One of the highest-grossing films of 1976, Richard Donner’s The Omen became an instant horror movie classic upon its release. A slew of underwhelming sequels and a reboot followed, but none of them could shake the oppressive menace exuded by the original. Much of this success was rightly attributed to composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score, a powerhouse of choral horror that won him his first and only Best Original Score Oscar while also nabbing a Best Original Song nomination for it’s main theme. While writing a dark choral piece hailing Satan may seem like a logical direction for any horror score about the Anti-Christ, Goldsmith’s approach was a revelation at the time.
The score takes no time to introduce its choral element, presenting the main theme in “Ave Satani.” As the choir praises Satan and the Anti-Christ, orchestra brews in the bass register. That a horror film would have such a slow-moving theme seems almost counterproductive, but is proof of Goldsmith’s confidence in its approach. Even as the orchestra and choir swell, its pace conveys a funeral march of encroaching and overwhelming evil, a perfect representation of the evil little boy at the heart of the story.
This boy, Damien, is adopted by a loving family at the outset of the film, only to begin demonstrating signs that he may in fact be the spawn of the devil incarnate. Goldsmith recognized right away that a non-stop gothic horror tone would overwhelm the viewer, and would lessen the impact of portions of true horror. His solution was to create a tender theme for the family itself and then match its devolution into horror with what the family goes through on screen.
While “Ave Satani” understandably gets most of the attention, this family theme is no slouch. Explored first in “The New Ambassador,” it is a memorable melody in its own right that ranks up there with Goldsmith’s best pastoral themes. Identifying it is made even easier by the album releases of the score, which all include the unused song version of it, “The Piper Dreams,” sung by Goldsmith’s wife.
The theme does not last in its happy guise for long, with this album presentation bumping up “A Sad Message” with the idea played slowly by piano over a bed of tense strings. This approach is reprised at the end of “Don’t Let Him” and the beginning of “The Fall.” The latter track expertly transitions from the ominous version that theme to theme-less tension material, before the choir comes in and builds to a prickly version of the main theme with staccato counterpoint as Damien’s tricycle ride knocks his new mother over a staircase railing, causing her to miscarriage. A similar transition between themes comes in the subsequent “Safari Park,” as a cheery flute rendition of the family theme gives way to rising choir thematic statements, only to fade back to a more tentative rendering of the prior theme.
As stated before, having this family theme allows for not only a stronger musical narrative, but creates a contrast that gives the choir even more power. The album presentation provides plenty of moments for the choir to let loose, sometimes only hinting at the true theme. A track like “Killer’s Storm” slowly builds with the choir running through various rhythmic ideas and theme fragments while the orchestra shouts additional bits of theme. “The Demise of Mrs. Baylock” brings the orchestra to the fore with aggressive brass and shrieking strings, using the choir as a signifier of Damien’s influence over the death without being too overt.
These variations on both the choir theme and family theme are what truly elevates The Omen to its status as a masterpiece horror score. The subtle hints at theme and way he plays off of the light and dark are skills which seem lost among modern composers, who tend to score new horror films with non-stop dread. Goldsmith was smarter than this, and all of that build up pays off with the finale track “The Altar.” As choir belts the Ave Satani theme over chopping strings, it is clear to all that Damien’s quest is coming to a head. A quick statement of the family theme on piano references the parents’ death, before Ave Satani plays in its slow, grandiose fashion in recognition of Damien’s success. Rarely has horror scoring reached heights such as this.
Varese Sarabande Records has been very generous in its offerings of this classic score, with several expanded and remastered CD editions and now this new vinyl edition of the original LP presentation. For diehard fans of the work, the latest CD issue is the definitive release and still available. Limited to 666 units, the vinyl’s presentation contains all of the essential tracks and its presentation, while not chronological, has a great flow. Fans of vinyl should not hesitate picking up this limited product before it sells out, and regardless of format, every film music fan should ensure that their collection includes this vital horror classic.
The Omen: The Deluxe Edition is available now from Varese Sarabande.