Damien returns with plans on conquering the world, and boy is it grim viewing
When one thinks of the great cinematic trilogies of our time, there aren’t that many that belong to the horror genre. Why is that? Maybe it’s because horror franchises rarely feel the need to stop at the third chapter. When they continue to make money, the powers that be want them to keep on making money. That’s why horror boasts more long-running series than any other genre. It has a cyclical, repetitive (and compared to other genres, inexpensive) nature that doesn’t lend itself to the more traditional narrative structure of a trilogy, and even when a film does wrap things up pretty decently (say, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors), they can’t help but carry on. After all, Elm Street 3 was a smash hit. To stop there and then, although it would have made sense artistically, made absolutely no sense financially, and besides, the fans wanted more, more, more. The box office success of the fourth instalment justified that decision to carry on, even if The Dream Master was, in terms of quality, the beginning of the end for the series. Then you had a shameless example in the form of the Friday the 13th series, which made the grand, seemingly conclusive gesture of a Final Chapter for its fourth film in 1984, only to happily and blatantly contradict that a year with that hilariously upfront A New Beginning subtitle for Part 5.
The Omen films are a major exception, of course. They make for a proper trilogy in that they have an actual beginning, middle and end. True, there was a crappy fourth entry that was made for television, but we don’t count that. In fact, forget I even mentioned it. What was I thinking? Sorry. Yet even The Omen-as-trilogy, the concept of which in hindsight seems such an obvious thing, wasn’t originally the case. David Seltzer, who wrote the first film only, didn’t do so with second and third chapters in mind. The original ended on a note that was admittedly unresolved (evil undefeated) but it was also totally satisfying in its own way. It could have very well remained a one-off, but commercial demands inevitably had to be obeyed, and soon enough the rise of Damien Thorn (Satan Jr, for those not keeping score) was to be extended to trilogy-length proportions, with the second instalment depicting Damien’s unstoppable ascent and the third, his inevitable downfall.
The boy has got to die!Richard Thorn
Descending further into dark territory and with no resolution at the end, Damien: Omen II is the bleakest, grimmest chapter in the series, a near-relentless onslaught of unpleasantness, with only a couple of scenes of familial bliss early on to the lighten the mood. Of course, it’s a grotesquely fun slice of Hollywood horror, but my gawd are we also in for a rough time, with a cast of characters hopelessly doomed right from the off. One of them ― a too-curious-for-her-own-good reporter ― is even dressed entirely in red. I’m surprised she wasn’t listed as Ms. Bullseye in the end credits. The odds are so stacked against the good guys and gals that you can’t help but laugh in despair as they all get knocked off one-by-one.
We begin tremendously, not to mention immediately, after the ending of the first film. Frenzied archaeologist Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), who, if you’ll remember, gave the daggers of Megiddo (the only things that can kill Damien) to Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn, is driving like crazy through the streets of Italy to meet his good friend Michael (Ian Hendry), in order to tell him that they must stop Damien from attaining power. Michael’s unconvinced, so Bugenhagen drags him to the site of recently excavated ancient artefact, Yigael’s Wall, a very unpleasant structure that depicts the visage of the Antichrist from birth to death, in the hope of making him a believer. When we see it, we notice that the Antichrist-as-child looks an awful lot like a certain child from the first Omen. In the first of what are many ‘oh hell, no‘ deaths that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, both men are buried alive in sand when the site falls in on them. If only they’d noticed the raven waiting by the site’s entrance. The raven is this film’s equivalent of the Rottweiler from the first chapter ― if it’s around, you’re in trouble. We then skip seven years later. Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is now thirteen years old and living with his uncle Richard (William Holden), aunt Ann (Lee Grant) and cousin Mark (Lucas Donat) in Chicago. He and Mark are about to start military academy, but Richard’s aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) doesn’t want the two of them to go to school together. Damien’s not right, she says. A terrible influence, she says. Everyone thinks she’s crazy. She’s not.
Cue the raven.
Then a reporter (Elizabeth Shepherd), who was friends with David Warner’s doomed photojournalist from the first film, tries to convince Richard of Damien’s heritage. Everyone thinks she’s crazy. She’s not.
Cue the raven.
There’s also Richard’s business partner Bill (Lew Ayres), who stands in the way of deputy rival and secret satanic disciple Paul (Robert Foxworth)’s plan to take Thorn Industries into more unethical territory. No one thinks Bill’s crazy, but never mind, he’s still in the way.
Cue the – okay, you get the idea.
In a quick 105-or-so minutes, Omen II rushes through an awful lot of plot when it’s not taking the time to kill off most of its cast. Unfortunately, the script is nowhere near as tight or satisfying as Seltzer’s screenplay for the first film, tending to focus on less interesting subplots at the expense of what could have turned out to be really meaty material. The entire business involving the corrupt rise of Thorn Industries never really engages, although I suppose it was absolutely necessary in establishing the world of power that Damien will come to inherit. I just wish these elements had been written and directed with a bit more flair, instead coming off as mere join-the-dots moments between other, superior scenes.
Much, much better is the material involving Damien at military academy ― this is all splendidly entertaining. We get a dickhead cadet who finds out the scary way that you don’t insult the Thorns when Damien’s in earshot. In an absolutely terrific scene, a teacher is brilliantly shown up when he tries to outsmart Damien over the matter of remembering historical dates in class. Still, as fun as this stuff is, it would have been even more rewarding to have focused on Damien’s relationship with his family, and even more importantly, on his mind-blowing realisation of and eventual coming to terms with who he really is, which, when the pivotal moment arrives on screen, is briefly devastating, but then swiftly, disappointingly brushed aside.
So here’s what happens: Damien is instructed to read a particular passage from his Bible by his sergeant (and covert satanic employee) Lance Henriksen. He does so, checks his scalp, sees the dreaded 666 birthmark, flees the academy towards splendid isolation, screams ‘WHY ME?’, goes back to the academy, sleeps on it and boom, he’s now a fully-fledged, paid-up member of the Satanic Squad. This all takes place in around four minutes of screen time. Underdeveloped barely begins to cover it. To be fair, Scott-Taylor is great with what he’s given, but it’s not enough.
Some of the movie’s unfocused nature might have something to do with original director Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Flash Gordon) being fired during filming and replaced with Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes ― you know, the time travel one). Hodges’ scenes made it into the final cut alongside Taylor’s material, and there is an occasionally disjointed feel to events. Parts of Omen II are directed rather plainly and with a workmanlike efficiency, but then other parts are superbly vivid ― Damien’s introduction, seen through the flames of a bonfire, is brilliantly ominous. The film’s biggest and goriest death ― the elevator set-piece ― is amazingly well edited and staged. Indeed, there are many other standout moments to savour, but overall this sequel is lacking the class and sophistication of the original ― everything seems gaudier, tackier, less refined.
One reason may have something to do with the unavoidable ‘sloppy seconds’ effect. Familiarity has inevitably crept in ― the filmmakers were clearly intent on upping what many found immediately appealing about the original ― those spectacular deaths ― so now we’re talking more, more, more. And this is the thing; now that we are familiar with the rules unwittingly established by the first film, Omen II feels more formulaic and made-to-order than before. It’s a fun routine, but it’s definitely a routine. The regularity and craziness of the kills (some characters are pretty much introduced only so they can be murdered moments later) make this just as consistently bloodthirsty as your average slasher movie. The filmmakers definitely deliver the goods though; Aunt Marion’s relatively swift death from a heart attack after a late-night visit from the raven is about as merciful as it gets. Afterwards there’s a blinding-by-raven/smackdown by articulated lorry, a ghastly drowning underneath a frozen lake, a poor guy who gets crushed between two train carriages, two deaths by chemical poisoning, a stabbing, death by fire… all pretty rough stuff, although I’ve saved the two most shocking examples for last.
Yep, Omen II‘s undoubted show-stopper is the death of the poor doctor who notices something majorly suspect with Damien’s DNA but doesn’t even get to leave his workplace to tell anyone about it. Clearly attempting to outdo David Warner’s shocking decapitation from the first film, here we get an out-of-control lift that hurtles downwards so fast it makes the overhead cable at the top of the elevator shaft come loose, after which it descends at rocket-speed and tears through the roof of the lift, literally cutting the doctor in two. For a brief moment we even see his bloody innards. Extremely graphic for a major studio movie, and pretty fucking terrifying too. I know it gave me bad dreams. However, the difference between this death and Warner’s in the original is that Jennings was a proper character with whom we had journeyed, and his demise was as tragic as it was horrifying. The doctor, bless him, barely gets five minutes of screen time before he’s sliced in half. I mean, I feared for him at that moment, and it’s an unforgettable demise, but who the hell was this guy?
In terms of proper emotional wallop, the most disturbing (and certainly the cruellest) death is that of Damien’s cousin Mark, who works out the truth behind everything but refuses to join Damien, despite the latter’s pleas. It’s a really effective showdown, and the only time after becoming all-out evil that Damien expresses vulnerability and the need for a true friend to accompany him on his journey to power. Yet Mark won’t be turned, so Damien turns the tables and proceeds, through mere thought, to kill him by striking his cousin with an aneurysm. It’s a protracted, truly horrible moment, textbook evidence that, at its nastiest, Omen II really is one seriously fucking unpleasant movie. It also breaks your resolve as a viewer, maybe even making you wonder why God didn’t get involved at any point during this film. Just once. A bit of divine intervention really might have helped a few of these poor saps.
Given that most of the cast ended up dead at the end of the first film, and Richard Donner and David Seltzer weren’t interested in coming back for Part 2, the producers must have thanked their lucky stars that composer Jerry Goldsmith had agreed to return, for his contributions here provide a much-needed sense of continuity. His Oscar-winning music was one of the most vital elements of the first Omen, and thanks to him, the sequel still feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. Also, he’s brought more synthesisers. There was already an electronic element to a few of the pieces in the original, most memorably in the theme for the Rottweiler, but here they play a regular role throughout, and the results are deliciously wicked. The squawks of the raven even become a part of its own theme tune (Goldsmith would use animal sounds again as part of a film score in for his delightful work on Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs over a decade later), while more traditional (although for its time, still unusual) synths add an extra layer of unease to the by-now expected strings of doom that foretell the terror to come. For some masochistic reason, I listened to Omen II’s score one Halloween night many years ago when I was on my way home from work. I walked home a lot quicker than normal that night, that’s for sure, checking behind me to see if I was being followed by a raven.
Why are you running away from me, Mark?Damien Thorn
One of this sequel’s major strengths, something that helps paper over the narrative cracks substantially, is the atmosphere. This is proper 1970s horror, where there is no wink-wink, nudge-nudge irony, just a total commitment to its mission statement ― to scare and instil dread. There’s a reason these films scared so many people back then. It’s that all-encompassing, inescapable sense of menace. Of course, there are many who will giggle at the sheer portentousness of the execution. This is a film that takes itself awfully seriously after all, but I don’t think any other approach would have sufficed. I mean, this isn’t some squabble outside the pub we’re talking about here, this is GOOD VERSUS EVIL! Even the more casual dialogue, with references to Yigael (who was visited by the Devil and lost his mind as a result) and The Whore of Babylon (who may or may not have a modern-day equivalent in a certain character, though this isn’t clearly elaborated), is dark, unsettling stuff. Just watching the teaser trailer, which uses Goldsmith’s Rottweiler theme over a graphic of a blinking eye that mutates into the raven that forms part of the film poster’s title card (even the goddamn font here is scary) is enough to give me the total shivers. Plus, there’s that great tagline: ‘the first time was only a warning’.
Fittingly, the performances of the characters who have become true, terrified believers are properly intense. This is a film where, whenever someone learns the truth about Damien, no mannered, calm attitude will do ― they have to go into full-on, panicked, crucifix-clutching hysterical mode. Their fear does end up becoming quite infectious, although I have to admit that sometimes it crosses over the line and ends up being quite funny, especially when such protestations are up against totally unmoved, unbelieving listeners. Take the poor reporter, who succeeds in getting an uninterested Richard to listen to her, only to fuck it all up by going in all-guns-blazing. You do wonder if she and the others had just dialled it down a notch or two, they might have been taken a bit more seriously.
Elsewhere, there’s a magnificent, minor example of the film’s panicked tone near the end when Richard and the soon-to-be-killed and totally petrified Dr. Warren (Nicholas Pryor) are heading towards the train where Yigael’s Wall is currently residing, and the latter suddenly notices a massive trailer being transported in the air above them. Quite understandably Warren, who fears death from all angles, goes crazy with fear and moves away from it immediately, dragging Richard with him. He knows. We know. It could end up falling on him! Run away! He still ends up dead minutes later via other means, though. In broad daylight too. Aaagh, it’s the deaths that take place during daylight that particularly creep me out. Isn’t the daytime supposed to be safe? Not here. No way. The second Omen film was the first in the series that I had watched all the way through (having only seen ten or fifteen minutes of the first film on TV a week earlier back in the early 90s), and as such I will always have a soft spot for it, despite its flaws. It remains a cult favourite for genre fans thanks to its unremitting fear-factor, its worst-nightmare situations, and of course, that music.
Of course, unlike the original, this time we’re all expecting a grim ending, and we totally get one, and with a scary twist too. It turns out that aunt Ann has always been Damien’s protector, and Richard only realises this once he’s had all seven (!!!) daggers of Megiddo plunged into his stomach. Just like the first film, the final shot has Damien looking at the audience, fully aware that he has won, and the audience go home unhappy. For Damien is not an anti-hero; by the time the film’s over, we’ve pretty much lost all sympathy for him. There’s little of the complex audience-antagonist relationship that we have in slasher movies, where we cheer the early victims’ demise at the hands of Freddy, Jason or Michael Myers but then switch allegiances to the Final Girl for the concluding act. Damien is someone to truly fear. Even from the start when it’s only latent, his demonic presence is so overwhelming and the film’s sympathy so clearly with the victims that I rarely cheer on their deaths like I would in other films of the genre. Any connection we might have had for Damien early on (hey, teenage angst and all that) before he discovers his true identity is pretty much gone as soon as he swiftly discovers his taste for killing, and as there’s no Final Girl or Boy to support (none of them make it), the film ends with Good having lost once more. We leave the cinema with a heavy heart and a chill down our spine. Of course, Good would finally win the day in The Final Conflict, but was it a confrontation worth waiting for? Audiences had to wait three years to find out…