Classic Corner: The Omen

Less than a decade removed from “Rosemary’s Baby” declaring that God is dead, the landscape of the early to mid-70s was anything but reverent. The Troubles in Ireland beheld record-setting deaths due to bombings and assassinations, while in America, the Roe v. Wade decision from the Supreme Court paved the way for women to regain control of their own bodies and reproductive decisions, which indicated a backslide of morals for some. Speaking to reporter Bob Novak in 1972, Missouri Senator Thomas F. Eagleton summed up the progressive pendulum swing in an off-the-cuff but tempting anti-Democratic slogan: “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion for All.” 

While the Tate–LaBianca murders of 1969 are marked as the terminus of 1960s counterculture, the occult symbols that characterize the infamous slayings marked the early rumblings of Satanic Panic that would shift into high gear in the 1980s. Christian fundamentalism was on the rise during the “Me” Decade, introducing many Americans to big-screen interpretations of their own horror story: the Holy Bible’s Book of Revelation. 

Biblically, Satan, “The Beast,” and the Antichrist are separate, powerful, malleable figures, all working in various intensities to bring about man and God’s downfall; whether the Antichrist is an actual human figure in the Bible depends on who you ask. A far cry from the deepest inferno where Dante’s winged devil ruled, the devil of 20th century North America was an omnipresent, aggressively seductive force alleged to cause natural disasters, influence elections, thwart the political efforts of conservatives, and corrupt the youth. The unholy tendrils of evil stretch toward whomever the clergy deems a threat, from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to Dungeons & Dragons to America’s first Black president. Not even those occupying the most holy seats on Earth are spared from the demonization: an October 12, 1988 NYT headline reads, “Ulster Protestant Interrupts Pope, Yelling ‘Antichrist!’” There exist more American versions of Satan than Godzilla sequels, which makes him the perfect weapon to wield in the cyclical holy war for the nation’s soul.  

The American vocabulary for evil has long been a colorful one, from the woman-fearing Salem witch trials to the godless panic of McCarthyism and beyond. The concept of Antichrist – as a charismatic false prophet who subs in for Jesus to catastrophic effect — specifically fuses with pop culture in horror cinema, where the prophesies of Satan reigning over dark times find representation in an increasingly godless, and increasingly reactionary, ‘70s cinema. By the time Rosemary’s baby was a toddler, documentaries (real or manufactured) laid the groundwork for moviegoers to participate in pop satanism; Ray Laurent’s 1970 documentary Satanis: The Devil’s Mass chronicled the operations of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, while Mondo films like Witchcraft ’70 (a stateside version of Italy’s White Angels… Black Angels) and Robert Caramico’s Sex Rituals of the Occult (which is nowhere near as horny as the title implies) invited the public into the world of Satanism. 

Fiction followed suit, with The Dunwich Horror, Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Twins of Evil, and hardcore porn classic The Devil in Miss Jones signaling a society-level acceptance of all things devilish by the time William Friedkin served a feature-length rebuttal in the 1973 big-budget conservative classic The Exorcist. Therein, the battleground for America’s soul lay on that most terrifying of threats to grown men in power: a pubescent girl. Not long after, the boogeyman of The Omen (now streaming on Paramount+) represents something equally earth-shattering to the exhaustingly straight: the dissolution of the traditional family.

From whence did the evil come? Producer Bob Munger, a devout Christian who had read Hal Lindsey’s 1970 fire-and-brimstone Christian prophecy novel The Late, Great Planet Earth and “wanted to scare the hell out of people,” brought his ideas of a child Antichrist to TV producer and friend Harvey Bernhard, who tapped David Seltzer to write the script, originally under the title The Antichrist. Borrowing themes from The Late, Great Planet Earth and taking creative liberties with the Book of Revelation, Seltzer penned the draft in a year. The screenplay, which features a supernaturally orchestrated suicide, a clergyman’s death, and a beheading (among other gems), had trouble finding supporters at the studios until an agent named Ed Rosen called Richard Donner with the script for The Antichrist, and Donner sent it over to Fox studio head Alan Ladd Jr., who greenlit the project (it’s said that the box office returns from this gamble paid for the studio’s later golden goose Star Wars). 

The sermon begins immediately: over the bare-bones credits, Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith crafts a steady theme of urgent doom complete with apocryphal horns – something like the “Seven angels with seven trumpets” that Depeche Mode sings about. Goldsmith earned his first Academy Award for the composition k, and a Best Original Song nomination for the dark Mass inversion “Ave Satani,” (“Hail Satan”) which Donner credits to the Latin chanting of lyrics like “sanguis bibimus” to indicate dark forces receiving a gnarly version of the Eucharist. It would be the only horror movie to receive such an Oscar, and Jerry Goldsmith’s sole Academy win.

The story, like so many warnings from the pulpit, is a simple one. American diplomat Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) are stationed in Rome, where she delivers a baby boy on June 6th at 6am. Robert is informed of the infant’s death, but his wife is not. Instead, hospital chaplain Father Spiletto has a crass but practical offer for the grieving father: adopt another orphaned infant and no one will be the wiser. Robert takes the deal, and hands his wife a baby that’s not her own, and they call him Damien.

Despite the global implications of its plot, the story is an intimate origin tale of sorts. Donner works the concept thoroughly on a technical level, with reflection shots and focus pulls all unrolled over a wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It can first be glimpsed, to striking effect, in the low-key Faustian deal that Thorn makes for the sake of family. Peck’s reflection, pulling out to an immaculately blocked portrait of two men of faith hovering over a doting nurse holding infant Damien, resembling the Madonna and child, is one of the most ominously gorgeous compositions of the film entire. On the DVD commentary for the 2006 collector’s release of the film, editor Stuart Baird observes, “Nothing like getting sympathy for a couple of characters if you see them with a baby.” Donner further needles in wholesome imagery of the family before the distortions begin; Damien’s journey to schoolboy age flutters by in a series of candid family portraits, while a later scene in Thorn’s office makes use of a sneaky split diopter to keep both the harbinger priest Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) and a family photo in focus, relaying Thorn’s struggle to remain king of a stable, definitely-not-Satanic castle. “It’s a people picture,” Donner says in the commentary. 

At the heart of the film lies not Damien, but Gregory Peck’s performance as Ambassador Thorn. Peck plays it straight and gruff, as though he’s a victim of increasingly harrowing circumstances rather than the adoptive father of He Who Will Bring About the End. His brow furrows deeper with each passing red flag, which he brusquely dismisses until it’s undeniable that the prophesied child is more than a Bad News Bear. It’s a tradition of the genre to have a male head of the household who refuses to believe that all of the unexplainable phenomena could be spiritual in origin, often going so far as to shout down his more spiritually open spouse in denial. That line stretches past The Omen and through the suburban home of the Freelings in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergiest, finding purchase even in the relatively new found footage genre, where the Paranormal Activity movies observe a few of their patriarchs stomping their feet rather than defending their family from hooven demons. 

Thorn’s ambassador gig isn’t just to enable great location shoots; by placing the devilish plot within the diplomat’s seat at the table of world powers, the Revelation forebodings extend beyond the tragic trinity – father, mother, first-born son – and into the territory of right-wing gospel, where the forked tongue of The Serpent corrupts on a global level and a cultural one. In reality, it was religious fundamentalism that had the following decade in a strangehold; all, they claimed, for the sake of the children. Father Brennan echoes the fears of the Christian Right with his warnings: “Your son, Mr. Thorn. The Son of the Devil. He will kill the unborn child. Then he will kill your wife. And then, when he is certain to inherit all that is yours, then, Mr. Thorn… he will kill you. And with your wealth and power he will establish his counterfeit kingdom here on Earth, receiving his power directly from Satan!” The Omen stands as its own mark of the Beast, branding what Jimmy Carter called in 1979 a national “crisis of confidence” in its most sacred values.

“The Omen” is now streaming on Paramount+.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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