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Once Upon a Time in Film Scoring: The Omen

A new 4K restoration of Richard Donner’s The Omen screens tonight, October 8th, with encore screenings on Friday, October 10th & Saturday, October 11th

A version of this article was originally published in Drunk Monkeys Lit + Film; reprinted with permission.

The Omen
Harvey Stephens as Damien, a very naughty boy.

Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) remains one of the seminal religious-themed horror films to have been released in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski 1968) and The Exorcist (Friedkin 1973), cashing in on the socio-political and religious hysteria of the 1970s.

I first saw The Omen when I was in a teenager. It was perhaps the first horror film to truly scare the shit out of me. For many years, I considered it my favorite horror film. Not only did the film’s credibility increase due to the presence of actors such as Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and David Warner, but it was also genuinely scary.

Aside from some gruesome deaths, the film gets under your skin through suggestion—challenging your rational mind through suspension of belief. For me the scariest moment of the film is when Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) appears in Katherine Thorn’s hospital room with the most hellish expression on her face. That image stays with me to this day and produces a shudder through my body every time I rewatch the film.

The Omen’s most terrifying aspect is Jerry Goldsmith’s score, for which the composer won an Academy Award.”

As a young Catholic, the film made an indelible impression on me, especially how its story—where an American ambassador and his wife unknowingly raise the alleged Antichrist—appears to be scripture-based. Many years later and through careful analysis, I learned how blatantly the Book of Revelation and other Biblical texts are misconstrued and blown out of proportion for the sake of the film’s plot mechanisms.

However, The Omen’s most terrifying aspect is Jerry Goldsmith’s score, for which the composer won an Academy Award. While the score haunted me upon my first viewing of the film, hearing it in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound in a theater during college made me feel as if the Devil was in the auditorium.

At left: Opening theme of The Omen (1976)

For the sake of space, I will limit my exploration to the film’s main theme, Ave Satani, and apply not only my catechesis of the Catholic Church, but also my background in Gregorian Chant to its analysis.

Before settling properly into the film’s narrative, Goldsmith’s score sets the tone during the opening credits. We first hear a lone piano phrase over low, dissonant strings. The bass descends before striking up a rhythmic pattern, emphasizing beats one and three. Moments later a chorus enters. On screen, red lighting frames a boy-like figure, his shadow casting the outline of an upturned crucifix.

“We drink the blood. / We eat the body. / Raise the body of Satan. / Hail, hail the Antichrist. / Hail, Satan!”

If this isn’t enough to set viewers on edge, a close examination of the chorus’s text might. When composing the piece, Goldsmith was inspired by Gregorian Chant and decided to invert phrases from the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Also known as the Tridentine Mass, the form was celebrated in Latin for centuries until the 1960s. The liturgy is still allowed to be used by certain religious orders today, although the Novus Ordo (the vernacular Mass of Pope Paul VI) became the more common form celebrated following the Vatican II council.

Goldsmith was assisted by a choirmaster, who had a background in Latin. The text reads as follows:

“Sanguis bibimus. / Corpus edimus. / Tolle corpus Satani. / Ave, ave Versus Christus. / Ave Satani!

The lyrics translates into English as:

“We drink the blood. / We eat the body. / Raise the body of Satan. / Hail, hail the Antichrist. / Hail, Satan!”

While one can argue the correct declension of Latin phrases, the intent is quite clear: to invoke the horror that is the antithesis of portions of the Roman Rite, in service to the film’s narrative. The lyrics not only inverts the Transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but also portions of the Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith) and the prayer, Ave Maria (Hail, Mary).

When the chorus enters, the vocalists sing in unison, the Latin phrasing and rhythm inducing the flow and solemnity of Gregorian chant. As the piece continues, the voices split into a homophonic structure (where harmony supports the main melody). The bass and tenor voices constitute the chanted phrases, while the alto and soprano voices fill in the harmony. Occasionally, the women interject the phrase “Ave Satani” in an manner that resembles a wail as they slide between pitches.

At right: Dies Iræ

Goldsmith also appears to insert another reference to plainchant through his use of strings. While Goldsmith is quick to mention how John Williams’s score for Jaws (Spielberg 1975) was a big influence on The Omen’s score—especially in terms of projecting fear through the use of a few notes—I would argue that the strings reference the medieval chant hymn, Dies Iræ.

Most viewers may recognize the chant repurposed in other films like The Devils (Russell 1971) and The Shining (Kubrick 1980). Electronic composer Wendy Carlos quotes the opening melody over The Shining‘s opening sequence.

At left: Opening theme of The Shining (1980)

Goldsmith also quotes the opening phrase, specifically the first four neumes, or notes. Rather than quote the musical phrase as written, Goldsmith reverses it, while retaining the rhythmic pattern of the trochaic meter (where a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable). This inversion of the quotation acts as a driving force for the satanic chant and creates a sense of foreboding.

The hymn is compiled in the 1962 Roman Missal and is usually performed as a sequence during a Requiem Mass. It’s text depicts the Last Judgement, which the Christian church believes will signify Christ’s Second Coming. Sections of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels refer to the Last Judgement (such as in Matthew 7:13-25); however, most depictions of the event are inspired by the apocalyptic imagery within the Book of Revelation.

Goldsmith’s use of trumpets also recall the Day of Wrath. Revelation 8-9 depicts calamities upon the earth following trumpet blasts by seven Angels. 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 also depicts the sounding of the trumpet, when the dead shall be raised and be made incorruptible; this text has been popularized in Handel’s Messiah. In contrast, Goldsmith’s use of trumpets—in combination with the strings which invert the Dies Iræ’s opening phrase—appears to instead welcome the Antichrist into the world.

At right: Trailer for The Omen (1976)

By adapting quotations from musical sources and inverting liturgical texts, Goldsmith effectively instills a sense of dread within the first minute of The Omen. While Goldsmith incorporates further musical techniques to differentiate between normality and rising hysteria throughout the course of the film, his theme Ave Satani stands out for its musical structure. In effect, Goldsmith’s score differentiates The Omen from dime-a-dozen religious-themed horror films and elevates it to one of the scariest films of all time.


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