People love to be scared. Whether it’s riding a plummeting roller coaster or watching a horror flick, the business of raising the adrenaline continues to be a serious money-maker. While my stomach cannot handle the flip-flops of amusement parks as in my youth, I have always enjoyed the fright of watching a truly suspenseful thriller. As a kid, I went through a phase of being obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock and old vampire movies. What a goofy morbid tween I must have been. But when “My Love of Old Hollywood” and “Wide Screen World” announced the TERRORTHON! Blogathon with the premise of the earliest movie memory that truly frightened you, I knew my choice immediately… Richard Donner’s THE OMEN (1976).
In the small southwestern town of Taos, NM where I spent many years in my youth, the projectionist of the only movie theater in town was a close family friend. So when my Mom was busy working, my little sister and I would sometimes convince our friend to sneak us in for a free show. THE OMEN was released June 25th, 1976. I was nine years old. My little sister was six. And there we found ourselves; just the two of us sitting in the cool air-conditioned dark theater on a warm afternoon in the bicentennial summer with our hands tightly gripping our faces as we peered through the tiny spaces between our fingers.
THE OMEN is a horror film about the rise of the Anti-Christ. Unlike so many films that have attempted to take on this subject matter, THE OMEN stood apart in its innovative approach to building up the story with a ‘sense of authenticity on the absurd’. There was an intentional effort by director Richard Donner in partnering with screenwriter David Seltzer to create a sense of realism about Satan and the Bible by avoiding stereotypical supernatural images. Instead, the plot develops gradually in everyday moments that make both the main characters and the audience initially doubt if tragedies and oddities were simply accidental, coincidental or truly sinister.
Our haunting story starts with an American diplomat to Great Britain, Robert Thorn (portrayed by Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (portrayed by Lee Remick), stationed in Italy. Katherine gives birth to a stillborn and soon after her husband is approached by a priest offering a healthy newborn whose mother just died. Without his wife’s knowledge of this substitution, Mr. Thorn agrees to this secret exchange; replacing his dead son with this new baby and they return to Britain. Years go by for this prosperous family who seemingly have the perfect life. Then life presents strange turn of events. At their son Damien’s (portrayed by Harvey Stephens) 5th birthday party, his nanny inexplicably announces from a high point of their grand house “Look at me, Damien. It’s all for you!” and promptly hangs herself in front of the entire horrified party with an emotionless response from Damien.
The strange events soon intensify when a new nanny (portrayed by Billie Whitelaw) unexpectedly shows up and later surprises the family with a very protective pet Rottweiler. A local priest, Father Brennan, (portrayed by Patrick Troughton) appears at Robert Thorn’s office with mysterious warnings of his son’s origins. As he attempts to alert Thorn that Damien is not only evil but isn’t even human, he is thrown out by security. But the priest is persistent and makes contact again. Meanwhile, Katherine Thorn discovers to her disappointment and to Robert’s delight that she’s pregnant. She wants to terminate the pregnancy and expresses her growing discomfort around Damien. Damien swiftly delivers her wish in an eery scene when he rides his tricycle straight into the chair she’s standing on, sending her over a railing. Barely hanging on to the edge, she looks to Damien pleading for help as he stares coldly and void of any concern. She loses grip and drops to the floor below, causing a miscarriage.
But the creepiness really ramps up when photographer Keith Jennings (portrayed by David Warner) notices strange yet consistent marks in his photos of Father Brennan, along with the former nanny. The strange marks turn out to be an ‘omen’ to the nanny’s hanging and Father Brennan’s bizarre ‘spearing’ death, the result of a freak lightening storm just as Father Brennan rushes to seek shelter of a church. After discovering marks in his own photographs, Jennings fears his own demise and joins Thorn’s quest for answers across Italy and Israel. After a long string of horrifying discoveries and daunting obstacles, it is only after the forewarned deaths of Father Brennan, Jennings and his wife Katherine, does Thorn finally accept the belief that his son is indeed the Anti-Christ.
While Thorn is further convinced of Damien’s true identity upon witnessing the birthmark of the devil -three sixes- hidden by the course black hair on his scalp (young Stephens was naturally blond yet his hair was dyed black to give a more menacing look), he ultimately still struggles with conflicting task of killing the child he raised as his own son. Just as he raises the dagger to murder Damien, the boy cries out for his “daddy” to stop, the police have arrived by now and shoot Thorn dead. In the end, due to Thorn’s high political ranking and personal friendship with the President of the United States, we see Damien attending his father’s funeral in the personal care of the President. The Anti-Christ has successfully attained the next level of ultimate power and smiles knowingly into the camera.
As someone who was raised Catholic, I can assure you this film completely freaked me out. There’s something very powerful about religion’s suspense of belief. That is what is at the very core of this film. But it also preys upon the very notion of basic psychology, too. In this film, you find yourself along for the journey in Thorn’s shoes and despite all the bizarre occurrences surrounding him, we understand how it would seem at first like coincidental tragedies. After all, there are no overt symbols of supernatural like a man in a red satin suit with horns and a pitchfork. Yet when he becomes gradually convinced of the unthinkable concept of his own child being the actual devil himself, he dares not fully believe it nor admit it openly for that would undoubtedly mean that this intelligent man of reason has slipped into madness.
What I found to be additionally fascinating about this film is the legend that the film itself is considered to be cursed. For all the bizarre tragedies in this film, it’s been told that there was another parallel string of freakish accidents behind the scenes. On the very first day of the shoot, many key members of the crew survived a car crash. The Rottweilers attacked their own trainers. While both screenwriter David Seltzer and lead Gregory Peck flew to the U.K., each of their planes were struck by lightning. While in Rome, producer Harvey Bernard barely escaped being struck by lightning himself. Directer Richard Donner’s hotel was bombed by the IRA during his stay. And at one point Gregory Peck canceled a flight to Israel to later discover that chartered flight crashed, leaving no survivors.
Despite these accidents behind the scenes, this film went on to become very popular and lucrative at the box office; making it the highest-paid role of Peck’s film career. He wisely took the gamble of an extremely low salary- a mere $250,000, in order to be guaranteed 10% of the box office… which added up to over $60 million just here in the states plus international release. His gamble paid off nicely. Donner insisted working with high caliber talents of then-retired cinemaphotographer Gilbert Taylor and composer Jerry Goldsmith (he convinced head of 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr. to pony up $25,000 to hire Goldsmith.) Goldsmith went on win the Academy Award for Music Score, including the haunting theme song “Ave Satani” which significantly elevates the film’s fear-factor. THE OMEN was his only Oscar win, although he was nominated 17 times over the span of his impressive career.
Do I truly believe in the existence of an Anti-Christ and that this film was actually cursed? No. But it’s those little seeds of doubt, that suspension of belief that piques the curiousity and raises the adrenaline if only while sitting in the dark, with your hands tensely gripping your face. After watching THE OMEN that first time and as little girl who was born in 1966 (although NOT in June, nor on the 6th day, or even at the 6am/pm hour), I went home and carefully examined my scalp through my raven locks, looking for any triple-six birthmarks. You know… just in case.