The Omen (1976) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 6

by Jovial Jay

For everything holy, there is something unholy.

The sixth film this month is yet another H-Origin film, which showcases the horror origins of the end times. The Omen takes its cues from the Book of Revelation, mixing fantasy and supposed fact into a new union of the demonic occult thriller.

Before Viewing

The trailer sets up some interesting questions about the film, showcasing the 5 year old boy and the people that would die for him or kill for him. What is he, the narrator asks but never answers. The potential deaths of a number of individuals seem to surround this boy, including his mother. Certainly word of mouth got out that this film was about a hellspawn, but even if it didn’t, the trailer makes for some pretty interesting speculation. Time to unpack The Omen!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Omen (1976)

The Omen (1976) title card.

After Viewing

A baby is born to Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) in Rome on June 6, at 6am but dies just after birth. One of the priests at the hospital, Father Spilleto (Martin Benson), suggests to Robert that he adopt another baby born at the same time whose mother passed in childbirth, and Kathy would never need to know. Five years later Robert is appointed as the US Ambassador to Great Britain and his small family, with young Damien (Harvey Stephens), moves to a country estate outside London. Once there strange things begin to happen such as a large black menacing Rottweiler dog appearing and the Nanny (Holly Palance) hanging herself publicly at Damian’s birthday party.

Photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Warner) who was attending the party taking photos, tries to follow up with Robert the next day, but the Ambassador bumps into him knocking his camera to the ground. Robert is then visited by Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) who attempts to warn Robert about his son, knowing that Kathy is not the mother. He is escorted out of the office. At their house, a new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), shows up–each thinking the other had hired her.

Weird things continue to happen around Damien. He freaks out when the family visits a church for a wedding. At the Windsor Zoo Park baboons become agitated and attack the car with Damien and his mother in it. The rottweiler dog continues to hang around the house and is adopted as a protector by Mrs. Baylock. Robert agrees to meet Father Brennan at a park. The priest confesses that he knows about Damien’s lineage and that he is the son of the devil, and urges the Ambassador to seek out the truth in the city of Megiddo. Robert doesn’t believe him, thinking this to be a shakedown of some kind. A freak storm arises and Brennan is killed when a lightning rod falls off a church and impales him.

The Omen (1976)

Mrs Baylock explains to the Thorns that she is here to take exceptional care of little Damien.

After an accident where Kathy falls over a second floor railing injuring herself and having a miscarriage, Robert realizes that things Brennan told him are coming true, such as Damien terminating any pregnancy of a potential sibling. Keith calls to talk with Robert about photos he has taken which have strange lines on them, that line up with how the character ended up meeting their death. Investigating Brennan’s apartment leads them back to Rome where they investigate the hospital Damien was born at. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the records. Each step in the investigation gets harder and harder.

Robert and Keith finally find a cemetery that not only has the bones of Damien’s mother (a jackal!) but the skeleton of an infant with a bashed-in skull, the Thorn’s original son who was killed by the priests at the hospital. While Robert discovers this, Kathy is pushed out of a hospital window by Mrs. Baylock. Robert finds a man named Bugenhagen (Leo McKern) in the ruins of Megiddo (derived from the word Armageddon) who provides seven magical daggers that can kill the antichrist who will be known by a birthmark of 666 somewhere on his body.

Keith is decapitated by another freak accident and Robert returns home to kill his son. He discovers the birthmark under Damien’s hair and is attacked by Mrs. Baylock before he can spirit Damien away. Killing the crazy nanny, Robert takes the boy to a local church in an attempt to complete the ritual. But before he can stab Damien the police arrive, alerted by his erratic driving, and shoot him dead. Later at a double-funeral for both Robert and Kathy, Damien is seen in the protection of the President of the United States, presumably ready to carry out the prophecy from the Book of Revelations.

She thinks that the child is evil?” – Robert Thorn

The Omen (1976)

Keith and Robert investigate the apartment of Father Brennan, which contains a myriad of Catholic iconography.

Richard Donner’s The Omen gets a H-Origin tag this week as it expands on past fictional depictions of evil children and sets a precedent for films about the birth of Antichrist going forward. Based on an original script by David Seltzer, The Omen, takes the idea of a child born of Satan from Rosemary’s Baby (reviewed a few nights ago) and injects the religious iconography and supernatural elements found in The Exorcist to create a new and scarier horror film. But The Omen’s horror works in a different way than these other two films. Instead of being a slow-cooker about a woman robbed of her free will or a young girl overtly possessed by a demon, this film generates a number of coincidences which could be interpreted in one of two ways. Either Damien is actually the son of Satan and is causing these accidents to happen, or the deaths of the characters are all unrelated happenstance. The film definitely wants audiences leaning towards the former, but Donner’s presentation of the moments could be interpreted the other way as well.

This was a definite change in the manner in which the horror is presented to audiences. Horror films have often gone for the downer ending, where things don’t work out for the protagonist. But The Omen adds ambiguity into the mix as well. Every accident or moment is one that could be completely interpreted as an accident, or at least unrelated to the young boy being the Antichrist. The Nanny hangs herself while shouting that it’s all for Damien could be that there’s a crazy woman that is overseeing the child. The deaths of Father Brennan, Kathy and Keith are all unfortunate accidents that are strangely centered around Richard Thorn and his family. And of course Richard then believes some of these outrageous conspiracy theories he’s hearing and attempts to murder his son. It’s no wonder the police shoot him dead. No other modern horror film made the elements so flexible as to allow an audience member to actually question the things they were seeing on screen. For most horror films it was about creating a believable situation in which to play with that fear, like The Exorcist did.

Donner also created some truly incredible moments that really stick with audiences. The deaths in this film are not as graphic as sequences in The Exorcist, but manage to create strong emotional reactions from the audience which enhance their impact. Cinematically, probably the coolest shot is Kathy falling off the balcony to the floor below. Donner borrows a page from Hitchcock’s Psycho where in that film Inspector Arbogast falls down a flight of stairs in a shot that seems impossible to achieve. Hitchcock used a process shot of actor Martin Balsam standing in front of a screen pantomiming falling as footage of the fall played behind him. For The Omen, Donner did something similar but even more effective. He stood actress Lee Remick vertical with a wall behind her decorated like a floor. He then dollied the camera, and the actress, toward the wall making it appear as if the character was being filmed from the top down as she lands on the floor. This shot along with the prolonged decapitation of Keith serve as memorable scenes, with little to no blood, that stay in the audience’s memories.

The Omen (1976)

Sent to the town of Megiddo, Robert is given a set of 7 daggers which will kill the Antichrist.

The Omen also has the unique position of creating fictional elements that people, in time, will believe are real quotes and prophecies from the Bible. The opening poem and prophecy from the film and some of the specific claims about the Antichrist have convinced people that these are actual quotes from the Bible about end times and the fall of humanity. Of course, a little research (or just reading the Bible) would have shown the error in their thinking. But sometimes people like to have the idea of a thing more than the reality. This also goes towards the press that film received. A number of strange coincidences and “bad luck” occurred to different members of the production, which the studio seized upon to help promote the film. Real or manufactured tragedy can go a long way in helping to promote a film of this kind and leads to much word of mouth conversations about a possible “curse” on the film.

The Omen would go on to spur a modest franchise which included two direct sequels and a spin off, Damien: Omen II (1978), Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981, and an early role for actor Sam Neill), and Omen IV: The Awakening (1991). The film was also remade in 2006 (6/6/06) with Mia Farrow (of Rosemary’s Baby) playing the role of Mrs. Baylock. The film led to the release of other films about demons, Antichrist’s and biblical revelation all of which became particularly popular in the 70s and early 80s, possibly due to the questions raised in Western Culture about the death of God. Time Magazine had a famous cover from April 1966 with the bold print “Is God Dead,” which is seen momentarily in the film Rosemary’s Baby. This concept seemingly inspired multiple screenwriters to create the idea that with God’s death must come the birth of some ancient evil. But at its core, The Omen is really more about the loss of a child and the things that parents experience in these situations, similar to the grief experienced in Don’t Look Now. The Omen is a terrifying film, because people have all seen or heard about children that seem a little bit evil, and the film plays on that conceit. Maybe there’s a little bit of Satan in all of them?

The Omen (1976)

Damien knows what’s up!

Assorted Musings

  • Aside from the other films that depicted the birth of the devil’s child, such as 1981s Fear No Evil, there have been several spoofs of the material as well. Most notably in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens novel and TV series (which is a mashup of Monty Python and The Omen) and the Netflix film Little Evil, directed by Eli Craig, director of Tucker and Dale vs Evil.
  • Prior to the wide release of this film, a test screening was set up on June 6, 1976. Story has it that employees of the theater setup signs for patrons when they exited that drove home the fact that they were watching a movie about the Antichrist on 6/6/76!
  • Richard Donner would follow this film up with another film about a famous child that visits Earth, Superman. He would also go on to take part in the Tales from the Crypt revival series on HBO, as well as direct the spooky 90s Christmas film Scrooged.

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