For many, The Omen represents the final film in Hollywood’s unofficial ‘Devil Trilogy’, a look at the rising cultural interest in Satanism that began with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and blossomed with the genre classic The Exorcist (1973). Yet as part of the commentary track included on the new Collector’s Edition DVD version of the 1976 blockbuster, the plot does not necessarily revolve around the birth of the Antichrist. According to director Richard Donner, his initial approach to the film was that of a father’s worse nightmare, an unsettling story of a prominent man of political importance who committed an act five years before that haunts him daily. All the ritualistic killings and portents of evil? Just coincidences that feed his already growing parental paranoia.
It was this interpretation of the material that got Oscar winning heavyweight Gregory Peck to sign on. He wouldn’t even consider the role of Ambassador Robert Thorn unless the character was something more than a mere cog in a supernatural scarefest. It was also this reading that lead Donner to the project in the first place. A seasoned TV veteran, he was still a major motion picture novice, having directed just three previous big screen efforts (1961’s X-15, 1968’s Salt and Pepper, and 1969’s Twinky) prior to discovering David Seltzer’s screenplay. Yet with Donner and Peck agreeing that the story worked better as a psychological, rather than a paranormal thriller, The Omen began to take its current shape.
The basic plot, with a great deal of the original script’s Satanic smoke and mirrors scaled back to keep things realistic, had Ambassador Thorn accepting a newborn child for the baby his wife had just lost. Knowing his beloved Kathy (Lee Remick) would be devastated over the death of their first child, Thorn passes the infant off as his own, and soon young Damien (Harvey Stephens) is being raised inside the world of international politics. When an incident during his fifth birthday party focuses attention on the boy, Thorn finds himself visited by a fire and brimstone priest (Patrick Troughton) and a sincere tabloid photographer (David Warner). Both men tell him the same thing — Thorn is raising the Antichrist, the Devil’s son, and the youngster will not stop until he has killed all in his path, and brought about the return of the Fallen Angel to prominence on Earth.
It’s easy to see what concerned both Peck and Donner. While there is a great deal of theology heft to the basics of The Omen, there is also a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, not to mention a healthy dose of Hollywood hokum. Had the end product been a collection of set-piece deaths draped in cheap supernatural effects, the movie would have been a laughable lark. But by following in the same, serious steps as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen ruled out ridicule. Instead, realism guaranteed this controversial film (it was rejected by every major studio during development) a place in the pantheon of classic movie macabre.
All shivers aside, many people miss the pragmatic aspects within the Devil Trilogy. Rosemary’s problems have as much to do with the craven cult using her as a vessel for an unholy nativity as they do with her loss of individual identity. As one of the few films to use the evil allegory in conjunction with childbirth, it still has a divisive underpinning to its plot. The same can be said about The Exorcist. Made during the massive divide between peace loving young people and the war mongering Establishment, William Friedkin’s interpretation of William Peter Blatty’s fact-based fiction was actually a significant exploration of the parent/child generation gap. Remember when your mother or father referred to you or your siblings as “little monsters”? Friedkin ran with that notion, mixing puberty and profanity into the saga to underscore one single mother’s ultimate nightmare.
The Omen adds another layer to this baffling biological state. It argues for a baby’s ability to divide a home, creating a sense of instant alienation from one’s own life. In Kathy Thorn, we have post-partum depression taken to Apocalyptic levels. As delivered in Remick’s rich, detailed performance, we can literally watch a mother disowning “her” offspring. For Robert, the situation is much more complex. He believed the child would “cure” Kathy of her need to nurture, yet he never understood the depth of that sentiment. He thought any babe would do. Turns out, a woman’s instincts work overtime when it comes to genetic connections.
It’s such strong psychosocial elements that keep The Omen from drowning in its own ‘666’ silliness. Donner admits to finding much of the pious material “nutty” (he also consistently refers to The Bible as “that novel”) and knew he could not make horns and pitchforks work. It’s a sentiment shared in the commentary by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (a friend of the director since they worked together on the Mel Gibson feature Conspiracy Theory) as well by that measured master of horror, Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street). As part of a bonus feature in the DVD package, Craven salutes the decision to drop the magic show and to stick with authenticity. In his opinion, the idea that a child could cause chaos within the highest social and political circles is far more interesting than the Man-goat running around avenging his son.
It obviously threw the viewing public for a Book of Revelations based loop. The Omen was a huge hit when it first was released, and along with popularity came publicity. According to Donner, a lot of ordinary coincidences (accidents both on and off set, bad luck that hit both cast and crew) was construed as some manner of “curse”, and while he admits it gave the picture a life beyond its initial box office take, he finds the film no more blighted than any other one he’s worked on (and he’s helmed some of the biggest, including the original 1978 Superman and the Lethal Weapon series). Of course, no Collector’s Edition DVD would be complete without a featurette arguing over the incidents dismissed by Donner. While they make for nice urban legends, they are really nothing more than that.
Besides, The Omen doesn’t need outside signs of malevolence to be a macabre masterwork. As the recent repugnant remake from 2006 proved, a good idea is nothing without expert execution and a cast who can deliver it. By keeping things subtle and serious, as well as allowing Damien to be a little boy, not a telegraphed entity of evil, this director found the right tone for his terribly effective film. Even some 30 years since it first scared moviegoers, the burgeoning levels of dread, along with Remick, Warner and Peck’s performances remind us that real terror builds from the outside in, not in CGI-candy or cheap false shocks.
Sadly, with the advent of the slasher film, serious motion picture scares became less and less viable. Made on the cheap and usually without a semblance of artistic merit (the film that jumpstarted the genre, John Carpenter’s Halloween aside), slice and dice became the fright flick of choice for a growing teen demographic. Said audience really didn’t care about story, they just wanted to cut to the blood-drenched chase. In fact, the people behind The Omen lamented this change when Damien, aged for the inevitable sequel, became nothing more than a glorified serial killer. Instead of the serious psychological underpinnings of the original, outrageous killings overloaded the narrative.
It was a crass, commercial move for a film that started out as a basic battle between good and evil and ended up being a father’s guilt-ridden journey into Hell. All references to prophecy and the Antichrist aside, The Omen achieves its horrors the old fashioned way. Instead of motion picture pomp and circumstance, it relies on the reality of the situation to drive its suspense. It’s a lesson current fright filmmakers could learn — and thanks to this delightful DVD presentation, we forever have that rascally Richard Donner to school them in the proper ways to formulate their fear factors.
The Omen: Collector’s Edition - Theatrical Trailer