In June 1976, 20th Century Fox released a horror film called The Omen. Backed by a vivid marketing campaign (“You are one day closer to the end of the world”), starring Hollywood legend Gregory Peck and shot by a little-known director named Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), the relatively low-budget ($2 million) thriller became one of the biggest and most-talked about hits of that year.
Written by David Seltzer, The Omen featured Peck as Robert Thorn, a rising politician who is manipulated into adopting an orphaned baby after his own son dies in childbirth. But Thorn and his psychologically fragile wife (Lee Remick), who doesn’t know about the switch, are soon beset by unexplained “accidental” deaths, while Thorn is haunted by tormented figures who claim that little Damien is the Antichrist — the son of the devil, born into the world to bring about its end.
Arriving after the success of both Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), The Omen tapped into the same fears of parents of counterculture kids who no longer recognized their own children. Coupled with political and racial unrest, calamities like Watergate and the Vietnam War, and books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, it’s no wonder that the idea of the devil sending his only begotten son to trigger the apocalypse resonated with audiences around the world.
More than four decades later, The Omen still holds up as a superior horror thriller, thanks to Donner’s taut direction, a classy cast led by Peck and Remick, Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning, unforgettable score and Seltzer’s brisk, tight screenplay. With Scream Factory’s definitive The Omen Collection: Deluxe Edition Blu-ray box set arriving last week (featuring the remastered original film, its three sequels and the 2006 remake, plus tons of bonus features), we got on the phone with Seltzer to discuss the origins of the film, his memories of its development, and the sequel ideas that he had and has never discussed until now.
Den of Geek: I saw the original film when I was 11 or 12. It sent me down a rabbit hole of being convinced that the world was going to end any day.
David Seltzer: Took a while longer, didn’t it?
It also had me looking feverishly through the Book of Revelation for that damn poem, until I found out that you made it up yourself.
Yeah, I’m sorry. I got in trouble with a lot of people for that. I never did particularly credit it. I mean all of the prophesizing was real, and true, and accurate, and taken from the Bible. The eternal sea, as a matter of fact, was what grabbed me when I was looking for some way to do a story about the devil, the unholy. There was a passage in Revelation that said, “The beast will rise from the eternal sea.”
I was working with all these interpretive texts. And one of them analyzed the eternal sea, as being this sea of revolution, of turmoil and revolution. And that sounded like politics to me. And then, “Okay. The son of the devil is coming into a political family. Let’s see.” And then I found, “Let he who hath wisdom reckon the number of the beast, and the number is 666,” and I basically turned that into a calendar date for when he would be come to earth. And I was off and running.
You initially turned down the job, right?
I wasn’t eager to do it because I had come out of documentaries, and was accustomed to learning a lot every day, packing stuff into my brain about subjects that I might never have explored otherwise. I got a call from somebody asking if I had seen The Exorcist, which I had, and asking me to do a story about the devil, I said, “But I don’t do that because what could I learn? The devil’s not real.”
I personally am from, I wouldn’t call them an Orthodox Jewish family, but very fundamentalist. They were Orthodox Jews, most of them European, most of them having run at the right time. And the devil was something that was simply… There is no hell in that religion, and there is no devil. As a matter of fact, the kid Harvey, who played Damien, was also from a very strict religious family. He was practically ousted from their house of worship for their son playing the devil.
Anyway, I picked up a Bible, and got hooked on the characters, the mythology and how bizarre these stories were, but told with a straight face, how credible they seemed. And finally when we cast Gregory Peck to cut away to, you don’t not believe what’s in his eyes. So I think with a different actor, who initially was supposed to be Charles Bronson, believe it or not, it would have been a whole different movie. Peck gave it legitimacy.
Talk about your initial draft. I understand that it was more overtly a Satanic horror film in a way. And then when Dick Donner came on board, you started to pull back on that.
Absolutely. It was Dick Donner and to this day, and I’ve had several movies made, this is the only movie that’s better than the screenplay. Which is kind of sad. But it stands out to me that I didn’t write anything as good as what appeared on the screen.
But Dick had a take on it. There was a scene, it wasn’t way over the top in terms of horror, but for instance, the graveyard scene where they’re looking for the mother’s grave and the Rottweilers, the hounds of hell are there. I had written that there were these hunched over creatures in capes, and when they walked cloven hooves were imprinted in the mud. Dick said, “No, this is where we stop believing your movie. We can believe everything about it if it looks like this is just a tidal wave of coincidental accidents.”
So wherever I found things that were fanciful or not of this world, I took it out and I think it was such a smart choice. So Dick, to this day, is a hero. But I didn’t like the movie when I first saw it. I told him I hated it and he said “Okay, you’re going to come stay in my guest house because you’re a very sick boy. You really do not understand what we made here. So you’re going to live with me until I get it through your head.”
He was really wonderful. Later they did a dead-on remake of The Omen based on, I mean taking word for word, the initial script. Except that they had some kind of prologue, which was a spoiler to the whole thing and they changed telephones to cell phones, and the tricycle to a scooter. Everything else was the same and the movie was shit. It took the vision of Dick Donner to make this work.
The book, which you based on your script, was one of the first best-selling novelizations of a movie.
There was only one in existence before that, which I know of, and that was Erich Segal’s Love Story. That was a novelization, and it’s what inspired me to write one for The Omen. I went to the set, I was there for a limited period of time, but I saw the decapitation scene. And then I saw the dailies of it and I thought, “This movie could really work.” I ran home and started the novelization and beat the movie to the bookstands, I think by about, let’s see, about two months. The book became a bestseller on its own, but it did cross-pollinate with the movie, very definitely.
What I found interesting about the novel too is that there were differences from the movie, like Thorn’s first name being Jeremy instead of Robert. Did you base the script off a different draft?
The original script was Jeremy Thorn. For some reason Greg had in his head an association with the word Jeremy that he didn’t like, so they changed it. They changed it to Robert. But I went with what I had my original script because I liked Jeremy a lot better.
Did you know Gregory Peck beforehand, or did you meet him on this movie?
I met him on this movie. He was absolutely as lovely as you would imagine, just a really wonderful person. I, like so many people who wind up in creative lives, had a problematic relationship with my father and I always wished Atticus Finch was my father, you know? And when I heard he had agreed to do the movie, I was flabbergasted and he was really wonderful and we remained, I wouldn’t say friends really, but we remained in contact until he was no longer here.
When you wrote this script, did you have an actor in mind? I understand William Holden and Charlton Heston turned it down.
Well, it’s uncanny, but I thought of Gregory Peck. I never dreamed I would get Gregory Peck. But I knew that when it came to this man having to kill his son in the end, the bitter irony was putting that dagger in the hands of a figure that I felt was the best father in the world. I thought, “What would that be like if Atticus Finch…?” And there it happened. Gregory Peck, I could not believe it.
All the stories about the movie being cursed, accidents happening around the set, how much of that was true and how much was hyped up by the studio?
I think it’s not true, at all. One of those stories is that I was on a plane that was struck by lightning. That was true, but that happens all the time. You know, planes don’t crash, they simply draw lightning and they bump when they’re hit by lightning. Whenever I was asked that in an interview during the course of making the movie and shortly afterward, I would say what I said at the time, which was, “If the devil can’t shut down a movie, I have no fear of the devil.” The devil wants a movie to be shut down and this is all he can do? Forget it. There is no devil.
You wrote that famous final shot of Damien holding the hand of the president, but Damien: Omen II (1978) sent him to live with his uncle and The Final Conflict (1981) followed him as the adult head of the Thorn Corporation.
First I have to say, I have not seen the other movies. I saw 20 minutes of the first sequel and I just felt sick to my stomach. What made the original Omen work was an innocent villain. A kid who you knew had no idea what the mantle was that he was carrying. And finally, why his life had to end in spite of the earthly representatives, the representatives of the devil on earth trying to protect him.
What was your idea for a continuation? What direction would you have taken if you had penned the second one or even done a trilogy?
I thought that a sequel could continue right from that last shot in the first one. I did offer them an outline for maybe three or four more movies, but if I was not going to write it, they had no interest in what I had to say. There actually was a breakdown of faith between me and the producer over the book. I had the book rights, they apparently had overlooked that and they were really put out that they didn’t have a piece of the action on the book. My deal to write the movie was not all that great. I think I signed the contract without even an agent or something, and I felt very entitled to keeping the profits of the book. So they didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
But I would have had that little kid go into the White House and I would not have spoiled this movie by somebody walking in as they did in the beginning of the sequel to tell him that he was the son of the devil. Because then it just became a slasher movie. Piss him off and you die. How many ways can we think of for people to die, rather than what kind of psychic agony can we put people through who come in contact with this very lovable person, this child.
I would have brought him all the way up to being a politician running for office, probably. Now, the Bible tells you that Christ and the Antichrist are put on earth at the same time, and they will eventually meet across the chasm for the apocalyptic moment when man destroys himself fighting his fellow men. I would have introduced a Christ figure, I would have traveled their parallel lives until they came head-to-head. That probably would have met in a political campaign somewhere and the world would have had suffered devastating repercussions as a result of it.
This is the first time I’ve ever talked about that and that’s where I would have taken it. But these guys who made that movie were off and running and I just didn’t want to do another one. I did not want to write another one of those because it was my ethic. Coming out of documentaries, I won’t do something I can’t learn from. I’ve learned everything I could from doing one Omen. I would’ve been happy to shepherd the rest of them but these guys ran away with it. And got very rich in the process.
The Omen is part of this unholy trilogy, if you will, of classic horror. It’s Rosemary’s Baby and then The Exorcist and The Omen, and all three of them endure. Why do you think that yours has lasted?
I frankly don’t think mine holds a candle to the other two, but I’m certainly honored to be in that company. I think that mine is derivative of both. Why have they lasted? Because they all felt real and I think that distinguishes them from most horror movies where you sign a contract walking in with practically the first frame of movie that you will pretend to be scared — even though it doesn’t scare you, because it’s not a world that you recognize. Now, that’s a very broad generalization, but I know that The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen certainly are a trio of movies that deal with recognizable characters caught in this web.
The Omen Collection is out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye