The Omen at 40 and the bloodline of occult cinema

Today is the sixth day of the sixth month of 2016 – which can only mean one thing: The Omen is now 40 years old.

6 June 2016

By Andrew Nette

The Omen (1976)

When audiences emerged from the first screenings of The Omen, which debuted in the United Kingdom on 6 June 1976, they found customised posters affixed to the front of cinemas declaring: “Today is the sixth day of the sixth month of Nineteen-Seventy Six.”

The marketing gimmick played into the well-known satanic ‘number of the beast’ in the Book of Revelation, which features prominently in The Omen. Nearing the film’s dramatic climax, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) finds a birthmark of three sixes on his adopted son Damien’s scalp, the mark, he has been warned, of the Antichrist.

Forty years after its release, critical analysis of The Omen has nearly always taken a backseat to the film’s reputation as a ‘cursed movie’, a status resulting from the string of mishaps, injuries and deaths loosely associated with its filming and post-production. This has obscured its legacy as one of the more genuinely frighting of the satanic-themed films that flooded cinemas in the 70s.

The Omen (1976)

The Omen is the story of a high-level US diplomat, Thorn, who, unknown to his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), agrees to substitute an orphaned baby of unknown origin for their stillborn child. Everything goes fine until Thorn becomes ambassador to the United Kingdom. Damien’s nanny publicly hangs herself at the child’s fifth birthday party. Her replacement, the malevolent Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), turns up unannounced, around the same time as a large Rottweiler, first glimpsed moments before the original nanny killed herself, appears at the Thorn residence. Damien savagely resists being taken to church and other animals have a violent reaction to him, as his mother discovers when they visit the Windsor Park Zoo and baboons attack their car.

Thorn’s concerns mount after a visit by an unstable priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who claims to possess disturbing information about Damien’s origins. The priest’s subsequent death in a freak storm, the first of several fatalities that strike anyone trying to help Thorn, draws the diplomat into an increasingly dangerous search to discover the true nature of Damien’s heritage.

The Omen performed very well at the box office and spawned three direct sequels, a 2006 remake and a TV series, Damien (2016-). It is perhaps the most mainstream of the 70s satanic films, not surprising given director Richard Donner’s pedigree directing television shows such as Kojak and The Streets of San Francisco. Aspects of the plot feel a bit wooden and its musings on the occult and the biblical aspects now have a very obvious pop psychology feel.

That said, the film contains some genuinely chilling moments. These include the aforementioned baboon attack, when Thorn finds the grave of Damien’s biological mother, and the final, famous scene at his father’s funeral, when Damien turns to smile as he holds the hand of his new custodian, the president of the United States.

The Omen (1976)

While its themes and the prominence of ‘six-hundred and sixty-six’ in its marketing was clearly aimed at tapping into the then widespread fascination with the occult, Donner instructed writer David Seltzer to strip out the more overtly satanic horror aspects of his proposed script. The film’s power lies in the fact that we are left unsure as to Damien’s agency in the evil swirling around him. The absence of horned devils and black magic ceremonies, standard images in 70s occult cinema, puts the focus on the privileged patriarch and his wife dealing with otherworldly events that lead them to gradually doubt their sanity and, in Peck’s case, drive him to try and kill Damien.

While Donner never cited any films as particular references, he was doubtless aware of the prevalence of satanic, witchcraft and occult themes in cinema in the early 70s. The so-called ‘Black Aquarius’, the wave of fascination with occultism that swept British culture, manifested in numerous forms, including film. One of the better examples, The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), could almost be an influence on The Omen. Set in 17th-century England, it focuses on the children of a local village who develop into murderous devil worshipers, even starting to grow fur, after a farmer unearths a deformed skull in a field.

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)

Interest in Satanism and the occult was similarly big in the US, where Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan boasted mainstream presence, including Hollywood adherents. Publicity hungry LaVey even scored a technical advisory role and a cameo in the 1975 B-movie, The Devil’s Rain.

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist generated critical acclaim as well as a storm of condemnation from religious groups, making it the second highest grossing film of 1973. Satanism was also a staple trope of the many television anthology horror programmes that flourished at the time. One of these, a November 1974 episode of The Night Stalker, even featured a plotline involving an ambitious politician who makes a deal with the devil and who could take the form of a murderous Rottweiler.

The Exorcist (1973) poster

Seltzer told the Canadian magazine Rue Morgue last year, that when he wrote The Omen: “I had been influenced by Rosemary’s Baby, and I hadn’t even realised it until people started making comparisons. Certainly it [The Omen] was impacted by The Exorcist…” Like The Omen, the power of these films derives from their subversion of the notion of the young as innocents and the rupture this creates in the way adults see themselves and their offspring.

The origins of this cinematic trope can arguably be traced back to films like Mervyn LeRoy’s influential The Bad Seed (1956), the tale of an apparently sweet natured girl suspected by her mother of murdering a classmate on a school outing. The mother’s concerns are heightened after discovering one of her own biological parents was a serial killer, leading her to fear her daughters’ homicidal behaviour may be genetic.

The Bad Seed (1956)

Directed by Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) depicts a pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) who realises, too late, her ambitious husband has made an agreement with a satanic coven in their apartment building and the true father of her child is the Devil. The depiction of Rosemary as a complete ingénue, adds to its air of menace, as does the conclusion’s disturbing take on the notion of motherly love in the face of all obstacles.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Confronted the demonic possession of her teenage daughter (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist, Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) experiences a similar trajectory to the Thorns; denial, fear, followed by gradual determination to do something, convincing a priest (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism. The manifestation of the satanic possession is given added force by the way Friedkin skilfully weaves the theme of loss of faith – the mother’s in medicine, the priest’s in his faith due to his job counselling abusive clergy – into the story.

As is the case with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, it is the possibilities created by the idea that our children can be a source of evil and we as adults may be in some way responsible, either deliberately or by accident, which makes The Omen still chilling to watch today.

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