When it arrived in cinemas exactly 45th years ago in 1976, The Omen was a big hit. Much was made of the religious prophecy element of the film—indeed, lots of people still think bits supposedly from the Book of Revelation are real.
“When the Jews return to Zion and a comet rips the sky and the Holy Roman Empire rises; then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against brother, ’til man exists no more” is pure fiction, from the mind of writer David Seltzer.
Following soon after The Exorcist in 1973, which was a massive commercial and critical success and was nominated for 10 Oscars, The Omen was seen by some as a bit of a cash-in, with both films featuring devilish kids, the perversion of the relationship between parents and children, as well as religious and demonic paranoia.
Since its release, The Omen has very much become part of cultural consciousness, from that iconic score which won Jerry Goldsmith an Oscar to the number ‘666’ becoming synonymous with evil, and not just for people with a working knowledge of the Bible.
It’s notable 45 years on, though, how elaborate and brutal the death scenes are, which only increased for the sequel Damien: Omen II. The first film sees a priest impaled with a spire that’s fallen from a church during a storm, a photographer beheaded by a sheet of plate glass, and Damien’s mother knocked over a banister by her son seemingly by accident, leading to injury and miscarriage.
Director Richard Donner had initially wanted the interpretation of the story to be ambiguous, leaving the audience with the option to decide for themselves whether Damien really was the Antichrist or whether the deaths had all been unfortunate accidents. Screenwriter David Selzer disagreed, and ultimately producer Harvey Bernhard sided with Selzer—it’s pretty explicit that Damien is the son of Satan in the movie.
Though the movie is dressed in Satanic garb, if Donner had had his way, the movie would have looked even more like a forerunner to the Final Destination movies, the first of which came out in 2000. The hook of that series is the idea that fate, or indeed death itself, is the antagonist and it will come to get you no matter what you do. Characters who have somehow escaped death due to a premonition are killed off one by one in a series of increasingly elaborate ‘accidents’—these set pieces became more and more shocking (and impressive…) as the series developed.
Audiences of Final Destination movies know what they are getting – trying to guess what innocent looking household item will be the cause of the next character’s downfall is a massive part of the fun. The franchise has run to five films with a sixth currently in development.
Despite the Satanic nature of the Omen films, they were playing with similar toys. In The Omen, Damien doesn’t even know he’s the Antichrist and these horrible ‘accidents’ are just happening around him. His Satanic power—or whatever it is that’s causing these freak events—is just as mysterious as the power of death or fate that holds sway over the Final Destination films.
It’s true that in The Omen, Billie Whitelaw’s deranged nanny is responsible for some of the deaths, including that of Damien’s mother, again, removing the ambiguity, though the fact that she’s a crazed Satanist doesn’t in itself mean Damien is the Antichrist.
Damien: Omen II really upped the ante with its ‘accidental’ but incredibly brutal demises: It includes someone getting bisected by a lift cable, a woman having her eyes pecked out by a raven and then wandering into the road and getting hit by a truck, and a man drowning under the ice during a hockey match. It’s a very solid sequel that tapped into the element of danger posed by things we encounter on a daily basis.
However Omen II adds an extra layer of intent from Damien (played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor). Damien is a young teen and is learning about his parents and his power, initially rejecting but finally coming to accept them. Scott-Taylor said his performance was influenced by the movie Carrie, a story about a young woman struggling to adjust to her newly developing telekinetic powers. Like The Omen, Carrie was also released in 1976.
Though it could still, theoretically, be an underlying medical condition (!), the scene in which Damien begs his cousin Mark to join forces with him, and when he refuses, gives him a brain aneurysm, is an early moment of Damien deliberately and specifically killing someone. The novelization also suggests that the raven who had done the eye pecking earlier on in the film is actually a manifestation of Damien’s subconscious.
Cool death set pieces in horror movies are obviously not an unusual thing, but as well as Final Destination, The Omen films precluded the horror movement of the early 2000s during the time when post-Scream teen slashers were on the wane and new franchises, including Saw, were exploding onto the scene, absolutely fetishising its torture devices, tricks, and traps. These were man-made murders, for sure, but the levels of ingenuity became just as important as the gore. Perhaps ironically, then, the 2006 remake of The Omen wasn’t well received at all.
Forty-five years on and the original still holds up brilliantly for its story, its score, its performances, and for how emotional it is. But it should also be remembered for those cunning, gruesome, and possibly accidental kills.