With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
The keynote horror movie image of the late 1960s was surely that pale little girl bludgeoning her mother with a shovel in the basement late in Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Coming a year after the Summer Of Love, this act of zombified matricide suggested that the kids weren’t all right. That same year, Rosemary Woodhouse fretted about the possibly demonic identity of the baby growing inside of her. Five years later, The Exorcist saw and raised its predecessors one epithet-spewing, pea-soup puking, self-abusing, head-spinning prepubescent. The line dividing American society between a grown-up silent majority and a counterculture eager to make their voices heard arguably found its fullest cinematic expression in a cycle of horror movies that channelled and exploited these generational anxieties. Although if you had talked to the producers at Warner Bros. on Christmas morning in 1973, they wouldn’t have had too much to say about subtext or the subtleties of the zeitgeist. Their mouths would have been busy puffing on cigars lit with hundred-dollar bills.
The phenomenal box-office success of The Exorcist—for a time, the highest-grossing American movie ever, thanks to the MPAA’s infamous decision to give it an R rather than an X rating—meant, among other things, that sequels would be in the offing. And where there are sequels—and franchise potential—there are also films that try to glom onto that hit’s massive popularity. The most brazen and successful of these would be The Omen (1976), a 20th Century Fox production supposedly hatched when producer Harvey Bernhard was approached by a friend at an advertising agency who had an idea for a new thriller with echoes of The Exorcist: What if the Antichrist was alive in modern times in the form of a small child? According to the legend, Bernhard left the restaurant in downtown Los Angeles where they were having lunch, ran home, typed up a treatment, and contacted a strapped young screenwriter to finish the job.
A year later, The Omen was born—not of a jackal, but rather the mind of David Seltzer, who had done uncredited work on Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (allegedly the material involving the Oompah-Loompahs). “I was a brand-new baby writer at the time, and I had been influenced by Rosemary’s Baby,” said Seltzer in an interview last year with Rue Morgue. His script, originally titled The Anti-Christ—and later, The Birthmark, in reference to the triple-6-shaped mole identifying its young villain—took off from one of the sharpest satirical ideas in Roman Polanski’s film: If the devil did exist, he’d be sure to be well connected to succeed in the modern world. But instead of having our dark lord seduce a hack actor into selling out (and sacrificing his wife’s mind and body) for fame and fortune, Seltzer contrived a scenario where Satan (or his minions) hand-picked a patsy who was already rich and successful—a highly placed American politician whose wealth and power could serve as a launching pad for a demon seed.
As The Omen begins, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is barreling through the streets of Rome to a hospital (on June 6, 1970, hint hint) where his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has unknowingly miscarried. When a shady priest offers to substitute his own dead baby for a child whose “mother died in the same instant,” he takes the bargain, and we’re off to the races. Casting the erstwhile Atticus Finch in the part of an ethically dubious daddy was a masterstroke; convincing Peck to come out of semi-retirement to take the part was another matter altogether, and given the popularity at the time of deluxe genre productions, there was plenty of competition for the part. (Contenders included Charlton Heston, Roy Scheider, and Dick Van Dyke.) Peck’s stentorian, self-serious acting style is perfect for a character who has to be convinced that his adopted son is a monster, one mysteriously deceased family friend or acquaintance at a time.
The idea is that Satan is picking off anybody who could threaten Damien’s path to adulthood, but the real cruelty belongs to the filmmakers, whose structural inspiration seems to have been the James Bond films. Every 10 minutes or so, there’s another spectacular death scene, ranging from impalement to decapitation. Still, the spookiest set piece is the first, in which the Thorn’s nanny (Holly Palance) is mesmerized by a mysterious rottweiler to commit suicide at the fifth birthday party of little Damien (Harvey Stephens).
The scene shows off all of the film’s best features at once: director Richard Donner’s command of slow-burning suspense punctuated by shock; cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s deluxe color palette; and, above all, the burbling, brilliant musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, who was hired late in the production process but whose work ranks among the all-time great horror soundtracks.
Goldsmith’s creepy choral score won an Academy Award, and he was also surprisingly nominated for best song for the Benedictine-inflected “Ave Satani,” (which sounded weird on the Oscar telecast next to “Gonna Fly Now”). Translated from Latin, the lyrics are the equivalent of a Black Mass; Goldsmith and the British choirmaster he was collaborating with had the idea to invert traditional words and phrases of Christian rituals so that Satan was invoked instead of Christ. The swoops and crescendos of the music give The Omen much of its personality. Because Donner insisted on not having anything explicitly supernatural happen on screen (undercutting The Exorcist instead of trying to one-up it) Goldsmith’s music had to stand in for the malevolent forces guiding Damien toward his destiny. These evil vibes are also embodied in the veritable menagerie of animals that find their way into the film, from the aforementioned rottweilers to a family of baboons that attack Katherine and Damien during a visit to the zoo.
Donner had Stephens play Damien as a normal, oblivious toddler, which helps to sow seeds of doubt in both Robert and the audience about whether the loose talk about ancient prophecies—much of it stirred up by the invaluable David Warner as a paparazzo who discovers weird markings on his photos of Damien’s victims—was to be believed. And while the film never approaches the visceral intensity of The Exorcist, it has the darker ending, as Robert is killed mere moments before almost finishing his son off with a bundle of enchanted daggers. The final shot, of Damien smiling knowingly at the camera as he presides over his father’s funeral, would become a horror-movie commonplace in the years to come.
Like The Exorcist before it, The Omen came out amid studio-fueled gossip that its production was host to many unusual or unnatural occurrences, all of which are discussed in the 2005 TV documentary The Curse Of The Omen. And also like The Exorcist, it was commercially successful enough to warrant a sequel, grossing $61 million on a $3 million budget. Damien: Omen II (1978) imagined its cherubic antagonist struggling with the more earthbound concerns of adolescence. Now 12 and still only vaguely aware of his difference from the rest of humanity, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) spends weekends at a prestigious military academy, while at home, his wealthy uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and aunt Ann (Lee Grant) have taken care to gloss over the circumstances of his parents’ deaths. The film could be subtitled A Portrait Of The Anti-Christ As A Young Man. The emphasis has been shifted from parental anxiety to the frustration of a boy struggling to identify—and then reconcile—his demonic birthright.
Damien comes to terms quickly enough, and his active participation in the narrative reveals how smart Donner was to underplay that stuff the first time around. Structurally speaking, the film is a virtual remake of the original, and the script—which was whipped up by Mike Hodges and Stanley Mann when Seltzer declined to participate—is filled with red herrings and sacrificial lambs. The introduction of each new supporting character is merely the beginning of a countdown to their inevitable, usually hilariously protracted murder. (The creators of Final Destination were surely taking notes.) As in the original Omen, animals play a major part in the destruction. A crusading journalist (Elizabeth Shepherd) investigating the death of Robert Thorne and tipped to the possibility that Damien is a monster gets her prying eyes pecked out by a crow (shades of The Birds) and is run over by a truck as she stumbles around blindly on the interstate. Later, a doctor who discovers that Damien’s blood marrow has the same properties as a jackal—a payoff to the earlier movie’s whispers of animalistic parentage—takes too long to take his findings to the lab and gets cleaved in two by a falling elevator cable.
The undeniable highlight is Lee Grant’s amazingly campy acting at the climax, when Ann Thorn reveals to her gobsmacked husband that she’s a closet Satanist. “I’ve always been His!” she thunders, paraphrasing the Whore Of Babylon and guaranteeing that Damien will live to rise to even greater heights.
Will he ever. In 1981, Bernhard and Donner reunited to produce Omen III: The Final Conflict, which placed Damien Thorn in the White House in the suave form of a young and unknown Sam Neill. Now a lady-killing clotheshorse in his early 30s, Damien has taken up his daddy’s old post as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, which is just a hop, step, and a jump from leader of the free world (and the sort of executive powers that could easily be used to hasten Armageddon). As brand extension, The Final Conflict was inevitable. As moviemaking, it’s even more dully self-parodic than its predecessor. We get a litany of suspicious priests, mysterious murders, and garbled Biblical prophecies that extend to the Second Coming of Christ—an event that an increasingly paranoid Damien seek to stop via the ancient Egyptian method of murdering all the first-born sons in his immediate vicinity. This latter plan leads to a tacky montage of baby deaths, culminating in the outrageously gratuitous signature image of a hideously burned infant, framed as a mind’s eye vision from his mother, who is then hypnotized to kill it with a laundry iron.
The film does deserve credit for its climax, in which Damien, who has efficiently wiped out all of his earthly rivals, calls out Jesus Christ himself for a showdown in a ruined church… and the Nazarene obliges him. There’s something simultaneously sacrilegious and ballsy about boiling the crypto-religious mumbo jumbo of the Omen franchise down to a theological mano a mano, and even if Neill’s Damien dies like a chump—stabbed in the back by his journalist girlfriend, who is surely avenging all the fallen members of the fourth estate before her—there’s a a loony grandeur to the sequence that can’t be denied. Plus, the closing title card, which promises the Earth a reign of peace under Jesus’ watchful gaze, is the last word in happy endings.
Sadly, our Lord and Savior’s epoch of prosperity only lasted 10 years. In 1991, Bernhard produced the made-for-television movie Omen IV: The Awakening, which was shot on the cheap in Vancouver with a pair of directors (including Swiss hack Dominique Othenin-Girard, of Halloween 5 fame) and absolutely no new ideas, save gender-swapping the main role. Plucked from a nunnery by two dull-witted married attorneys, dead-eyed little Delia (Asia Vieira) is quite plainly a psychopath, and gradually, Karen (Faye Grant) worries that her adopted daughter might be bad news. “Father, the Antichrist is always described as male,” she queries a local priest. “Does he have to be?” The good Samaritan’s response: “Well, the Bible wasn’t meant to be sexist… mankind can also be womankind! ”
This blow for feminism is bad news for everybody else, although there’s a lot more plot to untwist than just finding out that Delia is Damien Thorn’s daughter. Turns out she’s also a carrier for the embryo of the actual (and, sorry, progressive horror movie fans, male) Antichrist, whom she implants, with the help of a diabolical doctor, into Karen. The basic craft and competence of the first three films is nowhere to be found in The Awakening, and the TV format means that the gratuitous violence has been scooped right out of the material—there’s a discreet minimum of gore. Veira, a Toronto-born actress with only a few previous credits, does her best to approximate menace, but looks lost in a production whose more experienced participants don’t seem to believe in what they’re doing. Omen IV’s sole redeeming feature is Delia’s contempt for the New Age losers at a “psychic fair,” which she sets ablaze à la Drew Barrymore in Firestarter.
Released theatrically overseas to absolutely no enthusiasm, The Awakening at least made good on its title by being the last film within the original Omen timeline. In 2006, genre specialist John Moore mounted an impressively—and some might say pointlessly—faithful remake of Donner’s original film, which restaged many scenes shot-for-shot and was highlighted by Mia Farrow’s self-reflexively malevolent turn as Damien’s nanny Mrs. Baylock (a part played wonderfully by Billie Whitelaw in the original). Farrow’s presence was not exactly a subtle piece of casting, but in its way, it brings the Omen’s legacy full circle, as a franchise defined by different kinds of derivativeness pays homage to one of its key influences. Last month, A&E debuted Damien, starring Bradley James as the title character, an ex war photographer who is beginning to sweat his heritage; in the last scene of the pilot episode, he discovers a tell-tale birthmark under his hair. Interestingly, Damien seems to be the first iteration of The Omen where the character finds himself truly wracked with indecision, which might signify that even the Antichrist is not immune to millennial identity crisis. Or else maybe it’s just that they needed to fill out 13 hours of narrative instead of two.
1. The Omen
2. Damien: Omen II
3. The Final Conflict
4. Omen IV: The Awakening