“Hail Satan!”: THE OMEN and Jerry Goldsmith’s Trilogy of Terror

Published in Film Score Monthly Online
December 2007

 

Growing up to the accompaniment of my father’s Roger Williams and Mantovani records, the harshest musical sounds in our house came from Beethoven’s Eroica.
In the summer of 1976, that all changed.

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omen2.jpg“You have been warned…” That four-word tagline on the movie poster for The Omen served as a lightning rod. And one sweltering Texas June day, I was scared out of my pubescent senses by, among other things, one creepy little boy and one memorable beheading. I forked over my allowance money to buy the soundtrack (my first) as an aural memory of my new “favorite movie,” which had moved into the top slot previously held by Jaws. God (or the Devil) only knows what my parents thought of the satanic sounds booming from behind my locked bedroom door. At the time I was unaware those devilish noises had launched me on a voyage of discovery that defined my music listening habits and my career.

An in-depth analysis of the Omen score and its sequels—Damien: Omen II and The Final Conflict—would require much more room than 3,000 words of online space can provide. Rather, this article highlights the musical terrain of three remarkable scores that have brought me hours of listening pleasure and shaped my taste in music.

The Omen
Director Richard Donner was a fan of Jerry Goldsmith’s earlier film scores and knew he was the perfect composer for The Omen. He also knew he couldn’t afford him. However, 20th Century Fox head Alan Ladd, Jr. gave the greenlight for a special budget extension to allow Donner to hire the composer—and horror films were never the same.

In the documentary that accompanies the deluxe edition of the DVD, Goldsmith called his music for The Omen his most “avant garde” score yet, allowing him the most musical freedom since Planet of the Apes nine years earlier. Arguably, the single most distinctive feature of the score is the use of chorus. Whether barking, howling, whispering or chanting Latin phrases, the chorus “grunts and groans,” said Goldsmith, “making strange noises that are not necessarily musical, but [were] incorporated…as being musical.” And from the first notes, Goldsmith’s music sends chills up our spines.

Above a quiet, sustained dissonance in the strings, the piano plays an unsettling seven-note motif, sounding like some diabolical lullaby, incorporating the tonic (C) and the third (E) of the key of C-major. The chorus chants, “Sanguis Bibimus/Corpus Edimus” (“The blood we drink/The flesh we eat”) as a blood-red light frames the silhouette of a young boy, his shadow forming a cross. A chime rings outs as the film’s title appears onscreen and the men call out to the Devil’s apostates, “Tolle Corpus Satani!/Ave!” (“Raise the body of the Satan!/Hail!”), and “Ave Satani” scares the bejesus out of us before we’ve seen a single image of the story proper.

Goldsmith has stated in interviews that the main thrust of the score was rhythm. At its most basic level, pulsating eighth (and later sixteenth) notes signal death. The pattern can be first heard as the photographer Jennings (David Warner) develops Father Brennan’s (Patrick Troughton) photo, foreshadowing his gruesome demise. Goldsmith also employs steady eighth notes during Damien’s (Harvey Stephens) ride to church. A simple rhythmic cell begins in the cellos and grows more intense as the limousine approaches the church. Chimes, pizzicato strings playing col legno (striking the strings with the wood of the bow), staccato oboes, low piano notes and percussion are all punctuated by syncopation. As the camera pans to the sight of Christ atop the church, an ascending French horn riff unleashes the chorus, followed by a brief pause, and then all hell breaks loose in the music and onscreen as Damien attacks his mother (Lee Remick), his screams of “Help!” mingling with the screams of the chorus. Later, Goldsmith cleverly uses the same music as a pack of wild baboons, freaked out by the presence of evil, attacks the car as Kathy (Remick) and Damien try to drive through the safari park.

Two of the most grisly set pieces in the film are the deaths of Father Brennan and of Jennings. The first happens in the middle of a violent windstorm in Bishop’s Park. With tree limbs bending in the wind and leaves swirling around the frightened priest, Goldsmith once again relies on steady eighth notes to propel the scene as a musical cacophony erupts in the chorus, punctuated by three-note trumpet motifs and the hammering of an anvil. The woodwind triplets rise ever higher until five dissonant chords signal the lightning bolt that plunges the lightning rod to the ground, impaling the priest, as if God is smiting him. Once again, Goldsmith reuses the same music to accompany Jennings’s gruesome end.

The musical highpoint of The Omen is, arguably, the dog attack in the cemetery. String trills and harmonics accompany the blowing wind, breaking branches and heavy breathing, setting our nerves on edge. Shouts of “Ave Satani” accompany Robert’s (Gregory Peck) discovery that his son was murdered at birth and replaced with the son of a jackal. Muted trombones punch out edgy eighth notes punctuated by tom-tom riffs as the chorus shouts “Versus Christus” (“the Antichrist”), and the pauses in the music create further tension. The two main verses of “Ave Satani” are sung on top of each other creating vocal cacophony. The strings shriek higher and higher, the voices sink deeper into the pits of Hell, until every instrument and voice is shrieking and shouting in frustration as the two men escape.

The last big use of the chorus is one of the most frightening cues in the score. After Robert finds the “666” (the sign of the Devil) under Damien’s scalp, Goldsmith stops the music completely. When Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) leaps into our vision and attacks Robert, the chorus shrieks and the men and women compete as the two physically (and musically) fight each other to the death. As Mrs. Baylock lies on the kitchen floor with forks sticking out of both sides of her neck, the men of the chorus sigh as the life leaves her body.

Though Goldsmith’s distinctive use of chorus has an undeniable impact on the score, some of the most haunting passages can be found in quieter moments. The beautiful love theme represents not only the relationship between Robert and Kathy, but also their love for Damien early in the film. The haunting melody provides welcome respite from the harsh, angular harmonies of much of the score. The theme (titled “The Piper Dreams”) was set to the lyrics of (and sung by) Goldsmith’s wife, Carol, for inclusion on the album. The seven-note piano motif, first heard in the opening credits, later transforms, becoming more malevolent through more dissonant key relationships as Kathy begins to suspect evil in Damien.

Goldsmith makes judicious use of electronic music in the film, limiting it to the appearances of the Rottweiler, which serves as the guardian of Hell. (Electronics play a more pivotal role in the score for Damien: Omen II.) One glance from his deep brown eyes, you too will be hearing synthesizers in your head and hanging yourself from English countryside estates.

Critics were not particularly kind to Goldsmith, perhaps because the film was seen as nothing more than a cheap horror flick. Frank Rich in the New York Post labeled the music “typically pushy,” and Variety said, “At various points, portents of Satanism emerge, underscored (or, rather, overscored) by Jerry Goldsmith’s heavy music.” Most offensive was New York magazine, calling Goldsmith a “pretentious hack…who has the impudent tendency to cannibalize Stravinsky without crediting him—as he did in Straw Dogs and again here.” (It is difficult to take the review seriously, however, since the critic didn’t seem to remember that Jerry Fielding composed the effective score for Straw Dogs, liberally borrowing from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.)

Given his reputation in the industry and the film’s success at the box office, it came as no surprise that Goldsmith’s score copped an Academy Award nomination. What set people on their ears was the Best Song nomination for “Ave Satani.” The song was an odd choice to say the least, and certainly not normal Oscar fare. However, when Ann-Margret announced Goldsmith’s name as the winner in the Best Original Score category, justice was finally served for this 10-time nominee.

Damien: Omen II
Richard Donner became a hot property in Hollywood following his success with The Omen, and his next gig at the helm of Superman left him unavailable to direct part two of the trilogy. Don Taylor, wh took over from Michael Hodges, was no fool. Having worked with Goldsmith on Escape From the Planet of the Apes, he knew he needed the composer for the Omen sequel, awkwardly titled Damien: Omen II.

In The Omen, most of the major characters were killed. This time around, the body count almost doubles and yet the film is not nearly as frightening as the original. However, the sequel allows Goldsmith the opportunity to indulge himself with moments of dark humor, and the score is considered the most enjoyable of the three for many fans. The Village Voice pointed out that Goldsmith had “lightened his Gregorian chant until it is both more colloquial and ecstatic. Every massacre has its prologue, death march, and coda. If there isn’t a disco hit in the score I’ll be a son of a jackal.”

The film begins immediately where the action of the first film left off. The exorcist Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), who had provided the daggers to kill Damien, was back for the sequel, albeit briefly. As he careens through the narrow streets of Jezreel, pulsating synthesizers over the opening credits introduce a new sound to the now familiar “Ave Satani,” and a five-note motif in the muted trombones punctuates the driving rhythm in the basses and cellos. As “Hail Satan!” rises higher and higher in the chorus, a trumpet fanfare proclaims the victory of the Antichrist.

This time around, the animal minion from Hell is a raven, and Goldsmith amusingly lets the men of the chorus belch “arak” as a prelude to every death. The bird also instigates one of the most grisly death scenes as it attacks journalist Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd) on an abandoned country road. The synthesizers pulse, and the lower strings plunk out a harsh, steady rhythm with the wood of their bows, while the upper strings violently flutter like the raven’s wings slashing at Joan’s face. The men of the chorus “aah” in descending half steps, the trumpets peck out sixteenth notes, the percussion shake and rattle, and the entire musical forces laugh in demonic glee as Joan gets run over by an 18-wheeler.

The music switches gears for the next cue as Richard (William Holden) and the boys careen through the winter countryside on snowmobiles to the strains of piccolos chirping and swirling sixteenth notes in the violins. The organ, which inhabits a more prominent role in this score, joins the piccolo motif and Mother Nature cavorts with the devil as Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres) sinks to his death under frozen lake. Another haunting cue is heard late in the film as Mark (Lucas Donat) hides in the woods from the realization of Damien’s (Jonathan Scott Taylor) actual persona. Slide whistle, mournful strings and sighing chorus convey the cold, wintry landscape and the loneliness Mark feels for the loss of his cousin whom he loved, and yet the music fills us with dread as we watch Damien follow him into the woods.

Throughout the film, Goldsmith adapted portions of his Omen score, which allowed him to be eligible as a finalist in the unwieldingly named “Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score” category at the Oscars. However, he did not make the cut for the final three, losing out to Jerry Wexler’s Pretty Baby, Quincy Jones’ The Wiz, and the winner, Joe Renzetti, for The Buddy Holly Story.

The Final Conflict
In The Final Conflict, director Graham Baker and writer Andrew Birkin concoct a disappointing conclusion to the trilogy played out against a backdrop of confusing (and pointless) politics, racking up the dead bodies to an absurd (and non-frightening) degree. But the real devil of the film is Sam Neill as Damien. While he exudes the charm and oily smoothness of the now-adult character, there is no menace in his bearing, and it is difficult to take him seriously as the Antichrist. To put it in perspective, the Amsterdam News in New York City carried this item: “A group of self-proclaimed ‘witches’ demonstrated in front of 20th Century-Fox Studio to protest the company’s release of its film, The Final Conflict….The group objected to the film’s interpretation of the death of the Son of Satan. What they should have been protesting is the movie’s dull script and bland protagonist.” No one, however, objected to Goldsmith remaining on board to complete his masterful trilogy.

Gone is the creepy “Ave Satani” slinking its way into our subconscious at the beginning of the film. This time, the brass introduces a majestic, minor-key theme for Damien punctuated by timpani and bass drum, followed by the chorus singing the theme in Latin. The powerful melody leaves us with no question as to who is in power. However, the chorus “aahs” and the strings reach heavenward as the theme for Christ makes its presence felt as Father DeCarlo (Rozzano Brazzi) prays over the excavated daggers that will be used once more to attempt to kill Damien.

The most gruesome death scene is the ambassador’s suicide. The chorus slowly plods out the remaining seconds, repeating the same phrase over oscillating chord progressions. As the journalists arrive for a press conference, the chorus shrieks in horror as the ambassador’s skull splatters against the back wall. Later, as the first monk fails in his attempt to assassinate Damien, he plummets to his death, performing a high-wire act of immolation. Steadily pulsating sixteenth notes in the synthesizers and xylophone convey a fiendish take on Khatchaturian’s famous Sabre Dance, while the French horns howl in fiery pain.

In this film, certain scenes were entirely reliant on Goldsmith’s music. To that end, Goldsmith created cues that moved beyond the Gregorian chant so prominent in the earlier scores. One of the most glorious cues occurs at the Second Coming. The whispering chorus (which accompanies Damien tossing in his sleep) battles with the far stronger musical army of God. As the stars align and a glorious burst of heavenly light flashes brightly in the sky, a majestic major chord and brass fanfare announce the arrival of the Nazarene. The standout action cue accompanies the hunt. Triplets in the low strings gallop over the English countryside while Damien’s theme rides high over it all. Duple and triple divisions to the beat ride side by side, and with very little dialogue, Goldsmith’s exciting music propels the scene forward.

In the final battle between good and evil, it is Goldsmith’s music that emerges victorious. Though the film limps to a close, as Damien falls to the ground with the words, “Nazarene, you have won nothing,” Goldsmith removes the buzzing dissonances and the brass and timpani crescendo to reveal a glorious major chord at the appearance of a ghostly Jesus and good triumphs over evil.

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Jerry Goldsmith’s work on the Omen trilogy raised the bar on scoring for horror films, and all three directors have gone on record praising the composer’s vital contribution to their films. Strains of The Omen were foreshadowed in earlier scores such as Freud, Planet of the Apes, The Satan Bug and The Mephisto Waltz, and their presence can be felt in his later works, especially 1979’s Alien.

Though I enjoy and admire Goldsmith’s accomplishment with the entire trilogy, there will always be a special place on my shelf for The Omen. To this day, Goldsmith’s masterful music reminds me why I love film music in the first place.

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