The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation, or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen. That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.
In which regard, horror buff and moustache supremo Kim Newman was scathing in denouncing Richard Donner’s film in Nightmare Movies, particularly in comparison to those then-recent predecessors. The Omen was simply “a package”, unworthy of the same devil-worship reserved Rosemary’s Baby (“a film”) and The Exorcist (“a phenomenon”). It’s certainly true that The Omen was a triumph of marketing, an early beneficiary of the re-evaluation of selling movies in the wake of the first (official) blockbuster Jaws. Newman recounts how “For a while, it was impossible to avoid the white-on-black posters featuring the film’s 666 logo and cheery slogans like ‘if something frightening happens to you today, think about it… It may be The Omen’; ‘good morning, you are one day closer to the end of the world’; or, simply, ‘Remember… you have been warned’.”
The Omen’s box office might not have come close to Jaws’ (a mere $200m shy of the shark domestically), but it was undeniably a comparable zeitgeist phenomenon. Like Jaws, it spawned a franchise of diminishing returns (albeit arguably, the quality control of The Omen was tighter and there was, at least, a legitimate plot progression to be pursued in the storytelling. This was also the case with Fox’s preceding SF franchise Planet of the Apes).
It also, more than merely banking on Antichrist currency, made 666 an instantly recognised and understood synonym for all that is satanic. You couldn’t get a better advert for the legitimacy of Christian beliefs if you tried, albeit one given to making up scripture when it needed a specifically chilling prophecy. Indeed, the consequence of The Omen is that 666 tends to be fished up any and everywhere due to home-schooled gematria, and it’s relatively easy to assert this or that world leader – or next-door neighbour – is the horned beast based on a few liberally interpreted number/name matches. As End Times Truth notes, The Bible identifies 666 as the number of man – Six is the number of man, and that of The Prisoner’s Number Six, “a free man!” – not of “a” man. In which case, the bar codes or vaccine branding – Luciferase and patent 060606, both of which seem like deliberate shit stirring – reading is probably a more legitimate bet.
I think it’s fair to suggest no one involved with The Omen was overly fussed about scriptural authenticity. Certainly not Richard Donner, who was keen to downplay the overtly supernatural (who needed it when you had Jerry Goldsmith giving it nothing but?) Donner labelled the movie a “mystery suspense thriller”, but really, the problem with that description is you need a mystery (no one going in will be in any doubt as to the truth slowly dawning on Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn). It’s true, though, that Donner was eschewing more obvious horror touchstones such as gore or atmospheric setting, and that his star casting gave the material a certain level of credibility not commonly reserved for the genre.
Donner directed his first feature in 1961, but his career took in TV shows (The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Banana Splits) for a looonnng time before he got his big break at 46. Among his early features was Twinky/Lola (1970), in which – get this – a writer of porn novels (Charles Bronson) falls for and marries a sixteen-year-old (luckily played by twenty-year-old Susan George). Yes, that’s what the era of free love was really about.
With The Omen and then Superman, though, he succeeded in starting two huge franchises, a more significant achievement than either wunderkinds Spielberg or Lucas had mustered by the end of the same decade. But then, Donner’s also the classic example of your proficient but unmotivated journeyman. He went on to work with the Beard on the suspect The Goonies (One-Eyed Willy, indeed), but it was in the action genre that he’ll be most remembered thanks to the massive appeal of the Lethal Weapons. He had no real flair for comedy (The Toy, Scrooged, both of them hits) and delivered one monumental bomb (Timeline, his only foray into science fiction). And at ninety, Donner’s still attached to the long-mooted Lethal Weapon V (that he hasn’t directed in a decade and a half tells you how likely that is to come to pass).
Perhaps the key ingredient Donner brings to The Omen is lustre. The movie didn’t have a high budget, but in tandem with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (whose next was, appropriately, Star Wars) he makes sure The Omen feels like it occupies the heightened realm of ambassadors’ receptions, rather the urban decay of many a 1970s feature. Or indeed, the gothic tint of Hammer (since the film is predominately set in the UK). Peck also brings that statesman tone. This isn’t where you expected Satan to be lurking. Well, not so manifestly anyway.
Such an attitude of religion and politics exasperated Newman. It wasn’t merely The Omen’s consummate marketing that bugged him, it was its very nature: “a stodgy, humourless film that suffers from the kind of religiosity that used to choke biblical epics of the 1950s”. I’d argue the problem is the less the religiosity than that religiosity’s lack of substance. More specifically, the absence of intelligence towards the devout found in one thoroughly exposed to belief the way William Peter Blatty was.* This was a key element he brought to both his Exorcists.
Writer David Seltzer cheerfully admitted he had to go out and read The Bible before penning The Omen, so it’s little surprise the results were as conspicuously shallow as Jaws’ insights into marine biology. Which, of course, was precisely the level of depth the responsive audience wanted; it was never going to rock the sincere Catholic contingent the way The Exorcist and The Passion of the Christ did, both to enormous box office (and this is a key Hollywood has never understood; the believers know if the makers are believers. Of course, talent is also required).
“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.”
Seltzer favoured defining Damien clearly as the Antichrist – he must have been thrilled with Billie Whitelaw’s demonic guardian nanny Baylock, then – whereas Donner preferred reticence. Whatever the director’s stated motives, he failed, because every other aspect (the design, the performance(s), the music, the marketing) actively worked against that “possibly maybe”. Brad Duren notes Seltzer’s decision (influenced by Harvey Bernard’s premise) to make Satan the father of the Antichrist and that “it was a sign of the popularity of The Omen that ever since the film had been released in 1976 it is widely believed, even by evangelical Christians, that Satan will be the father of the Antichrist despite the fact that The Bible says nothing of the sort” (indeed, just look at End of Days, which liberally plundered The Omen for “inspiration”). Duren also notes the necessity of the Antichrist’s reign as a prelude to rule of Christ (so The Final Conflict rather fudged things up there).
The Omen remains Seltzer’s greatest claim to fame – unless you count Shining Through – although he would revisit the horror genre for Prophecy (1979). Rather more prosaically than its title suggests, that one’s about a mutant bear. It does however, emphasise that Seltzer wasn’t really going in for subtlety, nuance or philosophical reflection.
Which is why I feel Newman’s response is a little on the puritanical side. In terms of mechanics, The Omenfunctions in terms essentially similar to the later Halloween and the slasher cycle, and Final Destination (perhaps the true inheritor, in terms of creative dispatch); it paces itself according to a death count. A glossy death count scored by an overpowering Jerry Goldsmith score, admittedly. If there’s an issue with this, it’s that the packaging suggests something more. Instead, it’s the doozy deaths you remember. In particular, Damien’s first nanny (Holly Palance) hanging herself on his fifth birthday (“Look at me, Damien. It’s all for you”), Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) impaled on a rogue church spire, and photo journo Jennings (David Warner) decapitated by an ambitiously launched pane of glass.
There’s nothing to Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) himself aside from careful Stuart Baird editing (the movie generally was apparently something of a salvage operation, Donner having despaired of the initial assembly). Now, if a Haley Joel Osment had been Damien, the results might have been terrifying; Stephens isn’t really giving a performance as such (if it weren’t the Golden Globes, you’d wonder how he’d warranted a nomination). Troughton, Warner and Whitelaw are all terrific presences – Leo McKern also shows up, somewhat defeated by a thick German accent – and The Omen is so much the better whenever any of them are on screen.
But the main plot warrants little suspense; the supposed seeking out of the truth about Damien is really what we know already. The only positive is that it’s the complete opposite of a Robert Langdon “puzzle”. One suspects the seizing upon a similar brand of ancient demonic dread as The Exorcist was intentional (The Omen goes to Israel, whereas The Exorcist had Iraq; never underestimate pan-global evil production value). The best element in this “mystery solving” part of the movie is probably the harbinger of death appearing in Jennings’ photographs.
Peck and Remick are only ever positioned as reactive to the monstrous minor in their midst, rather than proving strongly established characters in their own right (there probably ought to have been something made of the age gap between them, but nothing is; they may even be intended as similar ages, as there’s a line about two old college roommates). Newman reports a comment that in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre “monsters are an American family who destroy children; Donner has a child destroy the American family”. Which is a fair observation, I guess, and one might further inject some a degree of class commentary if one so wished. But Newman asserts of Peck that “his goodness is never questioned”, and I have to say I wasn’t so easily convinced.
Robert Thorn: Nothing’s too much for the wife of the future President of the United States.
For a start Thorn’s one of the elite; he’s the CEO of Thorn Industries and entirely entitled. He’s also a diplomat, meaning he should, by rights (or wrongs), be entirely compromised. We see he’s ready and willing to deceive his wife, however well intentioned; indeed, this deception is at the root of the unravelling that subsequently occurs in their lives (if one were to pursue the psychological explanation for events, he is manifesting guilt).
Thorn’s also stubbornly incapable of seeing what’s under his nose, allowing Nanny Baylock to impress herself on the family over his wife’s immediate reservations (no sooner has Baylock arrived than she demands to spend time alone with Damien). But while the culpability of power and position ought to attest to someone who, in any other movie, would be hosting the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut, it’s true that everything about Robert Thorn is played disappointingly straight (perhaps the oddest part is Peck taking the role as a cathartic challenge after the suicide of his son).
Newman’s also right that there’s a literalism to The Omen – Donner is nothing if not a tangible director – which means what you see is what you get. Perhaps the makers should have gone the whole hog and had the Antichrist ascend to the Presidency in the sequels (it’s certainly some way off in The Final Conflict). In The Secret History of the World, Jonathan Black discusses the then-percolating idea that Obama might fit the bill; since then, Trump has inevitably been labelled the same way (while others, in a very Antichrist-applicable divisiveness, have bestowed upon him saviour qualities). Black also refers to Rudolf Steiner’s interpretation of the manifestation of the Antichrist.
Steiner’s take was that the Antichrist would be an incarnation of Ahriman.** As described by Black, he would appear on stage “in the middle of shattering events, a war, and present himself as a benefactor to mankind”. He will also be a writer, amongst other things, and able to perform miracles that he will then explain scientifically and mechanically so as to convince the world “that no spiritual forces, no mysterious spiritual intelligences independent of matter, are necessary to explain the claims of religion”. He will go on to form schools to teach how to perform these “scientific miracles” which will “enable people to gain material benefits much more easily than if they had to work for them in the normal way”.
In other words, by plumbing for big business (evil) and social status (evil), Hollywood gave us exactly the expected figure, when it might be that we should be looking somewhere slightly less blatant. What is clear is that, whether it’s Hollywood or the alternative arena, the habit of looking for the obvious in reference to 666 or the Antichrist is prevalent. Which may be exactly what he wants. All these easily coded numbers or readily readable names being a degree of smoke and mirrors. As for his being very easily vanquished, well the Hollywood version would definitely be preferable.
*That’s not all Blatty was exposed to. Check out The Exorcist review for his wonderful world of MKUltra.
**Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently. Whereas Satan and Lucifer…