There are moments in film music that transcend, elevate and cross out of the theater into mainstream consciousness. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for 1976’s The Omen is one of those moments. A score that would go on to not only influence the horror score community itself, but Goldsmith’s professional career and the public at large. An experiment in avant garde and full up-front composing, Goldsmith held nothing back and the results will live in infamy as one of the best horror scores of all time. The atmosphere that Goldsmith would create in The Omen terrified audiences and truly worked as an asset to the film itself. One of the few horror scores to ever win an Academy Award, The Omen still holds up and is certainly deserving as this month’s feature piece of film music. Let’s dive in to this divine score shall we?
The Omen tells the story of the beautiful and affluent Thorn family. Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) is an American Ambassador. His beautiful and loving wife Katherine (Lee Remick) wants nothing more than to raise a child of her own. So, when Robert is informed that their baby is delivered stillborn, he struggles with how to break the news to his wife. And then a priest offers him a seemingly perfect solution. That same night, another baby was born and the mother did not survive the birth. The priest convinces Robert to adopt the orphan boy and pass him off to his wife as their own. And thus, Damien enters the Thorn family.
As years go by, it becomes apparent that Damien is not quite the blessing that he originally seemed to be. Dark circumstances and mysterious deaths seem to follow the boy around. Robert and intuitive photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) soon begin to unravel the mystery of Damien and find that he’s not simply a child, but perhaps the Antichrist and evil incarnate.
The Omen came about at an interesting time in American culture. The post-1960’s hippie/counter-culture pendulum was beginning to swing back the other way and a new era of devout religion and Christianity was beginning to emerge. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist recently rocked the mainstream world and The Omen was next in line. These films played upon the public’s fears of Satan and the battle between good and evil. What all three of these iconic films have in common (apart from the whole power of Satan thing) is their incredible scores.
When Director Richard Donner began thinking of whom to hire to composer the score for his film, there was one name at the top of his list; Jerry Goldsmith. Having recently composed scores for films like Chinatown, Papillon, Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run, Goldsmith was an established, respected and sought after composer. However, Donner ran into a little bit of a problem. While a studio picture, The Omen was a fairly low-budget film and Jerry Goldsmith was not a low-budget composer. Donner was originally only given $5,000 to hire a composer and he would be needing $20,000 more to hire the famous composer he desired. Lucky for Donner, he was able to convince Twentieth Century Fox President Alan Ladd Jr. that a Goldsmith score would bring The Omen to a new level. The larger budget was acquired and Goldsmith was secured for the project.
When it came time for Goldsmith to start composing for the film, he could have gone several different ways. Electronics were becoming more and more common in horror films. He could have also approached it in a more traditional, orchestrated way. There was even the possibility of a more minimalist, sparse and atmospheric approach. However, Goldsmith did none of these things…and all of these things at the same time. Goldsmith believed in the power of The Omen‘s story and created an intense, and on the surface, an over-the-top dramatic score. A combination of avant-garde style combined with traditionally religious material created a unique and powerful score that would go on to become one of the most influential horror scores of all time.
As horror fans, we are all suckers for a great title card and title sequence. The Omen does not disappoint in this disregard. From the simple off-center font choice, to the emerging red and black image of Damien and the cross, the stage is set in dramatic fashion. But what really sells The Omen from the very beginning, is the opening title track ‘Ave Satani‘ aka ‘Hail Satan.’ As a haunting piano sequence eases us in, we are then introduced to a thoroughly creepy chorus calmly and deliberately uttering the words ‘Sanguis…Bibimus…Corpus…Edimus.’ Translated loosely, this means ‘We drink the blood, we eat the flesh.’ Coinciding with the title card, the song kicks into full gear with plodding, deep note progressions from low strings and strikes from tubular bells which one can’t help but associate with church bells. The song continues to build with the addition of strong, determined male voices chanting the dark words. Adding yet another layer, female voices join in and together the chorus becomes a powerful force instantly creating a chill and setting an ominous and frightening tone for the film. Focused timpani and bass drum hits provide a robust foundation over which strings and voices alternate. Everything builds to a climax that is foreboding, perfect and terrifies before the story has even begun.
Rhythm plays an important role in The Omen score. Throughout the entirety of the score, syncopated eighth notes provide a simple, yet effective tension building technique signaling death or danger. A key scene where this is evident is the family’s ride to the church and the accompanying song ‘Broken Vows.’ Goldsmith says the inspiration for this song came from a very familiar place, Jaws. Released the previous year, the classic Jaws motif struck a chord with popular culture and provided a simple technique that could not be ignored. When Goldsmith asked Donner if he had any input in regards to the score, Donner responded with a request for something ‘Jaws-like.’ Goldsmith obliged and ‘Broken Vows‘ is Goldsmith’s tribute to John William’s iconic score.
As the family approaches the church, quick, low strings pulse accompanied by those classic tubular bells. The melody evolves as instruments quickly pop in and out and the pizzicato style of playing is executed on higher stringed instruments. This creates an unsettling and apprehensive atmosphere as Damien becomes increasingly uncomfortable. As the tension builds, oboes enter the mix playing a staccato repeated note pattern and the syncopated rhythm keeps predictability comfortably at bay. Once the comparison to Jaws is made, it’s so clearly evident that Goldsmith took the inspiration to heart, but in a way so entirely his own. One of Goldsmith’s greatest strengths as a composer is the way in which he builds an atmosphere and compliments a scene rather than competing with it. This track, and the way it works with the scene itself, is a shining example of why Goldsmith is one of the best film composers to have ever lived.
The final tracks I’d like to address are ‘666‘ and ‘The Demise of Mrs. Baylock.’ These two tracks are intriguing in the way that they work together. Set back to back, the two function as one unit and help to establish significance and weight to one of the most important scenes in the film. Throughout the film, Robert has been struggling to fully accept that Damien is in fact, evil incarnate. However, as he clips back Damien‘s hair while he sleeps, the incontrovertible evidence is revealed as the 666 birthmark is found. Dissonant notes and chords are played on a variety of string instruments, building up louder and louder to the big reveal. And then…a moment of silence. As an audience, we are unconsciously dependent on a film score to help direct us. Music cues are just that…cues. They give us hints as to what is about to happen and when that might occur. Goldsmith took advantage of this fact in this very moment and used silence as a technique to misdirect the audience. He lets us sit with the moment of Robert‘s revelation for a second and then out of seemingly nowhere, Mrs. Baylock lunges onto his back catching him, and us as an audience, off guard.
As the track ‘The Demise of Mrs. Baylock‘ kicks in, everything Goldsmith has musically established throughout the film kicks in. The vocals, the syncopation, the dissonant tones and avant-garde rhythmic patterns and chord progressions are all combined into this one powerful scene. As Robert and Baylock struggle in an epic fight of good versus evil, the music seems to battle itself; instruments versus vocals, woodwinds versus strings, horns versus percussion. Everything is seemingly at odds with each other and then, just like that, it’s over. What could have been a sort of cheesy scene with the over-the-top facial expressions and exaggerated struggle between the two characters becomes an incredibly intense and suspenseful fight when combined with Goldsmith’s music.
When the film was first released, Goldsmith initially got a lot of flack for the score. Critics panned it calling it offensive, pushy and pretentious. And yet, Goldsmith would do what few other horror films have done…he won an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1976. And don’t for a second think it’s because there wasn’t decent competition in that category that year. Other nominees included Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann (twice!) for the Brian De Palma film Obsession and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Also nominated were The Amityville Horror composer Lalo Schifrin for Voyage of the Damned and Jerry Fielding for The Outlaw Josey Wales. The competition was stiff, and Goldsmith came out on top. Shockingly, out of his 18 nominations for an Oscar, The Omen would provide Goldsmith with his only career win.
A score that has gone on to influence countless films, scores and even South Park episodes, The Omen is clearly a must have for anyone who loves film music. Originally released on vinyl in 1976, CD and cassette in 1990 and Mondo and Varese Sarabande vinyl reissues in recent years, The Omen is a soundtrack that is available on nearly any format one might desire. Plus, you get the perfectly sweet vocal version of ‘The Piper Dreams‘ sung by Goldsmith’s wife Carol only present on the film’s soundtrack. Prices range dependent on which version you’re looking at, but none of them are too pricey. So next time you’re holding a seance, feeling creepy, or just want to spook your neighbors, throw The Omen on your turntable and bask in the glory that Jerry Goldsmith created for this classic horror film.
What are some of your favorite Goldsmith scores? What did you think of The Omen score the first time you heard it? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!