This Week in Horror Movie History – The Omen (1976)

This week in Horror movie history, The Omen was released on June 25, 1976 through Twentieth Century Fox. This pre-apocalyptic, supernatural Thriller was directed by Richard Donner (Superman 1978, Lethal Weapon 1987) and produced by Harvey Bernhard (The Beast Within 1982, The Lost Boys 1987), who later went on to collaborate on The Goonies nine years later. With a script penned by David Seltzer (Prophecy 1979, Lucas 1986), music composed by Jerry Goldsmith (Alien 1979, Poltergeist 1982) and special effects created by John Richardson (Harry Potter series, Aliens 1986), it is no wonder that The Omen still rises above the rest in the Horror genre. Gregory Peck (Moby Dick 1956, To Kill A Mockingbird 1962), Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder 1959, Days of Roses and Wine 1962) and Billie Whitelaw (The Dark Crystal 1982, Hot Fuzz 2007) star alongside Harvey Stephens, whose career began and ended with The Omen. The movie was filmed on location all over the UK in London, Surrey, Berkshire, Windsor, Middlesex and Hampstead, and even shot scenes as far away as Jerusalem, Italy, and Chicago, while some took place right in the Shepperton Studios in Surrey.

Still from The Omen

Like 1982’s Poltergeist, the set of The Omen was plagued by mishaps and coincidences. A curse was thought to be the culprit when three separate lighting related incidents befell the crew. Producer Harvey Bernhard and his team were nearly hit by a bolt of lightning that struck Hadrian’s Gate outside of Rome, and both screenwriter David Seltzer and star Gregory Peck were on separate planes that were struck by lightning on the way to the UK. On a different trip to Israel, Peck rescheduled one flight for another. His original plane crashed, killing all on board. The IRA bombed the hotel that director Richard Donner was saying at during filming. Even the roads were not safe, as Donner was then hit by a car. Bernhard had the door of his own car torn off by a passing motorist going the wrong way out of a side street. On the first day of filming, several members of the crew were in a head on collision, although they all survived. Special effects mastermind John Richardson was not so lucky. The Omen curse seemed to follow him onto his next movie, A Bridge Too Far (1977), when he himself was in a car accident that ended with the beheading of his own girlfriend. When he came to after the accident, the first thing Richardson saw was a sign that read “Ommen – 20 kilometers.”

The animals used in and around the film did not help such rumors. The Rottweilers that portrayed the Hellhounds turned around and attacked their own trainers on several occasions and badly hurt David Warner’s stunt double, Terry Walsh, even though the stunt man had been fully prepared for the shoot. Strangely enough, the sale of Rottweiler pups surged once The Omen was released, even though there were not portrayed in the best light. The attacking baboons from the Windsor Safari Park were so ferocious that actress Lee Remick did not need to act terrified – her reactions in the scene were real. The day after filming was completed there, a zookeeper was killed in the lion exhibit, further perpetuating the curse rumors.

Still from The Omen
Still from The Omen

The movie itself begins in Rome, the same place where, almost two thousand years ago, men were sent out to condemn and crucify Christ himself. A perfect storm of events has led powerful, wealthy American diplomat Richard Thorn (Peck) and his pregnant wife, Katherine (Remick), to the very place where the Antichrist has been born to wild jackal. To help Satan’s spawn infiltrate society, his minion Father Spiletto (Martin Benson) convinces Thorn that his own son was stillborn and to take on a different newborn conveniently orphaned that very same night. Never telling another soul that this baby was not his biological son, Thorn and his wife bring the boy home and name him Damien.

As Thorn gains even more power by becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, strange events begin to plague his family. Death, misery, and destruction seem to follow the Thorns – and especially young Damien (Stephens) – wherever they go. At the boy’s fifth birthday party, his nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself from the roof in front of hundreds of guests. This starts a chain reaction, beginning with the replacement nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Whitelaw), bringing Damien a huge Rottweiler for protection. Mrs. Baylock is one of Satan’s helpers and the dog is a Hellhound, and together they help young Damien come into his power. Meanwhile, Thorn realizes his adoptive son is not normal and lets himself believe the story of Damien’s mysterious origins and the power of the seven daggers of Megiddo, told to him by Father Brennen (Patrick Troughton) before his own death, and that he is the only one who can stop this evil from infiltrating the world.

When it comes down to it, Thorn cannot bring himself to murder a child, so he tosses the daggers. When Thorn’s confidante, the photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), tries to retrieve the knives, he is violently beheaded by a sliding sheet of glass. Once he is back in possession of the daggers, Thorn fights off his son’s protector Mrs. Baylock, but not before the unearthly nanny kills Katherine by pushing her out a window. As the Ambassador drags the boy to a church, his erratic driving catches the attention of the police. As he raises the knife to finally kill the boy, and cops bust in and shoot Thorn dead. The movie ends with Damien at his adoptive parents’ funeral, in the company of his new custodian, the President of the United States. Damien smiles into the camera – a sly, knowing smile that merely portends of the things to come.

The Omen was recognized by moviegoers and critics alike. Jerry Goldsmith won an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score, while the individual song, “Ave Satani,” was nominated for Best Music, Original Song. His musical composition was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture. Young Harvey Stephens was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture while Billie Whitelaw was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress. The film itself was nominated for Best Horror Film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror and David Seltzer’s script was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe award for Best Motion Picture. AFI ranked the film #81 on its 100 Years… 100 Thrills list, while Goldsmith’s score was nominated for their 100 Years of Film Scores list. Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments lists The Omen at #16.

Still from The Omen
Still from The Omen

For a movie made with a measly $2.8 million budget and that had no obviously supernatural elements, this is a huge feat for Donner, Seltzer, and Bernhard. For Horror fans, less is more, and the ideas that their collective imaginations came up with were scarier than anything they could have seen on screen. The idea that such a young, innocent looking face could hide pure evil was terrifying. Instinct leads us as humans to protect our young, even if they seem to be dangerous or even just a little off. Walking out into the bright sunshine after a viewing of The Omen, one can only look around at all of those fresh, sweet-faced children in the schoolyard or at the playground and wonder, “Which one?”

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

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