Noah Berlatsky / October 30, 2020
This is a revision of a piece that originally ran on Noah Berlatsky’s Patreon.
The Omen is generally considered a bleak film because the devil wins. But it’s even bleaker as a picture of who the devil is supposed to be, and what kind of measures are needed to defeat him.
The movie stars an aging but still virile Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn, the American ambassador to Britain and a close friend (and former roommate) of the U.S. president. When the film opens, Thorn’s substantially younger wife Kathy (Lee Remick) is in the hospital where she has just delivered and lost a baby in a Catholic Italian hospital. A priest suggests the couple substitute a baby whose mother has died at almost the same moment. Robert agrees without telling his wife, which is a mistake because the baby, Damien, is the spawn of hell. After Damien grows into a disturbingly smirking toddler (Harvey Spencer Stephens), the child quickly uses mysterious powers and malevolent allies to murder, in quick order, his governess, his unborn sibling, his mother, and Robert himself en route to the apocalypse and the extermination of the human race (the last two heavily foreshadowed albeit not quite accomplished at film’s end.)
As with most Hollywood movies that focus on politicians, The Omen carefully has no particular politics of its own. We never learn what party Robert belongs to, and his own geopolitical views are unspecified beyond a general opposition to allowing the antichrist to drown the world in blood. Despite this wishy-washy reticence, viewers can draw some conclusions about the movie’s view of righteous order from context. Director Richard Donner’s cinematography is tasteful and high class, as are the Thorn’s lifestyles and sumptuous residences. Servants are thick on the ground, and little Damien’s fourth birthday party is celebrated with all the casual opulence the American de facto peerage can muster, including but not limited to an apparently rented merry-go-round. The good, the normal, and the safely non-demonic status quo is represented by opulent high ceilings and expensive clothes draped upon the trophy wife, who in one scene tosses a lavish piece of outerwear upon the pricey floor in preparation for what will presumably be equally pricey and opulent intercourse.
Into this paradise of privilege slides Damien, whose sin, like the fork in a snake’s tongue, is twofold. First, he’s a child, and America in 1976 was notably anxious about the next generation. The Omen‘s most direct predecessor, 1973’s The Exorcist, is less shy about drawing the connection between the demon in the daughter at home and the demon in the daughters and sons out there protesting in the streets. But even if Vietnam is never mentioned in The Omen, Damien’s revolutionary assault on his elders’ government seems congruent with the nation’s contemporary traumatic generational conflict. The demon child’s remote murders of his various adversaries show up as dark, shadowy predictions on photographs—a priest bisected by a dark line, a governess with a shadowy, inexplicable loop around her neck. The children are the future, and that future is one in which the confident, smug olds are harvested with a scythe of blood and documentary photography.
Damien is not just evil because he’s young, though. He’s evil because he’s upwardly mobile. Damien has no birth and no breeding; he’s a presumptuous upstart who murders Robert’s infant heir and seizes the perks of power to which he has no right. It’s significant in this regard that Damien’s chief allies are servants. You’d think that, given a choice, the devil would subvert the wealthy and powerful to his cause. But those most drawn to him aren’t capitalists and kings, but service workers. The obsequious priest in the hospital in the opening scene is eager to bend the rules to get the American ambassador the child he wants. It is Damien’s first nanny (Holly Palance) who delivers to him the most enthusiastic paean he receives in the film, shouting “Damien! Damien! I love you!” as she hangs herself to make way for her equally devoted replacement, the malevolent Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw). The horror of The Omen is in large part a terror that all the people you pay to scrape and stoop are plotting your downfall from down there on their knees.
In addition to the hired help, the devil’s other devoted acolytes are dogs; he is attended by a number of bristling Rottweilers. Damien’s association with animality is cemented in one of the film’s most striking images: in a barren cemetery, Robert opens the tomb of Damien’s mother as the camera, panning down, reveals the skeleton of a jackal. Damien was not born of a human woman; he’s of a different, fouler womb. The eugenic implications are that the elite are actually of a different species than the less fortunate. Damien is passing as rich, as white, and as human, all categories that are conflated with each other in a film that, not coincidentally, barely has a single person of color on screen during its entire run time.
Damien represents the young, the poor, and the non-white—all those in the outer darkness staring in at Robert’s immaculate top hat and Kathy’s blond coiffure. When Robert realizes the uncouth hordes have breached the gates, and the stray dog is actually in the living room, his eyebrows flex, his jaw clenches, and he turns to rabid homicidal conspiracy theories and Christian apocalypticism. Driven by the paranoid ramblings of priests and millenarian, vaguely anti-Semitic prophecy, he drags his four-year-old to the altar and prepares a ritual sacrifice. Faced with a challenge to its purity, power, and lines of succession, the humane, rational representative of cosmopolitan American power reaches immediately for the prop of religious zealotry, bending his upright angles to the bloody work of reaction and child murder.
Robert’s bid to murder his son for the greater glory of God and country is foiled by the authorities, who shoot him dead, little knowing they are contributing to their own doom. The last, now famous shot of The Omen is of Damien holding the hand of his new adoptive father, the U.S. president; the child turns towards the screen with an unsettling grin. The revolution has come, and all will change utterly. The American way of nice homes, genetic purity, and obedient servants will fall like the blade of a guillotine, or the pane of glass that Damien arranges to have slice through the neck of a meddlesome reporter. Change is apocalypse, and the defenders of the status quo must do all they can to resist it, even unto murdering their own children.
Damien’s smile, though, was perhaps premature. The forces of reaction and Christian nationalism are not so easily overthrown. In retrospect, The Omen warned not of the devil’s child, but of those who hunted him—all those blank-eyed patriarchs and their long knives.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.