The Omen: The Pedigree of a Horror Classic

We look at how The Omen became one of the most important "devil movies" of its era.

The early ’70s were a wild and confounding time for American culture, and it was a wonderful time to be a weird kid. Along with all the other grim crap that was coming down (Watergate, Vietnam, Manson, assorted domestic bomb-tossing radical groups), the growing New Age movement brought with it an explosion in a secular interest in the otherwise otherworldly and mysterious, what Jack Webb referred to in his opening narration to Project UFO as “High Strangeness.”

Suddenly the mainstream was flooded with books, magazines, movies and TV shows about reincarnation, life after death experiences, flying saucers, bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, ESP, Easter Island, the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, apocalyptic prophecies, and all sorts of other weirdness.

As an adjunct to all that, the unholy success of The Exorcist (both the book and the film) led to a widespread public fascination with the Devil. The standard glut of knockoff films soon followed, from cheapies like Black Exorcist, Abby and The Devil Inside Her to that Italian Film With Everything, Nude for Satan. Even Disney tried to cash in with a couple family-friendly devil comedies of its own.

Along with a resurgence of the belief in Satan as a tangible and foul-mouthed being who could make your head spin around whenever he saw fit, The Exorcist also sent the masses flocking back to churches (Catholic and otherwise), hoping to stave off any such unpleasantness. So maybe it was no real shocker that in 1975, a born again Christian studio executive (and just try to imagine that one for a sec) suggested a film about the birth and rise of the Antichrist based on the Book of Revelation.

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Well, everyone got real excited about that. David Seltzer (who’d worked on Willy Wonka and the inspirational Other Side of the Mountain) was brought in to write the script, Richard Donner was hired to direct, and they signed an all star cast including Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, and Samuel Beckett’s favorite actress Billie Whitelaw. The resulting 1976 film, as we all know now, told the story of young Damien Thorn, the adopted child of wealthy American diplomats who is in fact the spawn of Satan destined to bring about the Apocalypse.

(Personally, I always saw the film as really being about a confused and distracted father who slips into paranoia after one too many strange accidents happen around him, starts piecing together things that aren’t necessarily connected, and finally comes to believe his kid isn’t just a shrieking spoiled brat, but in fact the Devil incarnate who needs to be killed. If you read the news, you see this happens all the time.)

Anyway, yes, well, The Omen, which was admittedly a mighty good film thanks in no small part to Richard Donner’s solid, atmospheric direction and Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score, was a massive hit. Not as massive as The Exorcist maybe, but close enough for a film with a $2.5 million budget. The sequels immediately became a simple given.

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The cast and crew from the original were nowhere to be found when it came time to make Damien: Omen II in 1978, but the producers did snag poor William Holden and Sylvia Sidney for the continuing story of Damien, this time a snotty adolescent in a military boarding school. And that was enough of a hit that it necessitated the silly Final Conflict in 1981, in which the silly Sam Neill overacts hilariously as the adult Damien, now the head of a multibillion dollar (and evil!) corporation prepping for his leap into politics and the eventual run for the White House. Unfortunately for Damien, some of those other Biblical prophecies start coming true, too.

Okay, so we’ve all seen the movies. They’re funny and gory and wild and you always end up rooting for Satan no matter how big a snot he can be. This, however, was not the filmmaker’s original intent.

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Seltzer and the producers (Donner less so) would insist later their goal was to make a real difference in people’s lives, make them aware of Satan’s imminent and very real return to Earth, and most of all to get people to read their Bibles again.

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Okay, that’s neither here nor there, people say a lot of things.

What bugged me about these later interviews was Seltzer and the producers’ repeated claim that what they were doing was absolutely unique, that no one had ever told a story like this before, that there was nothing else like it anywhere. It was as if The Omen and its sequels simply fell out of the sky, delivered by the Hand of God Himself.

Okay, well, maybe not quite, but I guess one of Old Scratch’s many titles is Master of Lies.

Despite all the claims of simple Christian benevolence and Absolute Originality, The Omen and its sequels was actually, and perhaps cynically, cobbled together from a number of earlier successful films as well as several other things that were heavy in the air in the mid-‘70s. So there were those continuing ripples from The Exorcist of course, but also 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, 1956’s The Bad Seed and all it’s ensuing knockoffs, even 1960’s Village of the Damned. There was a slew of evil kid movies in ’76 alone, including the Rosemary’s Baby Sequel, Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and Alice, Sweet Alice, so something was clearly afoot.

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Along with the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, The Omen’s script also plundered crazy Biblical scholar Hal Lindsey’s massive 1970 bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth, in which he predicted the Battle of Armageddon would get underway by the mid-‘80s. Lindsey’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation and his description of the rise of the Antichrist was central to the evolution of The Omen franchise’s storyline.

But there is no single source quite as central and clearly influential as “The Devil’s Platform,” an episode from the first season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which aired in 1974.

Directed by Allen Baron (who’d directed the brutal late-noir Blast of Silence before moving into TV), “The Devil’s Platform” stars Tom Skerrit as Robert Palmer, a young politician whose meteoric rise seemed to come out of nowhere. He seems a shoe in to become the new state senator from Illinois, but is already gunning for the White House. Carl Kolchak, (the great Darren McGavin) who has a nose for such things, can’t help but notice a number of folks on both sides of the campaign seem to be dying off in a series of freakish accidents, and so starts doing a little research. Well, sure enough, turns out the Golden Boy candidate isn’t quite what his press releases claim.

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While there are some fundamental differences between “The Devil’s Platform” and The Omen trilogy (Palmer is not a blood relation to Satan but has merely sold his soul, and there is no talk of the Bible or Revelations or the coming Apocalypse), the devil, you might say, is in the details.

Consider the following:

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Palmer is rising quickly in the world of politics, which of course was the subtext of the entire Omen franchise. Anyone who threatens his rise or stands in his way—major political donors, speechwriters for the opposing candidate, even the opposing candidate himself—ends up dying mysteriously as the result of a tragic and freakish accident, which was the hook that brought most people to the theaters to see the Omen films in the first place. Beyond the generic “freakish accident” angle, Palmer’s campaign manager, who was threatening to go to the DA to reveal Palmer’s myriad crimes, dies in a horrific elevator accident, much like a researcher in Damien: Omen II dies on his way to inform poor William Holden his adopted son has jackal blood. Palmer, again like Damien, also has a very protective Rottweiler familiar, who is impervious to harm.

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In the original Omen, Damien’s father and a friend are attacked by demonic Rottweilers in a graveyard after they get too close to the truth, but two years earlier Palmer’s Rottweiler mauls and nearly kills a woman in a park after she threatens to inform the authorities about him. Like David Warner’s photographer in the first film, inexplicable photographic anomalies help point Kolchak in the right direction. As in The Final Conflict, a trusted confidante who’s in on the truth and stands to benefit from the candidate’s rise to power (in this case Palmer’s wife) starts having second thoughts and urges him to reconsider his path. And finally, in the end the ambitious Satanic candidate is dispatched with a holy instrument (blessed daggers in The Final Conflict, holy water in The Night Stalker).

So there. In a way, watching “The Devil’s Platform” is a bit like watching all three Omen films from an outsider journalist’s perspective, except Kolchak is able to wrap the whole thing up neatly in an hour.