I write this retrospective as a warning. A cautionary testament to the sinister forces aligning within the darkened corners and amorphic shadows that visit us while we sleep. Like you, I was once a harum-scarum, devil-may-care, Nightmare on Film Street follower with my head in the clouds and a mouth full of pie. I drifted through this mortal coil on an inflatable swimming pool lounger, blind to the evil lurking beneath the surface. But now, having glimpsed the abyss, I fear I may not have much time left to share this ill-fated tale of tragedy. As the anniversary of the 1976 film The Omen approaches and my article deadline inches closer, I sense the same forces that conspired to put an end to the film’s production have now set their sights on me.
Perhaps I had better start from the beginning. The year was 1973 and Satanic Panic was on the rise. 1972’s bestselling novel The Exorcist would soon find new life on the big screen and with the proliferation of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, Satanism and the occult weighed heavily on society’s collective consciousness. This decade defining occult hysteria was prime material for opportunistic filmmakers to cash-in on audience anxieties. Producer Harvey Bernhard tasked writer David Seltzer with realizing this cultural phobia into a screenplay. However, it would be another two years before production on the film would actually begin.
Dominus Diabolus Sabaoth
Primarily shot in England, filming began in October of 1975. Directed by Richard Donner (The Goonies) and starring Gregory Peck (Cape Fear), The Omen newly imagined the AntiChrist’s rebirth. A re-imagining that was soon accepted as prophecy upon the film’s release. Treading similar ground as 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and 1973’s The Exorcist, where its predecessors centered around the mother of the demonic child, The Omen shifts our focus to the father. After a series of unfortunate deaths and ominous warnings, American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) suspects his son Damien of being the AntiChrist. With the help of a photographer named Jennings (David Warner), Thorn sets out on a cross-continental journey to discover the truth about Damien and uncover the mysterious events surrounding his birth.
The production’s tone was set early on. Gregory Peck had emerged from retirement only months after his son’s suicide to play a man confronted with the obligation of killing his own son. As the tragically dark themes and events that characterize The Omen extended beyond the camera’s frame, rumors of a curse began to circulate. The ominous and sometimes fatal coincidences permeated into the lives of the cast and crew. Sometimes reaching beyond the film’s production, the grim occurrences suggest that involvement in the project had left some “marked”. Any person related to or within proximity of these “marked” individuals was in great danger.
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The doomful events had a deceptively innocuous beginning. On a direct TWA flight from Los Angeles to London, somewhere over the Atlantic, lightning struck Gregory Peck’s plane. Safely arriving at its destination, the threatening nature of this event wasn’t apparent until three days later when David Seltzer was making the same flight and his plane was also struck by lightning. Failing to heed these warnings, the cautionary signs soon turned fatal. Shooting for the film took place in London during the 1975 surge of IRA bombings. Members of the cast and crew had a reservation at Scott’s Oyster Bar in London but an hour before their reservation an IRA member threw a shrapnel laced bomb into the restaurant. Similarly, the Piccadilly bombing at the Green Park Underground Station occurred while cast and crew were walking to the station.
As if the dark forces were growing frustrated by the film’s continuing production, the events became more uncanny. A plane had been chartered with the intent of filming it on the ground at a small airport. To save a little cash, Donner accepted a deal where the rental rate would be discounted provided the charter company could continue using the reserved plane while filming wasn’t taking place. That day, the plane took off and hit a flock of birds, causing the engines to fail. The plane quickly lost airspeed and crashed onto a nearby street. It collided with a car, killing everyone inside. The fatalities contained within the car were the wife and two children of the plane’s pilot. This horrific coincidence undoubtedly left some people shaken but production continued on.
The film features a terrifying scene where baboons, provoked by the presence of Damien, relentlessly attack the Thorn family’s car. The scene was filmed at the Windsor Safari Park and while this horrifying nightmare was being staged, something equally horrific was taking place on the other side of the park. After having shot a sequence at the lion enclosure that never made it into the film and having moved on to the baboon section, two lions attacked and killed a guard. Production had once again narrowly avoided catastrophe.
These fatal warnings and deadly near misses created a palpable sense of dread on set but, unlike the film, the tragic events didn’t end when the cameras stopped rolling. The “marked” individuals carried the curse with them into post-production and even to other films. John Richardson was the special effects artist responsible for orchestrating the film’s famous decapitation scene. After production on The Omen had ended, Richardson went to work on the 1977 war drama, A Bridge Too Far. While filming in the Netherlands, Richardson and his girlfriend decided to go for a drive into Belgium. The car was in a head on collision and his girlfriend was decapitated. According to producer Harvey Bernhard, when Richardson came to in the wreck the first thing he saw was a road sign that read “Liège 66.6 kilometers.”
Dies Irae, Dies Illa
Just as these sinister forces sought to put an end to the film’s production, so to have they intervened in my editorial efforts. It is said that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. As these tragic events demonstrate, any threat to this deception will be met by calamitous results. Harvey Bernhard felt the presence of evil, the same foreboding presence I feel now. On his way home, with film negatives in hand, his flight made an emergency stop in Newfoundland. Such an inauspicious diversion so close to home. He said, “I don’t think we’re gonna get back.” In a sense he never did. None of us ever truly do.
[Editor’s note: This editorial was retrieved from Colin’s laptop after it was discovered in a ditch along a remote highway. His whereabouts are currently unknown.]