Cult Movies: Nothing compares to The Omen, which still delivers demonic delights nearly 50 years on

As a new Omen movie prepares to open in cinemas, Ralph revisits Richard Donner’s original 1976 chiller

Harvey Stephens (Damian) on the set of The Omen.
Harvey Stephens (Damien) on the set of The Omen (Corbis via Getty Images)

With The First Omen, Arkasha Stevenson’s impressive attempt to revive the flagging horror franchise for fresh audiences, opening in cinemas this weekend, it’s perhaps a good time to remind ourselves of the demonic delights that lie in Richard Donner’s original 1976 tale of childhood possession.

The Omen must have felt like an echo from another era when it arrived on mid-1970s cinema screens. The trend for Satanic cinematic fables that had started with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 had peaked with The Exorcist in 1973, so Hollywood delivering a full-blown tale of demonic possession three years later must have seemed a trifle after the event.

Late to the table or not, The Omen still struck gold all the same. It’s the simple story of diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who’s expecting his first child with his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick). When that child is stillborn in an Italian hospital, Robert is approached by a priest who suggests that they take home another child whose mother has just died in childbirth instead.

Without saying a word to his wife, Robert agrees. When the family relocate to London, where Robert is taking up the position of US Ambassador, a series of gruesome events lead the father to believe that his new child might just be the offspring of Satan himself.

A grandly staged, big budget chiller that’s low on actual bloodshed but high on tension and imbued with a genuine sense of creeping dread, it’s got great central performances from Peck and Remick as the desperate parents, while the young Harvey Stephens is utterly unforgettable as the blank-eyed devil child, Damien.

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There are superb supporting turns from the likes of Billie Whitelaw as Damien’s evil nanny Mrs Baylock and some seriously iconic macabre moments to savour as well. Personally, I can think of few more memorable movie death scenes than that experienced by Patrick Troughton’s priest at the wrong end of a lighting rod. It still makes me shudder just to recall it now.

In fact, with so much going for it, it’s easy to see why Donner’s film - which went into production as The Antichrist and then changed its title to The Birthmark before finally settling on The Omen - still exerts such a pull on audiences to this day.

Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens and Gregory Peck in The Omen
Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens and Gregory Peck in The Omen

It would have been a very different film if the original plan to use Charlton Heston as the Thorn figure had come to fruition, of course. Thankfully, Heston passed up the opportunity: Peck, who had lost his own son, Jonathan, to suicide the summer before production started, is incredible as the distressed parent at his wit’s end.

Some say the film was cursed: among the bountiful ‘evidence’ of this was the fact scriptwriter David Seltzer’s flight to London was hit by lightning, and the bizarre coincidence that a private plane that was to have flown Peck to Israel ended up crashing, killing all on board, after he changed his plans at the last moment – but such fanciful myth building is beside the point.

No matter had many re-makes or re-boots they try, nothing compares to the original Omen in all its creepy, demonic glory.