THE OMEN (1976)
Most art forms have a few band-wagons rolling through their midst at any one time and cinema is no different. Following the 1973 release of the The Exorcist and the ensuing public hysteria, the devil’s bandwagon had picked up a lot of momentum. There was money to be made from this renewed fear of all things satanic and film studios were eager to cash in the meal ticket. A number of films treading in Exorcist themed footsteps followed (Abby (1974), Beyond the Door (1975), To The Devil A Daughter (1976), Alice Sweet Alice (1976), The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1976), Possession (1981), Exorcism (1982)) but none reached the critical or financial heights that William Friedkin’s film scaled. That was until director Richard Donner was blessed with a neglected horror script entitled ‘The Antichrist’ by screenwriter David Seltzer. That script became The Omen (1976), an example of the power of suggestion over the eras growing visual excess.
Seltzer’s story and Donner’s film is constructed from two strands that complement each other superbly, feeding each other to create a dual plot that rewards numerous rewatches. We have the story of Damien Thorn, who may or may not be the son of the Devil, and we have the understated tale of love and loss between Ambassador Robert Thorn and his wife Katherine. The Omen intertwines these plot threads incredibly well, the former poisoning the story while the latter struggles to an exhaustive and tragic ending. The real trick is that Damien’s apparent manifestation as the devil’s offspring, and supposed destruction of his parent’s lives, may well be a figment of Robert Thorn’s imagination. A story of the Antichrist’s child or one man’s descent into madness?
The Omen’s wastes little time with its opening premise and what could have been a drawn out set-up is dealt with swiftly by Donner. Damien’s birth scene is the opening gambit and sets the tone with its unsettling and intricately framed shots. Our first glimpse of Robert Thorn and he already has a bead of nervous sweat inching down his forehead as he agrees to adopt an orphaned new-born to replace his own child who died during childbirth. Followed by a quick introduction to Katherine Thorn, Damien the toddler and Robert in newly minted cabinet minister form, the premise has been laid out with Donner leaving himself maximum running time to dismantle the family idyll via Seltzer’s unsettling screenplay. The script in question had been passed up by every Hollywood studio before 20th Century Fox gave it a second look. Changing the name of the film from ‘The Antichrist’ to ‘The Birthmark’ and finally ‘The Omen’, then head of the Fox Alan Ladd Junior was fore-sighted enough to see a potentially brilliant thriller film.
Wasting no time, Donner follows his brief prologue with the commencement of the tug of war between Damien and Katherine, with Ambassador Thorn caught squarely in the middle. A stroll through the woods and a tender moment between Robert and Katherine is interrupted by the mischievous disappearance of Damien. Unnerving in its subtleties, it sets a blueprint for all subsequent moments of affection between the three family members; whenever Robert and Katherine try for closeness its interrupted by the interloper child posing as their first born.
The inevitable downward turn begins, with each deconstructive event oddly linked to Thorn Junior. Damien’s grand birthday party is ruined by the family nanny cheerfully flinging herself from the roof, ‘It’s all for you’, a shattering moment expertly presented by Donner with well placed close ups and zoom shots. Attempts to carry on life as normal are thwarted by a mysterious rottweiler, a tense trip to church, and traumatic visit to the zoo. The latter scene saw Donner and film crew capture a startling monkey attack. To goad the monkeys into attacking Katherine’s car Donner asked that the animals not be fed for a day. Then during the following days shooting, they placed some tasty looking bananas on the roof of the vehicle. Unfortunately, this supposed feeding frenzy resembled a group of chimps happily munching on fruit. Undeterred, the second filming unit had a spark of inspiration when they heard that that the dominant baboon in the group was to be taken for medical attention that day. The heavily sedated animal was placed in the car with Harvey Stephens (Damien) and Lee Remick (Katherine). When the rest of the monkey tribe saw the animal being taken away they went berserk and attacked in startling fashion. Much of the fear on Remick’s face was real, compounded by the fact that the head baboon soon awoke in the back of the car and started grabbing lumps of her hair. The resulting footage was too good not to use.
These unsettling but potentially coincidental events draw the audience to a troubling conclusion, that Katherine does not love her son. As Damien rattles balls around the family snooker table, Katherine screams for the boy to be removed from her sight. Its another jab at the audiences sensibilities; clearly we’re meant to side with Katherine, going by what Donner has shown the audience, but is it that clear cut for the Thorns? Damien is still just a five year old boy to them and for all Katherine knows this is her child.
Damien further reveals his hand, with the aid of the Thorn’s dubious new nanny Mrs Baylock, by ‘accidentally’ knocking Katherine off the first floor balcony. Donner cleverly captured Remick falling to the ground ten foot below her, no stunt double required, by crafting a fake floor, placing it on its side and moving Remick towards it. From this point the story becomes more focused still, as Katherine, a third of our original equation, has been removed. Robert’s growing abhorrence of his boy is compounded, his own doubts as to the true nature of his son dissolving, along with our own. He needs to seek out the truth about his son.
Robert’s sidekick in his investigations is the photographer Jennings (David Warner), and the photos he has captured which foretell The Omen’s nerve wracking death sequences. The slow build to these inevitable killings is torturous, culminating in the spectacular beheading of Jennings himself. It was these extravagant death scenes that helped to pull in punters at the time, these everyday accidents drawn out to near balletic moments of violence (something the Final Destination films later utilised to create a whole franchise). Spreading via word-of-mouth as must-see cinematic moments, The Omen sprinted to a $60million box office off of a $3million budget. After Jennings stunning bonce lopping its down to Robert versus Damien, with no one else left to believe in Robert’s assertions that his son is the devil incarnate. Following the seventies tradition for pessimistic conclusions, things do not end well.
The original climax for the film was slightly more upbeat. It was intended, and indeed filmed by Donner, for Damien to be killed by his father at the church altar just as the police arrive to shoot Robert. The final funeral scene was to include three coffins at the state funeral, one for Robert, one for Katherine, and a small one for Damien. However, Alan Ladd Junior stepped in with an inspired idea and suggested keeping Damien alive. Donner agreed and conducted a hasty re-shoot of the scene, minus one coffin. The resulting conclusion is the scary highlight of the movie. Damien now has sway with the most powerful man on the planet, presiding over his parent’s funeral whilst holding the hand of the President of the United States. Director Donner wanted actor Harvey Stephens to keep a straight face for the last lingering look at Damien; Donner implored him ‘Don’t you dare laugh’. Stephens did the opposite and slowly cracked a wide smile. This impish grin is the final slice of evidence we craved that proved Robert was right; Damien is the Devil’s child and he has won.
The cast that Donner assembled was unusually talented for a horror film. The aforementioned Harvey Stephens was a real find as the young Damien, and managed a startling wordless performance despite having no previous acting experience. His work as the supposed son of the Devil is wonderful, and walks a line of characteristic ambiguity that many adult actors would have struggled to achieve. The role of Robert Thorn required an actor of talent to ensure that the film stayed on course. Charlton Heston, Roy Scheider and Willian Holden all turned down the role before Gregory Peck stepped forward to accept the part (Holden later accepted the role of Richard Thorn, Robert’s brother, in Damien: Omen II (1978)). Peck took a substantial reduction in his usual salary to take the role and was guaranteed ten per cent of the movies’ box office gross. A great move on Peck’s part, The Omen became the highest paid performance of his career. It has subsequently been suggested that Peck took the role to help deal with the recent death of his son who had taken his own life a year before. Whatever the motivation, Peck lends the film much gravitas.
Donner strengthened his picture further by filling the supporting roles with some excellent talent. Billie Whitelaw does wonders with the role of the evil nanny Mrs Blaylock. Like a sinister Mary Poppins she swoops into the Thorn’s lives, undermining them with a false smile whilst providing protection to the little devil Damien. The great character actor David Warner is equally prominent as Jennings, and we truly care for him by the time he receives a severe head-trimming courtesy of a loose handbrake. To complete the cast, former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton hams it up wonderfully as the doomed Father Brennan, delivering chunks of exposition with a crazed grimace.
Away from the camera, Donner managed to convince Alan Ladd Junior to stump up an additional $250,000.00 to entice composer Jerry Goldsmith to write the score for The Omen. To emphasize the battle between the Thorn’s relationship and Damien’s growing power, Goldsmith wrote two distinct themes for the picture, a lilting love theme for Robert and Katherine and a bombastic theme for Damien packed with Gregorian chants and crashing instrumentation. As the film moves closer to its tragic climax, so Damien’s theme becomes the primary aural accompaniment. So effective was Goldsmith’s score, it finally won him a long over due Academy Award.
Taking cues from The Exorcist Donner and the studio realised the importance of public euphoria surrounding their film. As such they sought to embellish every story of dubious outcome regarding the film. After the film was completed, both the planes carrying Peck and screenwriter Seltzer were struck by lightening, and the aircraft carrying the completed cut of the film back to the United States was forced to make an emergency landing due to mechanical problems. The rottweilers utilised during filming attacked their trainers on more than one occasion, a problem the trainers said they had never witnessed before. During filming Peck chartered a plane to Israel, but cancelled his seat at the last minute. The flight crashed on take off at the end of the runway. Everyone on board was killed, along with the occupants of a car that the plane struck on its crash landing. More worrying still, the passengers in the car were the pilot’s wife and children.
The tales of Omen woe continued. Having spent the day shooting a scene with the lions at Windsor Safari Park, one of the park attendants who looked after the lion enclosure was attacked and killed by them the following day. Most tragic of all was the accident involving effects artist John Richardson who had created the Jennings beheading shot. After filming had completed Richardson crashed his car whilst driving through Belgium. His partner at the time was in the passenger seat and was killed; she was beheaded in the accident. Richardson, allegedly rolled out of the wrecked car, looked up and saw the sign ‘Liege 66.6 km’. How much truth there was to some of the troubles surrounding the picture remains questionable, but audiences at the time packed theatres and The Omen was a smash hit.
The films commercial success ensured sequels. Damien: The Omen II (1978) saw a twelve year old Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) taken in by Richard Thorn (William Holden) Robert’s brother. Sent to a military academy with his cousin Mark (Lucas Donat), Damien slowly becomes aware of his true nature and is at first horrified. He eventually accepts his calling but fails to persuade Mark to join his cause. Escaping an attempt on his life via the Seven Daggers of Megiddo, the only weapon that can hill him, Damien destroys the remaining members of the Thorn family. While the inventive death scenes returned, including death via elevator cable and a particularly nasty raven with a penchant for pecking out eyeballs, the scenes away from the violence had slipped in to soap opera territory, melodrama replacing the genuine tension of the first film.
Part three, Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981), saw Sam Neill filling Damien’s now adult shoes. The CEO of international company, Damien is now focused on preventing the Second Coming of Christ. Starting by killing every English child born on 24th March 1982, the plot only grows more ridiculous until a defeated Damien sees a vision of a victorious Christ as he dies with a Megiddo dagger in his back. Seeking to resurrect the franchise, Fox tried for a fourth movie in the early nineties. Production was troubled though, and the film was eventually released as the made-for-TV movie Omen IV: The Awakening (1991). A poor imitation of the original movie, it saw another US political couple struggling to conceive adopt a strange orphan from a Nun. In typical Omen fashion it all goes horribly wrong.
An Omen novel series was released in conjunction with the films, from writers David Seltzer, Joseph Howard, and Gordon McGill. The first three books followed the films as released, but Omen IV: Armageddon 2000, released in 1983, took a different path to the eventual TV movie. Picking up Damien’s story, the novel follows the character Kate Reynolds, Damien’s girlfriend from the third film. Following the scene in the film where Sam Niell’s Damien sodomizes Kate, she later gives ‘rectal’ birth to a creature called ‘the Abomination’. The book theorised that death via a single Megiddo dagger only killed the Antichrist’s body, while his soul would live on. A fifth book was released in 1985, Omen V: The Abomination and cleverly ended with a fictional writer about to tell the life story of Damien; the story then ends with the opening lines of Seltzer’s original Omen novel.
Despite its poor quality the failed part four movie was not the end of the Omen saga. The 6th June 2006 proved too good a marketing gimmick to ignore and a remake of the original entitled The Omen 666 (2006) was released. Early trailers looked promising, with an impressive cast of Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Mia Farrow, Michael Gambon, David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite filling all the key roles. But what was terrifying in the original for its apparent everyday nature was now replaced by horror movie clichés, including misty graveyards, CGI feral animals, and a soundtrack that signposted every scare. Worst still the script felt the need to explain every plot twist and development in bland detail, assuming turn of the millennium audiences didn’t have the brain power to work out the story for themselves. As is so often the case, the original remains the best and only Omen film the horror fan needs.
See also Damien: The Omen II (1978), The Final Conflict (1981), and Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), The Omen 666 (2006)