The opening scenes/set up of The Omen (1976) is so preposterous that acting great Gregory Peck is required to bring forth a large helping of his acting chops within the first 5 minutes of screen time. Peck’s character, American diplomat Robert Thorn, learns that his wife(played by Lee Remick) unbeknownst to her, has delivered a stillborn, and in the last gasp of the patriarchal 70’s, it’s quickly agreed by the hospital chaplain, a priest, and Peck’s character, to sub in a different baby they have on hand that was born (in a delivery that killed the mother) at the exact same moment Peck’s son died. This alternative, along with hiding the enormous lie from Peck’s wife is made as the clear choice over the mental distress she would suffer if she knew the truth.
The Omen created an iconic villain in the form of the child Damien that would mark that name forever as a shorthand for evil, several years before Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees arrived in their larger than life, hopelessly unkillable forms. If Peck hoped to get in and out of a little thriller quickly and unscathed, he would not be so fortunate: The Omen became a signature for a major genre of supernatural horror that the world has never tired of: a cocktail of Roman Catholic superstition, its necessary big bad, Satan and shadowy satanic cults; the endless horror mined out of maternal fear of genetic flaws that can come from the self, the other parent, or the outside world via adoption; and “the bad seed” trope.
Coming after The massive Exorcist (1973) and before the success of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and the many copycats that would follow (turning the 80’s into a crowded field of horror of varying quality but that was by then largely considered a step up from pornography) The Omen had a sheen of prestige on it at the time of its release. It received good reviews and box office, and the original score would win an Oscar. According to the film’s director, Richard Donner, Peck had taken the film as an opportunity to work out some personal demons in the wake of his own son’s suicide, which had caused him to become despondent and reclusive for a time. In hindsight, taking this part was probably a good move as the 70’s and 80’s were a time of massive changes in popular film, and actors from the black and white era, even those as beloved as Peck, needed to stay flexible and keep a public profile in order to get work.
Peck was one of our best, and last, film stars of which we say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore”. Not only had he given us one of the greatest ever meet-cute movies with everyone’s sweetheart, Audrey Hepburn, in the gorgeous Roman Holiday (1953) but he will always be remembered as the best ever, most ethical and noble small town lawyer and daddy we all wish for as the iconic Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Peck won the Best Actor prize for Mockingbird and was nominated for Best Actor another 4 times as well as numerous other awards. He worked pretty steadily from the 1940’s to the 1990’s.
The Omen may have a sheen of cheese in our detatched ironic age, (like other 60’s and 70’s scary films, you really had to be there) but in the 70’s, the true scariness of the film represented the strong Catholic fears that ruled over much of North American society and was THE trusted authority in many communities- equal or greater to that of government or police, and more trusted with our post personal family troubles. We watched these devilish stories over and over again, and they became true horror classics, because they scared the hell out of us. This film is also notable for some unusually disturbing scenes for its time, as portrayed in character deaths. Censorship was not yet in full swing. The masses, and Peck himself, was sold this as a thriller, not a horror, a dirty word. But it was horror all the way.
When an actor with the stature of Gregory Peck shows up in a film like The Omen, his endless gravitas and charisma give the insanity of the plot some grounding, and add a layer of fear to the story, for if Atticus Finch can’t overcome the spawn of the devil, what hope do the rest of us have?