The 1970’s was a golden age for horror films in general. It was a decade that saw the release of several classics of the genre including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and Halloween. It was also a good decade for the Devil himself. Following the success of Rosemary’s Baby, and perhaps influenced by the Manson family murders, Satan and occult themes found their way into several horror films in the 70’s. Some of these films, like The Exorcist, became classics, while other films earned some cult status among fans (see The Devil’s Rain).
Directed by Richard Donne and released on June 25, 1976, The Omen followed on the successes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, making the Devil scary again for a world that was becoming increasingly secularized. After over 40 years, The Omen is the rare film that remains utterly watchable. The Omen was followed by a handful of lesser sequels and a 2006 remake that never approaches its brilliance. Today in The Vault, I take a look at the legacy of The Omen.
Gruesome Set Pieces that Would Inform a Generation of Horror
The Omen wasn’t the most graphic or gruesome entry in 1970’s horror. Nothing in this Satanic thriller even remotely approaches what audiences had been previously exposed to in The Exorcist. Over the course of his career, however, Richard Donner would demonstrate a gift for staging action sequences in subsequent movies like Superman and Lethal Weapon. With The Omen Donner would give film-goers several glimpses into his skill with elaborately orchestrated moments. Fans of The Final Destination franchise should quickly spot Donner’s fingerprints over that series’ death scenes.
Fans of The Final Destination franchise should quickly spot Donner’s fingerprints over that series’ death scenes.
Two scenes in particular illustrate Donner’s ability to orchestrate elaborate and thrilling sequences. Early in The Omen, the Thorn family nanny dramatically commits suicide by hanging herself from the mansion rooftop during Damian’s birthday celebration. Initially, as the nanny calls out to Damian from her perch, the moment almost feels banal. It’s a very grounded approach to what quickly becomes a horrific scene. This grounded approach makes everything that follows feel more real and, as a result, frightening regardless of the presence of increasingly supernatural phenomena.
Perhaps the moment most often discussed from The Omen is its infamous decapitation scene. Today we’re inundated with gruesome imagery, even in some PG-13 films, but in 1976, Jennings’ decapitation was fairly groundbreaking. From the staging of the scene to the make-up effects, it’s a truly shocking moment. Aside from marking a groundbreaking achievement in horror visual effects, it affirms the sense of fate that hangs over The Omen.
A Landmark Horror Moment
As discussed above, Donner crafted several memorable scenes in The Omen that have influenced countless horror films over the last few decades. Among the most memorable and innovative moments in The Omen is the tricycle scene. Its outcome is ominously predicted earlier in the film, making it feel inevitable. While The Omen features a number of good ‘white-knuckle’ moments and gruesome deaths, it’s the sense of fate that hangs over Katherine’s ‘accident’ that makes the moment such an unnerving experience. The tricycle scene perfectly encapsulates a feeling of fate.
The actual filming of Katherine Thorn ‘falling’ to the floor is also a great example of innovative film-making. it almost seems to drag out the horror of the inevitable crash. Donner maintains some ambiguity around Damian and just how aware the child is of his destiny. The editing that cuts between Katherine and Mrs. Baylock’s cold expression is chilling.
‘Ave Satani’, Jerry Goldsmith
Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith deserves a significant amount of credit for the lasting impact of The Omen. His work encompassed several decades with a staggering film score resume that included Patton, Papillon, L.A. Confidential, Poltergeist, Planet of the Apes, Alien, and the Rambo films. It’s an absolutely impressive span of creative output. Perhaps only John Williams has a more impressive track record.
Like the best film scores, Goldsmith’s music propels the narrative and inhabits the films like its characters.
Simply put, Goldsmith’s score for The Omen is among the best horror film scores ever produced. Goldsmith would win his only Oscar for the film’s score. Like the best film scores, Goldsmith’s music propels the narrative and inhabits the films like its characters. It evokes sympathy for the Thorn family and instills a sense of dread. the opening theme, ‘Ave Satani’, which was nominated for the Best Original song Oscar, is brilliant and almost dares you to not be frightened. It sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The Omen Reminds Us That There Has Always Been Prestige Horror
Over the last few years, critics have seemingly been more willing to extend legitimacy to horror movies. Of course it’s all quite ridiculous as the genre has been producing prestige films from its beginnings. The Omen was not the first prestige horror film to boast Oscar legitimacy in its cast, director, writer, or music composer. Nonetheless, The Omen is yet another example of the craftsmanship that has long been a hallmark of the genre.
David Seltzer’s screenplay reportedly drew actor Gregory Peck out of semi-retirement. Peck, an Oscar-winning actor known for roles in films like Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird, delivers an outstanding performance in The Omen. Consistent with Donner’s approach to the material, Peck’s portrayal of Robert Thorn is a grounded performance that draws in the audience even as the supernatural becomes undeniable. The film’s climax wouldn’t work if Peck couldn’t convince you that he was a sane man faced with an awful reality. It’s a heartbreaking scene that balances the human elements of the story with its occult themes.
Like The Devil Himself, The Omen Retains Its Power to Chill
Many films are fondly remembered either due to nostalgia or an ability to contextualize. Few movies can engage audiences across generations. The Omen should be acknowledged for its ability to scare new generations years after its initial release. While it may not reach the same heights as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, it deserves to be include among these achievements in the horror genre.