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Bizarre things that happened on the set of The Omen

After the smash success of The Exorcist, many copycat films followed in its wake. One of the best — and most successful — was The Omen. Released on June 25, 1976, The Omen was a big hit at the box office, costing a paltry $2.8 million to make and earning back a whopping $48 million. The Omen not only reversed the fortunes of a flagging 20th Century Fox, it was also a big step up for television director Richard Donner, who then went on to helm Superman, The Goonies, and the Lethal Weapon series.

When people think of The Omen, they usually think of the powerful lead performance of Gregory Peck, who brought tremendous gravity to the story; the frightening Jerry Goldsmith score; and the unforgettable set pieces (who could forget the woman hanging herself at Damien's birthday party?). And of course, the legend of The Omen curse, that details the terrible tragedies and eerie coincidences that haunted the production.

Like Rosemary's Baby, in The Omen you're not sure whether there are truly evil deeds going on, or if the horrible events are just a bunch of morbid coincidences. And going through the history of the film, life was clearly imitating art — to the point that people seriously wondered whether the devil himself was trying to stop the film from getting made, or if the shoot was just having some seriously bad luck. Here's a look back at some of the many bizarre things that happened on the set of The Omen.

How The Omen was made

The initial idea for The Omen came from Robert L. Munger, a devout Christian who was inspired by reading the Book of Revelation. The idea intrigued producer Harvey Bernhard (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), but as the producer recalled in the documentary The Omen Legacy, "[Munger] warned us the devil didn't want us to make the picture." To some degree, Munger wanted The Omen to be a trojan horse that could potentially bring people to God, much like The Exorcist was a deeply Catholic story that reconnected author William Peter Blatty with his faith.

Screenwriter David Seltzer (Lucas) took Munger's acorn of an idea and crafted a harrowing rollercoaster of a screenplay that director Richard Donner loved immediately. Donner directed television for years, and The Omen would be the movie that would launch his career as an A-List feature director. As reported in the horror history Reel Terror, Donner told Seltzer, "This puts The Exorcist to shame. It's brilliant s***. All I have to do is not f*** it up." And indeed, with The Exorcist scaring the hell out of America, and making a ton of money at the box office, many major studios were now eager to do the devil's business.

Keeping it real

Oddly enough, The Omen ended up getting stuck in turnaround at Warner Bros., the same studio that released The Exorcist. The studio thought the stories were too similar, but Donner was able to get the movie set up at 20th Century Fox, who were going through their own cursed period with box office duds like At Long Last Love and The Blue Bird. While those films hemorrhaged money, The Omen was a low-risk proposition that could be made with a smaller budget, and if it was a hit, the studio could make a big return on investment.

When The Omen landed at Fox, studio head Alan Ladd Jr. made it clear that the movie should be grounded in reality. In the documentary The Omen Legacy, Seltzer recalled being told, "There must be nothing in this movie that you can't believe is actual... the whole force of this movie is the critical mass of a man's paranoia coming to be realized as actual. Every single event, every single death could be seen as the kind of freak accident that could occur in the world."

Donner added, "We did it on the basis of, this is the worst day of my life, nobody's gonna believe what happened today. That's the way we treated the film, that in their lives these massive coincidences happened."

Putting together a great case

The Omen had a great cast including Gregory Peck, the acclaimed Oscar-winning star of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee Remick (Days of Wine and Roses), David Warner (Time After Time, Titanic), and unknown child actor Harvey Stephens as the antichrist himself, Damien Thorn.

During Stephens' audition, Donner told the young boy to start hitting him and not to stop. The kid wailed on the director, even slugging him in between the legs, which cemented his hiring. "Take him, dye his hair black, he's the Antichrist!"

Peck agreed to do The Omen because he had just lost his son, and he wanted to throw himself back into his work to try and get over his grief. As Ladd explained in Reel Terror, "Putting Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in it, you're saying to people right off the bat this is not a normal horror picture. It was scary, but it was classy scary."

And Seltzer agreed: "Frankly, without Gregory Peck straight-facing his way through it, without the authority his body of work brought to it, this movie would have been preposterous."

The first signs of trouble

The first sign of trouble, or shall we say the first omen on The Omen, happened when Peck's plane was struck by lightning when he was flying to the London set. Three days later, as producer Mace Neufeld was flying over to England on the same flight, his plane was hit by lightning as well.

In the special The Curse of the Omen, Neufield recalled, "It was the roughest five minutes I've ever had on a commercial airline. It was very, very scary."

Planes being hit by lightning are not unusual — in fact, this happens quite frequently — yet once the cast and crew were on land, there were other ominous incidents. Often the cast and crew just missed getting hit by several tragedies by a day, or even an hour.

As Neufield recalled in The Omen: Curse or Coincidence, "We were in the midst of the IRA bombing all over London. We had reservations at a restaurant an hour before it was blown up. The subway station was blown up as we were walking towards it." While it's easy to dismiss these incidents or suspect they were made up, several specials that covered the film did provide newspaper reports of them, including the IRA bombing, which reportedly killed six people in the blast.

The production was also going to use a plane when they got a call from the airline: "We have a full charter. If you let us charter out, we'll give you the plane for practically nothing." But when the plane tried to took off, the engines gave out after hitting a flock of birds, and the plane crashed into a car after careening off the runway. Everyone in the car, and the pilot's wife and children, died in the crash. "It could have been us," Donner said years later. "If we had been shooting that day, maybe it would have been us."

When animals attack -- and a horrible car accident

During one sequence in the film, Damien's adopted mother takes her little Antichrist out for what's supposed to be a pleasant day at the zoo, but the animals sense they're in the presence of evil and freak out. The shoot went to the Windsor Wild Safari Park, where Donner shot a scene that involved lions that didn't wind up in the final film, so the crew moved on to the baboon section of the park. One of the guards in the zoo was later killed by two lions who snuck into his guard booth when he absent-mindedly left his door open.

During the scene when the baboons attack the family car, Remick had trouble working the gear shift, and when the baboons were unleashed, she genuinely freaked out on camera. The crew finally cleared the animals away from the car, and she was able to drive to safety.

One of the most haunting stories surrounding The Omen didn't happen during the shoot, but during the production of the World War II epic A Bridge Too Far. John Richardson, who did special effects on The Omen, was involved in a head-on collision that beheaded his girlfriend, eerily mirroring the decapitation scene with David Warner. Supposedly, after the crash Richardson saw a street sign that said, "Ommen, 66.6 km." This accident occurred after The Omen had wrapped production, but many of course linked it to the evil aura of the film.

A devil of a success

Once word got back to Fox about all the terrible incidents that plagued production, the studio saw it as a great way to drum up a ton of publicity and add to the film's ominous aura. They also put a great tagline into the film's ad campaign:

You have been warned. If something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It may be The Omen.

When The Omen was released on June 25, 1976, it was one of the biggest films of the year, raking in a monster $60 million worldwide. This was a huge return on investment for a movie that cost a paltry $2.8 million, and the success of The Omen gave Fox the money they needed to complete a little space opera named Star Wars, which was due to be released the following summer.

With The Omen scaring the hell out of millions of Americans, sequels were immediately put on the fast track, and Damien: The Omen II was released in 1978. (The film's tagline: "The first time was only a warning.")

Once again, the studio was looking for weird incidents they could use to the film's advantage. Lance Henriksen recalled during the Damien shoot that a memo was circulated among the cast and crew to report anything weird or odd happening to them so they could use it for publicity. "My bulls*** detector picked up," Henricksen said. "Harvey Bernhard was constructing mythology."

The Final Conflict, in which Damien is finally defeated, came in 1981, and another sequel, Omen IV: The Awakening, was released in 1991. (The Omen was also remade in 2006, but it didn't have anywhere near the same impact as the original.)

Coincidence, or...

To this day the debate continues as to whether there's any validity to the idea of an "Omen curse" — and as an Omen-focused episode of the Shudder series Cursed Films proves, fans of the film as well as members of the media are still eating it up more than four decades after the fact.

As Donner recalled in The Omen: Curse or Coincidence, "If we had been making a comedy, you would have recalled all the funny, great, ridiculous, silly moments that happened in that film. if you were doing a love story, you'd remember all the times somebody left their wife, fell in love... You're doing The Omen, anything that happens on that film, you don't tell about the jokes, you don't talk about the love stories, you don't even think about them. You think about things that coincidentally could have been something to do with The Omen. We had lots of them."

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