A bald-faced lamprey hitching its razor-tipped maw on the chassis of The Exorcist, The Omen’s Sunday-school parable of gothic Cathsploitation comes twice as thick and thrice as pious. Which isn’t necessarily, in itself, a patch on its success as a horror movie. Satan in the form of a child named Damien is an audacious concept any way you couch it. Also, brackish Catholic brimstone isn’t really measured in increments, and, unlike Dante’s hell, there is really only one level to religion in horror movies—either it’s there or it isn’t. What separates an Omen (gaseous pulp fit to be bound in cubic zirconium and sold door-to-door) from an Exorcist (a genuinely intriguing, internally-conflicted document that doesn’t even seem aware of what it’s selling)? Well, for one, The Omen doesn’t give off the impression that there’s an actual bibilical history that exists outside of the trippy, now-climactic chapter “John” wrote perhaps, as some historians believe, as an eschatological comfort to a group of believers under contemporary persecution by Domitian or some other corpulent Roman Emperor.
Passages from the demented, compelling, and perhaps anti-Christian Book of Revelation are repetitiously stitched into The Omen’s script to give the production a dark n’ lovely pallor. But, next to screenwriter and novelist David Seltzer’s humorless set pieces, “When the Jews return to Zion” and “Count the number of the beast, for his number is 666” and “I could eat the Peach of Babylon for hours” sound sort of quaint and cozy. It’s clear from the casting of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick (as the U.S. ambassador and wife who unwittingly adopt the Devil’s son) that director Richard Donner and the 20th Century Fox execs who rode this mottled jackal through its well-publicized difficult shoot were aiming for the same half-and-half formula that brought The Exorcist two handfuls of Oscar nominations—keep one eye on the high ceilings of the Vatican, keep the other trained on the pile of black-haired vomit that calls itself a child.
But what Donner missed in his mission to get at least three great angles on every zinger effect is the nefarious, current-affair subtext of The Exorcist. I’m speaking of the unconscious sensation that the real reason Pazuzu makes his introduction into Georgetown society circles isn’t because Chris MacNeil neglected to keep a crucifix around her daughter’s neck, but because she forgot to keep a father figure’s presence in her own maternal orifice…and two-and-two never came together so outrageously. The Omen doesn’t have anything to top The Exorcist at that gut, domestic level. It does come close for about 10 seconds in what’s easily the film’s most well-directed moment, when poor Lee Remick, already having been knocked from one height, is about to be thrown from her hospital window by Damien’s jut-jawed nanny (and replacement mommy) Mrs. Blalock (Billie Whitelaw, in a memorable parody of Julie Andrews). Attempting to escape by night, Remick’s virginial white veil is caught over her head when she hears Blalock behind her. She spins around, the Immaculate gauze obscuring her face but leaving her eerie, frightened blue eyes. For a brief moment, Donner lets the Devil dance with Leone in a bizarre, feminized showdown, confirmed when Remick clutches her hand to her mouth, showing off that massive rock on her ring finger. It’s a long and portentous slog with Jerry Goldsmith’s Jaws motifs (he quoted “Dies Irae” so much better in Poltergeist) and David Warner’s crypto-Antonioni photographer just to get to that one brief burlesque on the smug self-regard of nuclear family values.