The Series Project: The Omen (Part 1)
So it turns out there are very few long-enough-running Christmas-themed movie series. Last year for Christmas, as you may recall, I wrote about all five entries in the infamous five-film Silent Night, Deadly Night series. It was fun trekking through Santa suit murders, garbage days, exposed brains, living puppets, and, most baffling of all, cockroach-themed Wiccan cults. But, that series out of my way, I feel like I've exhausted my supply of interconnected killer Santa flicks.
So what better way to celebrate the birth and life of Christ than look at an entire series of films devoted to the birth and life of the Antichrist? Welcome, dear readers, to the latest installment of The Series Project, wherein, just in time for the holidays, I will be trekking through the five films surrounding young Damien Thorn, the Antichrist himself, as established in the famous '70s Satanic thriller The Omen, seen by many and beloved by horror fans everywhere. The first time I saw The Omen was, perhaps oddly, in my 9th grade health class. It was Halloween day, and the teacher, rather than fight our itchy need to ignore him on this candy-addled and be-costumed day, plunked us down in front of his favorite horror movie. The period was right before lunch, so we got to stay and watch the whole flick. We all pretty much loved The Omen.
The Omen occupies a weird place in pop culture. Not everyone has seen it, but many are intimately familiar with the pop Satanic iconography it introduced into the zeitgeist. Thanks to The Omen (and, admittedly some credit is due to Iron Maiden) most people know the significance of the number 666. The book of Revelation is known a little bit better to the general public because of The Omen. Indeed, I feel like I hadn't even heard the term “Antichrist” until I saw The Omen. I attend a pretty laidback protestant church, so Hellish and Satanic rhetoric wasn't ever part of my church-going experience. It wasn't until The Omen that I learned what an Antichrist is, and about the notion that only Roman Catholics could kill demons; a notion presented by most Satanic thrillers which were cropping up everywhere in the 1970s thanks to the overwhelming popularity of films like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. I suppose my church was good for me to worship, but if a demon ever attacked, my minister would have to enlist a Catholic priest to help. To clarify the ranking in my mind: The Exorcist is the top satanic thriller, with Rosemary's Baby at a very close second. The Omen is not on par with those two, but still ranks third. If you include Italian Satanic thrillers, then the list gets all wonky.
So even if you haven't seen The Omen, you kind of know about its legacy. If you listen to early-'80s heavy metal, or indeed any honest-to-badness Norwegian black metal (I recommend Mayhem), you have definitely heard its Satanic influence leaking in. I have a feeling that many metal bands wouldn't have been possible without the influence of The Omen. I can assure you that Steve Harris, lead songwriter for Iron Maiden, has seen The Omen.
There were five films with The Omen appellation, although I had to stretch a bit and include a 2006 remake to beef this project up to five films, which I typically abhor doing (I don’t like to cover a series unless it is five films long, excluding remakes). The first film appeared in 1976, and ran for three films until 1981. In the first week of this Project, I will be covering these first three films. There was a fourth Omen film in 1991, which was released on TV, and isn't quite in the same continuity as the previous three films, but still bears a “IV” in the title. Then, in 2006, there was a remake of the original, and was released, perfectly enough, on June sixth of that year. If you're going to remake The Omen, you may as well release it on 6/6/06. I will wait until next week to write about the TV movie and the remake.
Anyway, happy Christmas and unhappy Antichristmas. Let's light up this anti-yule anti-log with the first film in this series:
The Omen (dir. Richard Donner, 1976)
Richard Donner has made some of the most beloved films of the late 1970s and1980s with films like Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke, and Scrooged. I consider The Omen to be just as accomplished as any of those. The Omen was his first big theatrical hit. It won an Academy Award for best score.
Yeah, I like The Omen. It's a spooky film with a nice slow pace, professional acting, and a general feeling of grave importance; when The Omen talks about God and Satan, it realizes that it's addressing some pretty big topics, and doesn't ever (well maybe occasionally) stoop into rote action thriller stuff. But while it's being all classy, it has some wicked daggers, scary monsters, and one of cinema's best decapitation scenes. I will describe it below.
So the story of The Omen is as follows: An American ambassador named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is in Italy for some reason, and his much younger wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has just given birth to a dead son. The film opens with Robert adopting a newborn boy from a nearby church, intending to swap it out with the dead baby, leaving his wife none the wiser. I suppose this is possible if the wife gave birth while unconscious. This seems like a thin plan at best; will Robert ever tell his wife that the baby they are raising as their own son is actually adopted? My guess is that he intends to let this detail slide. Thanks to the spooky music, we know that something is up with this baby. The priest that hands the baby over says he's named Damien. That's another thing The Omen has ruined forever: the name Damien. No male child can be named Damien anymore without people thinking of the Antichrist. Damien seems to be a preferred Goth identity selected by teenagers prone to dark eye makeup, Docs, Neil Gaiman comics, and medieval nocturnes.
Damien Thorn is raised in a world of privilege, as Robert and Katherine own a rather sizable mansion in the English countryside. Robert is now a politically powerful American ambassador to England. The Thorns are surrounded by nannies, gardeners, and other servants. They own horses. Many Hollywood films, especially weepy family dramadies, tend to take place in well-moneyed worlds of extreme opulence, and you may notice that movie families tend to have nannies pretty often. In the Hollywood weepies, the depiction of super-wealth seems to come from producers' ignorance as to how people really live, and they all seem to automatically assume that most audiences (the ones without nannies) will emotionally connect to the stresses of the well-off, even though it's only the producers themselves who can directly relate to this lifestyle of yuppie porn. In The Omen, the wealth of the Thorn family is actually used for dramatic purposes, and its depiction of a high-end, economically hermetic life serves to stress the world of power that this child, whom we already know to be the Antichrist, was born/taken into. The child is raised without incident for about five years.
Weird things happen around Damien (Harvey Stevens) starting on his 5th birthday. For one, he is clearly being followed by a mean-looking Rottweiler. At a huge birthday party with ponies and rides, Damien's nanny climbs placidly and happily onto the roof of the mansion, shouts joyously to the boy “It's all for you!” and then hangs herself right in front of him and all his young guests. Yeep. Robert must soon hire a new nanny named Mrs. Baylock (a very scary Billie Whitelaw) who seems a bit creepy, has a pet Rottweiler, and reveals to Damien that she is actually some sort of satanic acolyte, sent to protect him. Robert is also approached by a frightened priest (Patrick Troughton) who warns him that Damien is the son of the Devil. Robert is a bit offended by all this demon talk, but seems a little more convinced when the priest is impaled to the ground (in a standing position) by a falling church spire. How does Robert feel about all this? Well, more than being frightened by the demonic talk, he is merely guilty about his babyswap from five years previous. Also suspicious: when Damien is taken to church to be baptized, he throws a violent tantrum, and is never brought inside.
It's pretty obvious that Damien is a demonic little kid, and we get the direct impression that he is somehow psychically causing accidents to happen, or that Satan is invisibly casting spells to protect the him. But director Donner is also clever about making some of these things seem like mere weird coincidences, and keeping a good level of doubt in the mix. We know Damien is evil, but it's not entirely explicit. The Omen isn't as good about this as William Peter Blatty's original novel of The Exorcist, which is very good about teasing out the demonic aspects of the story, but few things are made directly explicit in this movie. In interviews, Donner likes to tease us by saying things like “Well, you didn't see that, did you?”
Eventually Richard is also approached by an intrepid photographer named Jennings, played by the excellent character actor David Warner. Jennings has been investigating these two deaths, and has found weird prescient marks in his photographs. Before the nanny died, for instance, Jennings took a picture, and found a ghostly rope around her neck in the photograph. Same with the priest. A ghostly spire in a picture taken before the death. Scariest of all, Jennings has found a picture of himself with a similar ghostly premonition. I gotta say: I love ghostly picture stuff in movies and on TV. It's such a great scare. I also love ghostly tape recordings that have spooky voices on them. But that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, Robert begins to suspect that his adopted child may not come from a very savory place, especially as Damien now seems to be directly injuring his mom. Katherine suffers a fall and is taken to the hospital, which seems like a good excuse to get her out of the movie while Robert and Jennings go back to Italy to investigate. The only person who remembers the birth is a half-mad mute priest, now a monk, living in a remote monastery, and he implies that Damien was born of a jackal. Indeed, when Jennings and Robert dig up Damien's birth mother in a nearby cemetery, they find a jackal skeleton. It's not entirely clear, but I think the mom either was a jackal, or turned into a jackal when Damien died. Robert also finds that his own baby was not stillborn, but was killed, and the Antichrist was foisted upon him. The Satanic acolyte behind all this evidently needed a politician to take care of him in order to fulfill a prophecy. Prophecies are fun in movies, but I wonder how much satanic acolytes much adhere to them. If, for instance, the Antichrist was born of a jackal, but was raised in a regular middle-class family, would he still rise to power and bring the return of The Desolate One? I'm guessing he would, it would just take longer.
Robert and Jennings also travel to Megiddo, Israel, which is cited in the book of Revelation as the site of the Final Conflict between God and the Antichrist, and could be where Armageddon begins. There they meet Leo McKern from "The Prisoner" who tells them that they must kill Damien. McKern's character is named Bugenhagen, which makes me giggle. Bugenhagen gives Robert a wicked dagger, and instructs him to murder Damien in a church with it. Harsh, man. Robert refuses to murder a five-year-old, but then Jennings is decapitated and he changes his mind. Jennings' decapitation, by the way, is bloody spectacular. A truck carrying flat sheets of glass rolls backward down a hill, stopping right in front of Jennings, a sheet of glass slides off, and severs his neck cleanly. It's one of the best deaths in any horror film, to be perfectly frank.
What else? Let's wrap this up. Katherine is murdered by the nanny. Robert returns to England, and does indeed take Damien to a church to murder him on the alter. I heard some trivia that Dick Van Dyke was considered for the role of Robert, and I'm having trouble picturing Van Dyke holding a dagger over a five-year-old boy, ready to stab him. Peck is at least a classy enough actor to give that moment some weight. Right before the stabbing, though, cops burst in and kill Robert. Damien, now an orphan, is given to his uncle to raise. Dunh-dunh-DUNH!
It's a good movie, The Omen. Not as weighty a classic as others of its ilk, but most certainly one of the better satanic thrillers. The choral music score (by Jerry Goldsmith) certainly helps and I prefer thrillers of this type to have a slower pace than your average actioner. Like most Satanic thrillers, it has the usual message that evil can lurk about anywhere, regardless of class or location, and we must be ever-vigilant, else an Antichrist slips in here or there.
So what now? The ending of The Omen implies that the world is going to end, right? Well, the Final Conflict won't technically happen for a while (and will take at least two movies), so we get to see little Damien grow up a little. What's he like at age 13?
Damien: Omen II (dir. Don Taylor, 1978)
Don Taylor is a name you might recognize. For me, he is the man who made Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the third in that series. He also made the 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and played a lead role in the original Father of the Bride.
I'm sad to report that Damien: Omen II is more of the same. It's make the classic sequel misstep of repeating the previous film, almost beat-for-beat, in an attempt to recapture the magic of the original. I would point to The Hangover Part II as more recent example of this misstep, but I'd rather point to Shakespeare. “King Henry IV, part 2,” is, when looked at in the right light, nearly identical to its predecessor. Sequel repetition has been going on since Elizabethan times.
So, yeah, Damien is now 13 years old, and is played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor. He still lives in England, and is being raised by his rich uncle Richard (William Holden) and his uncle's relatively new wife Ann (Lee Grant). Damien is actually a pretty normal kid, considering his jackal mother and the whole Antichrist thing. He doesn't seem to consort with dark unholy forces, and spends most of his time roughhousing with his cousin, and stressing out about moving to his new military academy, run by the stern Lance Henricksen. Although when he's picked on by another kid, Damien looks him in the eye, and the kid has a severe panic attack, so there's still something weird happening. Also, he seems to be followed by a sinister black crow. I don't know what happened to the Rottweiler. The crow will eventually attack someone and rip their eyes out, causing them to wander into traffic and die.
The film opens with Bugenhagen (still Leo McKern) packaging up a septet of daggers to mail to Richard Thorn. He also has seen an ancient wall painting which has a portrait of what the Antichrist is supposed to look like, and, no surprise, it looks exactly like Damien. When Bugenhagen takes a friend to check out the wall, the tomb it’s in collapses, and the two of them die. I hope Richard opens those daggers as soon as he gets them.
I like that Richard is played by a classy actor like William Holden. It helps that the dads in these movies have been stern and commanding presences. It lends credence to the supernatural rigmarole that they will eventually encounter. If William Holden is freaked out, then I'm going to be too. Richard is an ultra-rich captain of industry, and is the president of Thorn Enterprises, which is an amorphous supercorporation that seems to have equal control over nuclear weapons and food supplies. Richard is the president, but all the business is handled by the dubiously moral Paul (Robert Foxworth), who spends a few random scenes talking about how creating famine is a good thing, because then Thorn Enterprises can control the hungry population. Paul is like a low-rent James Bond villain in many ways, and while he's not as colorful as one, he makes the same kind of apocalyptic speeches.
Anyway, Richard begins getting grave warnings from peers and priests, just the way Robert did in the first film. Some people also begin dying around him in mysterious ways; someone falls through some perfectly thick ice on the surface of a frozen lake, even though people with axes cannot break through to save him. There was that crow attack. Sylvia Sidney from Beetlejuice plays a persnickety aunt who has a mysterious heart attack. This is all very foreboding, I suppose, but I begin wondering how this all works at this point. Someone later in the film explains that Damien is psychically causing this all to happen, but kind of instinctually and not out of malice.
Indeed, Damien’s lack of satanic malice makes for a moment that skirts close to poignancy in Damien: Omen II. One of the satanic acolytes drifting around the edges of the movie steps in and implores Damien to read Revelation in the hopes of discovering who he is. Damien reads the Bible, and soon intuits that he is indeed the Antichrist. He even checks the telltale birthmark under his hair, and does indeed find the tattoo of “666” under there. He charges out to a remote lake in blind panicked despair, throws his head to the heavens and shouts “Why me?” This is thoughtful moment of religious doubt that could have colored this film for the better. Imagine if you learned you were the Antichrist at age 13. Would you usher in the end of human existence because of your birthright, or would you use your compassionate divine humanity to overcome your satanic origins? I hoped that Damien would struggle with this ethical quandary a little bit. But no, after his “why me?” moment, Damien immediately begins acting like a monster, and seems to intentionally hurt people, convinced of his supernatural superiority. To quote Dennis Miller, it tiptoes up to the precipice, pivots, and jetées back to Coolsville.
How does it end? William Holden finally opens Bugenhagen’s box, and some friends become convinced of Damien’s evilness. The wall we saw at the beginning has been transported all the way to England, and Richard gets to look at it, convincing him that Damien is evil. The ending, again, follows our classy dad going after Damien with a dagger, but is stopped at the last minute, this time by mum. Richard dies, and Damien will go on to end the world another day. It’s also implied that Damien will inherit all of Richard’s estate and will someday run the company. Oh yes, and Damien killed his cousin with psychic mind bullets when the cousin refused to join him in the coming Satanic rule.
I hate to say it, but the climax feels like the film petering out. It was all so compulsory. It’s still a pretty good film, but it feels kind of bland when put next to the original. William Holden is still good, but, oddly, my favorite moments of the movie came from Jonathan Scott-Taylor as Damien. He seemed like a sweet, sympathetic kid, which are provocative characteristics for the Antichrist to have.
Luckily, we got some crazy comin’ up.
The Final Conflict (dir. Graham Baker, 1981)
a.k.a. Omen III: The Final Conflict
Graham Baker’s only other notable contribution to the world of cinema was the rather good sci-fi film Alien Nation.
The Final Conflict is a little bonkers, but it’s not the kind of bonkers film that’s punctuated with bonkers moments. Like there aren’t any scenes of Damien shooting fire from his eyes or spitting up snakes or anything. It’s more of a tonal thing. Like the film is still trying to remain classy, but is going for broke at the same time. Here’s one bonkers moment: an ambassador in suddenly infected with the urge to commit suicide for no reason. He locks himself in his office, and uses strips of magnetic tape to arrange a complex rigging system in his office, so that when someone opens the door, it will pull the trigger of a gun next to his head and kill him. Why did he bother to do that? Why not just pull the trigger yourself? Satan works in mysterious ways.
So in The Final Conflict, Damien is now grown up, and played by Sam Neill. The Omen, I should perhaps clarify here, is, in addition to being a well-known satanic thriller, one of the more notable evil child thrillers. Damien, in the minds of most, is an evil little boy. In Damien: Omen II, he’s still pretty young, and could be considered an evil child still. Now that Damien is a post-pubescent adult with shaving needs, it feels a little wrong. Damien should not be an adult. The cognitive dissonance resulting from merely seeing an adult Damien goes a long way to explain the bonkers tone of this flick. Damien is now head of Thorn Enterprises, which seems to produce just about everything. The food-controlling scheme hinted at in the last film seems to be in place, and Damien is very open about how evil he is being. In the public eye, Damien Thorn is a charming darling who helps the world with his beautiful, beautiful corporation. In private, he rereads biblical Apocrypha, and frets about his future.
I should also note that Damien seems perfectly at peace with his place as Satan’s harbinger, and even gives some wonderfully scenery-chewing speeches wherein he lambasts Christ’s foolish philosophy of open love, and preaches the virtues of unmitigated hatred and malice. He seems to have a secret chamber with a crucifix in it, constructed for just such speeches. When he was in the crucifix room, I could only think of Scrooge McDuck’s pacing room. A small chamber used for only one purpose: in McDuck’s case, pacing; in this case, screaming at a crucifix. Damien also knows all about his acolytes and all of the goody-two-shoeses who are out to stab him. He even gets to say stuff like “Those daggers are the only thing that can destroy me!” Damien is truly a supervillain at this point. He addressed his masses in one scene; I wonder how word of a satanic mass that size was spread. When Damien is offered an ambassadorial position by the president of the US, we can practically hear him cackling and rubbing his hands with glee.
Powers are now conspiring against Damien. The seven Bugenhagen daggers are now in the hands of a monastic order of some kind who have each taken a dagger and plan on cornering Damien to stab him but good. Incidentally “Bugenhagen Daggers” will be the title of my next metal record. The unnamed monks are stalking Damien, and taking a crack at him at various times. Two monks try to get the drop on Damien in an abandoned temple of some kind, but are tricked and locked in a dungeon. Another monk misses his chance in public. One monk tries to corner Damien during a foxhunt (Damien is rich, after all, and rich people go on foxhunts), but Damien catches wise, and sets a team of small dogs on him. The guy is eaten alive by a bloodthirsty pack of cut li’l beagles. It’s the cuddliest massacre since Night of the Lepus.
Letsee, what else? Oh yeah, there’s a love interest for Damien in the form of Kate (Lisa Harrow), an intrepid reporter who falls for Damien during interviews. Kate is strong-willed, not religious, and has an impressionable young son who seems a little too eager to repeat satanic rhetoric. Kate and Damien have sex. If the Antichrist has a baby with a human woman, what would it be called? Grandchild of Satan? Kate is an interesting character, but she won’t have anything to do until the climax. More on that in a sec.
Oh yes, and this is introduced kind of late in the game: Some astronomers have noticed an odd movement of stars in recent decades, and figured that they will align on a very certain night. Right over England in fact. What could these stars point to? Why, the Christ child, of course. Yes, to undo the damage of an Antichrist, Christ will actually be born again on Earth to combat him. I’m not sure if it will be an ideological combat, or actual bloody conflagration with kicks, punches, and hellfire, but Christ and Antichrist will end up battling. When Damien figures out what’s going on by interpreting the stars and reading his Apocrypha, he begins referring a lot to “The Nazarene.” Later in the film’s he’ll scream “Face me, Nazarene!” even though He’s only a baby. Damien, in true Herod fashion, sends out assassins to murder every baby born in England born at about the time of the Christ child. Which he manages to accomplish! Yes, babies are murdered in this film. So many babies. 400 babies! Only one manages to escape Damien’s wrath, and it belongs (natch) to Damien’s closest aide.
About that climax: Damien stalks about a temple of some kind looking for The Nazarene, whilst he is stalked by a dagger-wielder. Eventually Kate, sick of all the superdevil evil stabs Damien with a dagger. As he dies, an angel appears over him. Triumph music is played. Then there is a Bible quotation. It should be noted that all of the films have ended with Bible quotations, only in the previous two films, they came in the form of grave warnings about the Antichrist. In this, it’s a note about the purity of God’s love. Then there’s a second Bible quotation about the purity of God’s love. In the last few moments, we’ve gone from a silly Satan thriller to a Jack T. Chick tract. I suppose it was the only way The Final Conflict could have ended. You didn’t honestly expect the Devil to win, did you? No the powers of goodness won, complete with angels. Happy birthday again, Jesus. Christmas in March.
Don’t you hate it when a film series continues after the word “Final” is used? Like what happened with Freddy and Jason? Well, that’s what happened with The Omen. After The Final Conflict, a decade would pass, and a TV movie would be made. Then a remake. Be sure to join me next week for the final two chapters in The Series Project: The Omen.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film Schooland The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold