31 Days of Hell: The Omen (1976) - Reviewed

In 1966, TIME Magazine shocked the nation with its first ever text only cover. Released on April 8th of that year, the issue’s face featured a solid black background with blood red font containing only three words: “Is God Dead?”  Written by TIME’s religion editor John Elson, the article created an avalanche of criticism. In her 50th Anniversary piece, writer Linda Rothman stated the iconic issue “inspired countless angry sermons and 3,421 letters from readers… The National Review responded by asking whether TIME were, in fact, the dead one. Bob Dylan even criticized it in a 1978 interview with Playboy”.  At the center of the uproar was Professor William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Elson’s choice to profile Hamilton as the main theologian was a controversial one because, according to writer Jon Meacham, “as a longtime churchgoer, he was all the more a threat to unreflective Christianity.” 

The piece by TIME, although nuanced, did not focus on the metaphorical death of God through the lack of disbelief. Hamilton along with Thomas Altzier, another theologian spotlighted, argued that the work of God was no longer needed by man, therefore he had to literally die in order to make way for the apocalypse. To the horror of readers, Hamilton and Altzier’s theories surrounding a dead God appeared to be a reality. The years that followed saw the Mason Family murders and the publishing of the Satanic Bible in 1969, Satanism recognized as a practice in 1971, and a general rise in occultism, ultimately resulting in the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s.

Scores of films produced during this period reflected the public fear of an impending apocalypse. A quick google search for ‘Satanic movies of the ‘70s’ will provide film lovers hours of cinematic lore surrounding The Dark Lord. However, most of these films do not encapsulate the mood at the time as much as the ‘unofficial’ Satanic Trilogy, beginning with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), followed by Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and culminating with Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).

On the heels of the theatrical release of The Exorcist, Producer Harvey Bernhard contacted writer David Seltzer (Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971), uncredited) and according to Seltzer said “Have you seen The Exorcist?.. Well, I want one of those!” At the time of its release, The Exorcist caused mass hysteria. Moviegoers waited in long lines, often in inclement weather to see this film, even though critics at the time gave it mixed reviews. Reports of audience members having adverse reactions to the film, like vomiting and fainting, added to the hype of the film’s perceived realness. There were even reports of heart attacks, miscarriages and what some psychiatrists called ‘cinematic neurosis’. 

With Satanic occultism in the forefront of the public consciousness at the time, and at the behest of Bernhard, Seltzer created the script for The Omen. Bernhard later signed on Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the lead characters Robert and Katherine Thorn giving the film weight in the world of serious cinema. Seltzer’s original story included many fictional creature elements but were ultimately cut by director Richard Donner on the insistence that The Omen, like The Exorcist, feel as real as possible. 

The resulting film is a slow and serious cerebral horror surrounding rising politician Robert Thorn and his decision to secretly adopt a child after his wife Katherine unknowingly gives birth to a stillborn son. Beginning on their son Damien’s fifth birthday, the couple is forced to grapple with what appear to be a series of horrible coincidental deaths. This leads Robert down an investigative path involving the Catholic Church as he tries to learn about the true origins of his adopted son.  

Unlike The Exorcist, the violent tone of The Omen is muted, choosing instead to implement a combination of soft and deep focus cinematography with slow-burn storytelling. Director of Photography Gilbert Taylor’s camera work, containing elements of what would go on to become a signature of Donner’s films, works well in this context as it creates an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere. Shock for the viewers is quarantined to the exact instances of the deaths, leaving much of the run-time of The Omen dedicated to skepticism. “Is Damien The Antichrist or isn’t he? I mean, he has not actually done anything wrong.” Writer David Seltzer commented that the strength of The Omen lies in the film’s innocent villain, to which I have to agree. Damien Thorn is a background character, with only one truly questionable moment. The horror lives in Damien being adjacent to terrible deaths, much like Elson’s TIME Magazine article having been adjacent to horrible historic events. Therefore, the terror exists in perception. In this sense, The Omen perfectly captures the public psyche of the time, illustrating the aura of uncertainty following the rise of a new secularism. 

Overall, The Omen has aged well. The decision to choose dialogue in lieu of gore has allowed for an engaging viewing experience even in 2019. It also helps that Shout Factory has just released a box set of all of the films in the franchise including a 4K restoration of the original film, which is gorgeous. 

-Dawn Stronski