THE OMEN (1976)
Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is the US Ambassador to Great Britain in this movie. He and wife Katherine (Lee Remick) are desperate for a child of their own so, when their baby is stillborn, Robert arranges through a priest to accept a replacement child recently born without telling his wife what has transpired. As mysterious deaths begin to happen around the ambassador, suspicions arise that the boy Damien (Harvey Stephens) might possibly be the Anti-Christ – the Devil’s own son! Occasionally, supernatural thrillers strike a chord with movie-goers and a hit emerges. The Omen is one such film and it would spawn a sequel.
Director Richard Donner (L) with Gregory Peck
Director Richard Donner knew precisely the kind of boy he needed to portray the evil Damien, so in the auditions he instructed the youngsters lined up to ‘come at him’, as if they were attacking Katherine Thorn during the church wedding scene. They were to hold nothing back. Five year-old Harvey Stephens launched himself at Donner, screaming, clawing at his face and kicking him in the groin! Donner pulled the boy off him, ordered his hair to be dyed black and cast him as Damien. British actress Billie Whitelaw, who played Mrs. Baylock in the picture, said of young Harvey: ‘I wanted to strangle him. He really was a little devil. He was just awful.’ The director often resorted to shouting at the boy off-screen in order to obtain the appropriate facial expressions. ‘What are you looking at you little bugger? I’ll clobber you!’ was occasionally heard echoing around the set.
The wonderful Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
At the time of shooting, Gregory Peck was going through a terrible time. His son Jonathon had committed suicide in 1975 while Peck had been away. Consequently, he felt racked with guilt and possibly accepted the role of Damien’s tortured father as some kind of penance. He accepted the role at a huge salary cut (he was paid just $250,000), but agreed to a 10% cut of the picture’s box-office grosses. To the surprise of just about everyone involved, The Omen took in $60 million in the United States alone, making it the highest-paid payday of Peck’s entire career! Donner believed that much of the movie’s enormous success was due to Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score which, he felt, increased the tension and fear. Goldsmith received just $25,000 to compose the score and it won him his solitary career Oscar. The picture itself was the fifth highest grossing movie of 1976.
Lee Remick as Katherine Thorn
For those who like to ignore coincidence and prefer to believe that some productions are cursed, The Omen certainly seemed to fit the bill. Of course, opinion on the validity of the following claims is divided to this day. Peck and screenwriter David Seltzer took separate flights to the UK for the shoot and both airliners were struck by lightning on route. Later, Peck cancelled a flight to Israel and the aircraft he was to have chartered allegedly crashed, killing all five passengers on board. Then producer Harvey Bernhard was in Rome when lightning narrowly missed him. Donner’s hotel was bombed by the IRA and he was also struck by a car. On day one of the shoot, several principal members of the crew survived a head-on car crash. Rottweilers were said to have turned on their trainers and injured them. There was even a tale about baboons used in the picture attacking and killing their zookeeper! Debate continues around whether or not these ‘incidents’ actually took place or were merely part of a publicity campaign aimed at promoting the movie.
It should also be noted at this point that Donner himself declared he feared for his life throughout the making of The Omen, convinced that the Devil or other demonic forces would strike him down! Until he was placed at the helm of this picture, he had only done TV work, so The Omen not only made him rich, it also opened the door for him to direct the highly successful ‘Superman’ franchise, the equally successful ‘Lethal Weapon’ films, The Goonies and other successes. And he is still living. The man turned ninety in April 2020. Feel free to draw your own conclusions. I have certainly drawn mine.
DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978)
This sequel to The Omen was released two years later but was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Consequently, plans for a third film along similar lines were cancelled, at least for the time being. In 1981, however, The Final Conflict was released and later re-titled Omen III: The Final Conflict, in an attempt to cash in on the word ‘omen’. A decade elapsed until the diabolically awful Omen IV: The Awakening reared its ugly head. Indeed, the demon child fad of the seventies was short-lived following the mediocre showing by this film, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and The Chosen (1977).
Jonathan Scott-Taylor as Damien
Damien: Omen II is set seven years after the original, when Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is about to turn thirteen and is discovering just who he is. He is now living with his Uncle Richard (William Holden) and Aunt Ann (Lee Grant) in a wealthy area of Chicago. Fifty-nine year old Holden had been the first choice to play Robert Thorn in the first picture and had turned it down, not wanting to be in a movie about the Devil. After the huge success of The Omen, however, he was quick to accept the starring role in the sequel. Director Richard Donner was wanted at the helm but he had moved on and was busy directing the blockbuster feature Superman (1978).
Academy Award-winning actress Lee Grant had previously been blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and had not worked for years. According to her autobiography titled I Said Yes to Everything, she was eager to get back into the swing of things; purposely taking whatever B-feature or sequel she was offered. No doubt to her eternal embarrassment, she also made the ludicrous bomb The Swarm in 1978; then followed it with Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), which was almost as bad.
When The Omen was made there was a deliberate attempt to be discreet in terms of gore, a concerted attempt to separate it from the far gorier The Exorcist (1973), and the result was a pretty good picture for that particular genre. The sequel, however, was much gorier and the outcome was little more than a demon child/slasher pic that clearly appealed less to audiences than the original.