The Exorcist wasn’t the only cursed production during the 1970s.
Following the success of The Exorcist (1973), Hollywood dabbled in the diabolical once again with The Omen – another big studio production that tapped into the public’s fascination with theological horror. Again the focus was a child, only this time it wasn’t a case of possession. Cherubic little Damien was actually the son of the Devil – the Antichrist, as foretold in the Book of Revelation.
Originally titled ‘The Antichrist’ and then ‘The Birthmark’, The Omen was initially offered to Warner Bros. – who passed to make Exorcist II instead – and subsequently turned down by other major studios, until 20th Century Fox mogul Alan Ladd Jr. gave it the green light.
Gregory Peck was approached to play the father of the adopted Damien not long after the actor’s son had taken his own life; Peck’s agent believed the best therapy would be for him to get back to work. Director Richard Donner was convinced he would decline the role, however the actor agreed on the proviso the film would be treated as a psychological suspense thriller and not a horror film.
Production of The Exorcist had become infamous for being “cursed”, and The Omen was similarly plagued by mysterious occurrences – it seemed that when dealing with the Devil, a jinxed production is de rigueur.
The zookeeper assisting in a safari park sequence involving lions – which was shot but not included in the film – would later be savaged and killed by the big cats. Special effects artist John Richardson, who had designed the decapitation-by-pane-of-glass sequence, was working on A Bridge Too Far when he was involved in a car accident that beheaded his girlfriend – 66.6km from their destination! Peck and writer David Seltzer were travelling on separate planes, both of which were struck by lightning, and a flight that Peck had cancelled subsequently crashed with no survivors.
“I sincerely believe the Devil didn’t want the film to be made,” admits producer Harvey Bernhard in the DVD extras.
The Omen was to have originally concluded with Damien’s death, but on a suggestion from Ladd Jr., Donner quickly shot a new ending with the surviving Damien giving the camera a knowing smile. A trilogy was born.
Shot for $2.5 million, and backed by a six million dollar publicity campaign, The Omen was a resounding success at the box office, grossing over $60 million and winning Jerry Goldsmith the Oscar for Best Original Score. Directed with consummate style by Donner and boasting some respectable star power, it remains a classic of seventies cinema.