A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is a classic horror feature, with a child complicit in his (adoptive) mother's own death and evil triumphant in the end (with the qualifier that it was conceived as just the first in a series of films, so it's just the opening installment, not the whole story). It casts a small boy in an especially negative light as the literal antichrist, for whom the only fair treatment, according to this, is a ritual execution by knife. The gory deaths and injuries, including decapitation and impalements, were considered shockingly explicit in their day.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
In Europe, U.S. ambassador to Britain Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) spares his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) from the tragic news that she's lost her first-born son in childbirth by substituting an orphaned baby. The boy is brought up in their wealthy English household as Damien (Harvey Stevens), a quiet kid around whom weird and scary things seem to happen. A priest warns Thorn that Damien is Satan's spawn. As the creepy incidents pile up, Ambassador Thorn, with the help of a reporter and few other allies, starts investigating Damien's shadowy origins, and begins to uncover that he's been conned by an underground conspiracy of devil-worshippers into adopting the legendary antichrist. This incarnation of all evil will usher in the End of the World.
Is it any good?
This 1976 shocker is sturdily built but predictable, with its extravagant death scenes tending to stand out more so than the lugubrious narrative. The plot sounds pretty compelling indeed, but in cinematic terms it mostly translates as a string of spectacular deaths (usually in horrendous accidents that are not exactly Acts of God) for anyone who poses a threat to Damien -- with lots of "dead" space in between, as Thorn struggles to confirm/deny the omen-ous truth. Characterizations don't go very deep, but horror fans will appreciate the new ground this film broke.
As far as themes, there's the sense of a modern, secular world in which the bulwarks of traditional Christianity are absent or weak. This means even decent people like the Thorns are powerless when an unseen but very hands-on devil and his minions take the offense.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why this movie was popular. Do you think it's a "religious" film in any sense? How does it compare with the Left Behind book-and-movie-and-radio blockbuster series? You can look up the Bible passages and interpretations this movie cites to see how Hollywood played fast-and-loose with Scripture, and maybe study what historians have to say about Satanic lore and its popularization by both church authorities and horror-storytellers.
- In theaters: June 25, 1976
- On DVD or streaming: June 20, 2006
- Cast: Billie Whitelaw, David Warner, Gregory Peck, Harvey Stevens, Lee Remick
- Director: Richard Donner
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
- Genre: Horror
- Run time: 111 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: restricted
- Last updated: October 03, 2019
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