evil; there is never a chance for real drama to build. As Gregory Peck is asking himself whether he is faced with a series of coincidences or whether he will actually have to kill his child, the audience knows full well that it is not his child and that nothing is coincidental. There is an opportunity for character insight. A child as the antichrist is the perfect metaphor for a parent that finds himself/herself unhappy as a parent, but that theme is scarcely addressed, the cynicism and paranoia that the characters face cannot be transferred to the audience, so cheap suspense takes over instead.
By today’s standards, The Omen is too cheesy to be scary, but it is saved by Gilbert Taylor’s strong cinematography. The film is shot in London and Rome, mostly on gloomy, cloudy days, where there is enough natural light to make the image look good but also not enough to stop the exteriors from looking droll and a bit miserable. Interior shots show off the baroque and gothic architecture and give the film a stylish and antiquated look, which both brings a vivid life to the screen and helps the audience buy into the melodramatic acting and also gives the film an antiquated feel in which religious conspiracy and excavation feel more likely. Taylor makes great use of mirrors, as well (watch for a real stunner in the first hospital scene), and a creepy cemetery being excavated is shot in the late day, lessening the chance of cheap jump scares and forcing reliance on camera placement and movement to create tension. The film always looks good, with most visual effects holding strong. Donner and Taylor create some enchanting visuals, and they elevate a lackluster execution of a fairly rich story.
For all its cheese, The Omen is well-paced and well-made enough to keep the audience involved. While so much of it is hard to keep with now, the film goes to show that some things, a good look and good pacing cannot substitute for great direction, but they also don’t age, and while they haven’t kept The Omen young, they have certainly kept it watchable.