Home Video Hovel: The Omen Collection, by Tyler Smith
The Omen films have the distinction of being both undeniably mediocre and surprisingly iconic. They were built around a pulpy spiritual premise and given a prestigious sheen due to the initial casting of heavy hitters like Gregory Peck and William Holden, along with an appropriately over-the-top score by Jerry Goldsmith. Though the first film has its defenders and occasionally creepy moments, it never quite rises to the level of other supernatural horror films of the time, like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Shining. But it was successful enough – likely on the coattails of previous films in the genre – to warrant three more films and a remake. The series as a whole has attained a certain status amongst horror fans, likely due to a general nostalgia for them, giving credence to the assertion by Chinatown’s Noah Cross – a devil in his own right – “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
The Omen (1976)
Richard Donner’s original film is, unsurprisingly, the best of the bunch, due mostly to a sustained atmosphere of dread and inevitability. The story of an American diplomat (Gregory Peck) who slowly begins to realize that his son, Damien, may in fact be the Biblical Antichrist contains all the elements necessary to suggest that the man is simply losing his mind. This is an interpretation that Donner himself aspired to incorporate, while never quite pulling it off. Viewers are trained to make connections between important story points, finding meaning within coincidence. If a child is suggested to be the Antichrist and unfortunate accidents befall anybody that dares to cross him, we can’t help but assume that he is, in fact, the Antichrist. Donner, however, was apparently reluctant to fully commit to the spiritual storyline, which might explain much of the histrionic silliness contained within. Nonetheless, the power of Gregory Peck’s performance, and the portentous musical score by Jerry Goldsmith (which would win him his only Academy Award), elevate the proceedings above standard horror boilerplate into something that captured the imaginations of millions of horror fans, and probably did more for the book of Revelation than any church sermon ever could.
Damien: Omen II (1978)
Whatever ambiguity the first Omen had was due largely to Damien’s youth and lack of agency. An adorable-but-nondescript moppet, the young Damien could be a sort of blank slate onto which the adults around him could project their own suspicions (and superstitions). In the second film, this ambiguity evaporates, but is replaced with something that has maybe even more dramatic potential. As Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is now older, he is better able to grapple with what he is – that is, the Son of Satan – and whether he actually wants to be it. That inner conflict is mostly sidelined, though, as the standard formula kicks in and one person after another is introduced, giving vital information to both our protagonist and the audience, and is summarily killed off in a grisly, Rube Goldbergian fashion. With very little suspense and even less true horror, the only thing left to recommend the film is its venerable cast, which includes William Holden, Lee Grant, Lance Henriksen, Allan Arbus, Sylvia Sidney, and a delightfully-unhinged Leo McKern. Each of these actors commit to the material as best they can, elevating it to a status it is unable to achieve on its own. As the second chapter in the saga of the Antichrist, however, Damien: The Omen II deepens the story without ever giving any real weight to it.
The Final Conflict (1981)
The third installment of the Omen series is either the most committed farce or the silliest horror film ever made. Given the history of the series, I’m betting on the latter. In this film, Damien (Sam Neill) is in his thirties and the head of his family’s powerful company. Now fully embracing his role as the Antichrist, Damien is aware that the second coming of “the Nazarene” is imminent. And so he orders the deaths of thousands of baby boys born on a specific day, attempting, like Pharoah, to put an end to his enemy before the conflict can even begin. Meanwhile, a group of priests attempt to kill Damien, with each meeting a brutal end. It is in this way that the Omen formula within The Final Conflict works against the film. The murder of random characters getting too close to the truth – as we saw in the first two films – is one thing, but when those characters are united against our villain, their deaths begin to feel like the bumbling criminals in The Ladykillers, desperately trying to dispose of their quarry, but perpetually foiled. Between that and a surprisingly low ambition depiction of the climactic showdown between Damien and the Forces of Good, The Final Conflict leaves very little to recommend it, save for Neill’s performance. It must be difficult playing a character that is, by his own admission, pure evil – doubly so when that character launches into poetic monologues about the nature of God and Satan – but Neill brings a real, palpable (dare I say, righteous) anger to Damien, who sees his mission as avenging Satan’s expulsion from Heaven. It is in Damien’s private moments that the film begins to really embrace what this series could have been: a meditation on spiritual warfare from the perspective of the losing side. Despite these flashes of inspired writing and performance, though, The Final Conflict ends up being a lackluster finale to the series, finishing the would-be saga of the Antichrist not with a bang, but a shrug.
Omen IV: The Awakening (1991)
With the emergence of the slasher movies of the 1980s, with their countless sequels, I’m sure Fox studio executives were kicking themselves for ending the Omen series after a paltry three films. With their TV movie Omen IV: The Awakening, they were clearly attempting to rectify that mistake. The story itself, with a few notable exceptions, unfolds in much the same way as the first film, but with significantly less style. The twist here seems to be the inversion of gender, with the possible Antichrist coming in the form of a little girl (Asia Vieria) whose mother (Faye Grant) has some questions about her adopted daughter’s cruel demeanor. Lacking Donner’s eye for delicious detail and Jerry Goldsmith’s inherent understanding of musical ebbs and flows – seriously, the score sounds like it was lifted out of a 1970s kids movie – the fourth film flounders as it tries to make any kind of impression at all. The performers do what they can, with Grant taking the weight of the story and its exposition squarely on her capable shoulders, but the story mostly falls flat. The addition of a benevolent, streetwise private detective (the always-dependable Michael Lerner) contributes some much-needed variety to the tone. That along with a genuinely disturbing scene of a snake-handling pentecostal preacher who loses focus at a most inopportune time help to differentiate this film slightly from the rest of the series, but I’d categorize the fourth installment of the Omen series as too little, too late.
The Omen (2006)
It’s appropriate that this series relies so heavily on the concept of prophecy, because the remake of The Omen was perhaps the most preordained movie in film history. With the prominence of the number 666 throughout the movies, the remake’s release on June 6, 2006 was a marketing department’s dream. And the film itself is as uninspired as its release date. While not exactly a shot-for-shot remake, this film almost never deviates from the story of the first film, and in some cases attempts to recreate it as closely as possible. Modernized only through its occasional use of jump scares, the film does away with much of the original’s operatic qualities, with composer Marco Beltrami’s orchestrations owing more to Jaws than to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score. The cast remains emotionally grounded, playing these events for what they are more than what they represent. As our primary lead, Liev Schreiber imbues his character with the right blend of skepticism, conviction, and pathos, bringing an empathy to the role that even Gregory Peck didn’t seem able to. With special commendation of a very game Mia Farrow as the young Damien’s sinister nanny, the cast is the chief reason to see this functional, but mostly forgettable, retread.
At this point, the original Omen is considered a 70s horror classic, every bit as iconic as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, and Halloween. As such, with Hollywood’s penchant for nostalgia, the film is ripe for another remake. And indeed the film spawned an ill-fated pilot in the 90s and a Damien-themed TV show in 2016. It has also been reported that there is a prequel in the works. It remains to be seen how successful further entries and reboots may be, but the original film series, as deeply flawed as it is, has stayed firmly rooted in the memory of horror fans and has shown itself to be as resilient as Damien himself.