The Omen series enters trilogy territory, but was it an opportunity missed for one of horror’s most famous franchises?
A great opening sequence in a film will instantly hook a viewer. On the other hand, a bad closing sequence may undo all the hard work the movie has put in over the last couple of hours. The Final Conflict achieves the former and is sadly guilty of the latter. Think about those final moments that are so rubbish that they threaten to derail the whole viewing experience; and it was going so well up until those last, decisive moments too. Okay, so maybe they don’t entirely ruin the previous two or so hours, but they do leave you feel underwhelmed, or even cheated. This is the world of deus ex machinas, of studio-enforced, reshot endings, or even simply the nerve of the filmmakers’ failing at the final hurdle. Think The Devil’s Advocate, with its ghastly cop-out ending. Or Richard Lester’s otherwise splendid thriller Juggernaut, with its ‘don’t think about it too much’ illogical conclusion. Hell, there’s even The Wizard of Oz with its ‘you could have gone home any time you wanted to, I just never told you’ twist.
Simply put, the ending to The Final Conflict, the concluding chapter in the Omen trilogy, is such a non-event that to call it awful would give it some kind of weight it simply doesn’t deserve. Honestly, it’s barely there; a hasty resolution that, after three movies worth of build-up, arrives with such little impact that a sadistic part of me would loved to have seen the audience reactions back in 1981, who may have been wondering if the projectionist had fallen asleep and forgot to include a reel. The ending of The Final Conflict should have been monumental. Any film with the goddamned word ‘Final’ in it really should ensured that its conclusion delivered the goods. Now I’m not suggesting that this ending is entirely responsible for why the film has, by far and away, the worst reputation of the original trilogy – there are other criticisms that have been directed towards it, and some of them are justified. I do think though that its lousy ending plays a major role in its inferior place in many horror fans’ hearts. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot in The Final Conflict that is extremely worthwhile; moments that are just as impressive as anything in the first two movies, and even stuff that is uniquely brilliant to it too.
The opening credits sequence is magnificent. With barely a line of dialogue uttered, we get to see how the seven daggers of Meggido are unearthed from the site of the museum where they were presumably buried following the explosion at the end of the second film. Starting with the foreboding, surreal image of the drill slowly approaching the viewer it looks like a swirling vortex of snakes), we see how the daggers are found, and then stolen, by a construction worker, after which they are sold off in an antique shop and then put up for auction, where they are purchased by a priest who gives them to a group of seven monks in the town of Subiaco, Italy. It’s a wonderful opening, and blessed with a foreboding yet strangely triumphant Jerry Goldsmith theme; less frightening that the opening cues for the first two movies, it hints at the light that will surely arrive at the end of this story. For unlike Omen II, where absolutely no hope was in sight, The Final Conflict heralds the beginning of the end for Damien Thorn. Later, we see him tossing and turning in bed as, somewhere on Earth, the Second Coming of Christ is about to take place. The key moment is seismic enough to lurch Damien from his dreams and into a reality where he knows, and we know, that his time’s almost up.
Led by Father DeCarlo (Rosanno Brazzi), the seven monks will undertake a mission to track down the adult Damien and kill him with the daggers. Well, I say daggers – just one of them will suffice, in one of the film’s examples of retconning. If you remember, when Bugenhagen gave Robert Thorn the daggers in the original, he was instructed that all seven of them had to be used to kill Damien, that they were to be inserted in specific parts of the body, and that the killing had to take place on holy ground too, but that doesn’t seem to concern the monks here. Another, more understandable example of plot tinkering is the continuing shifting of time that wasn’t explicit in Omen II, but given that it was set only seven years after the original, the fact that were were watching a film that was meant to be set in a tiny bit in the future didn’t really matter. Here though, the story has jumped a further twenty years, yet it still seems to be set in the present day, which would mean that Damien’s birth date has now been pushed back into the 1950s. It makes no sense, but it was either that or set the film near the end of the 20th century, which, given the time The Final Conflict was made, might have resulted in a bonkers, futuristic Omen film complete with flying cars, cyborgs and tourist space travel. Maybe they could have waited, Boyhood-style, for Jonathan Scott-Taylor to reach his thirties and then resume filming, but I get the feeling audiences would have lost patience with the series by then.
Most people confuse evil with their own trivial lusts and perversions. Now, true evil is as pure as innocence.Damien Thorn
So instead we get Sam Neill as the 32-year old Damien; an Oxford graduate and now the head of Thorn Industries, he is, as the final act of the previous film showed, well and truly content with his role as the Anti-Christ. Thorn Industries is, on the surface, a benevolent, philanthropic world power, but one look at Damien’s cynical reactions to its promotional campaign (very portentous with its references and apparent solutions to inflation, famine, chaos and Armageddon) is enough to tell us that it’s all a show. Well, that and we already know he’s the fucking son of the Devil. Already on friendly terms with the President of the United States, he’s edging closer and closer to greater power. The film’s tremendously exciting original trailer suggested he was agonisingly close to becoming President himself, and the poster went one step further and suggested he’d already reached that goal, but the film itself sees Damien progress no further than the very same job his ‘father’ Robert had in the first film – Ambassador to the Court of St. James in England. However, someone’s already occupying that particular title at the start of The Final Conflict, so he’s got to be put out of the way. Unlike the first and even the second films, where it looked like Satan was pulling some of the strings in this carnival of chaos, now Damien seems to be directly responsible for influencing events. This is the only instalment in the trilogy where he is fully aware of who he is from start to finish, and disturbingly, it’s the film where Damien is at his most charismatic.
However, one event that can’t be avoided or stopped is that afore-mentioned birth of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ – foretold in holy scripture and due to take place just around the corner, when the same kind of star alignment that heralded Damien’s own birth will once again take place, only this time it will be the saviour of mankind, the Nazarene, who will arrive on Earth. Rather neatly, The Final Conflict was released on March 20th a few days before the birth of the Nazarene in the film. Not as snazzy a marketing trick as the original June 6th 1976 release date of the first one, but a nice try regardless. Damien knows he must kill the child as soon as possible, but before that, it’s time to gain more power, and his intentions to head the United Nations’ Youth Council chill the bone, as it’s clear he wants to influence the next generation, Hitler-style.
One of the more derided elements of The Final Conflict is the monks’ hapless attempts to kill Damien. The most spectacularly bungled effort is during Damien’s live-televised interview where one monk, lurking above the studio and dagger in hand, ends up falling and getting caught in tangled wires, where he swings helplessly like a pendulum, getting caught in set-design, and eventually flames. Nasty. His death is also bad for the other monks, as the dagger that was left behind proves that Damien being targeted. Three of them try to lure him to an abandoned churchyard in the middle of nowhere but Damien uses trickery to make it look like one of them is him, which results in an accidental stabbing. I can’t blame them for making that mistake; their minds were messed with. But then they foolishly seek refuge in the tiniest catacomb in the world, which shuts on them and presumably keeps them there forever. I can only hope some passing ramblers found them later on.
Damien also begins a romantic relationship with Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow), a television journalist who wants to get a sense, professionally and personally, of who the man behind the fame and success is. You can’t blame her for being intrigued; he’s a charismatic man, and he gets on well with Kate’s son Peter too. At one point she tells Damien that her self-explanatory programme ‘…And Now for the Good News’ was a total ratings failure, compared to how successful her current, murder-saturated programme is doing. People like the bad stuff. It’s in their nature. Likewise, Kate’s drawn to Damien, even after a very bad date when she falls into a river and, for a good few moments, Damien appears totally unmoved, merely observing her before finally rescuing her. Later that night comes one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, where Damien and Kate have sex for the first time, although he appears distracted. Consumed with rage and bitterness, he then suddenly and forcibly turns Kate over and presumably sodomizes her, whilst declaring that ‘life is pain, death is pain, beauty is pain’ in a cruel attempt to make her see what he sees. It’s an alarming and unexpected moment, extremely adult and genuinely horrific in a way that we hadn’t seen before in an Omen film.
Likewise, one of the film’s best scenes is also something for which there is no equivalent in the first two chapters, when Damien retires to an upstairs room in his home and unleashes a tirade of vividly worded hatred towards a life-size model of Jesus on the cross (although Christ seems to be facing the cross, his body approached by Damien from behind), complete with real crown of thorns (which Damien clutches in a wince-inducing moment) – we also get the most striking image in the film with Damien’s blood dripping down the face of Christ like a teardrop. It’s an incredibly well-written scene, and Neill really sells Damien’s torrent of verbal bile. Speaking of Neill, he’s tremendously understated, smooth and effective. He knows when to raise his voice and command the scene, but the best thing about him is how quietly confident he can be. He doesn’t need to prove himself after all. He has all the power, or at least seems to, until God finally shows up on the scene. His calmly, coolly evil smile is deliciously sinister. And he is a charmer. Given the substantial jump in age between Omen II and this, it’s disarming to see Damien out on a date, or providing good copy when being interviewed. He’s even self-deprecating, although admittedly comparing oneself to Alexander the Great, even if it is negatively, is pretty pompous.
In regards to the kind of memorable set-pieces that made the first two films so spectacular, the best of The Final Conflict‘s deaths is the one near the start as the present Ambassador, in a repeat example of the kind of resignation that made Damien’s sixth birthday party one to remember when his nanny hung herself after looking into the eyes of an evil dog, is persuaded supernaturally to take his life, again before a stunned and appalled audience. Here, the method is even more elaborate, with judicious use of typewriter ribbon and a loaded shotgun resulting in a spectacular bullet to the head that marks one hell of a grotesque pay-off to a marvellously directed, portentous sequence that even seems to have taken a note or two from the slasher movies of the time with those POV shots of the demon dog following the Ambassador around. Yep, the dogs are back – there are no ravens this time. It would have been nice if we’d been given a new evil animal to go with the third film, but all dogs are scary when they’re angry, so it was a safe bet. Well, almost all dogs. Some are just cute, as we see in another highlight of the film; the fox hunting sequence.
If Abraham was ready to slay his own son for the love of his God, why won’t you do the same for the love of mine?Damien Thorn
Inadvertently, this sequence highlights the savagery of Damien’s class. I say that because the film doesn’t seem to have a problem with fox hunting – even Kate’s cool with her son going along for the ride. Fucking sickos. The subsequent blooding scene (when Peter’s cheeks are dabbed with gore to celebrate his first hunt), horrible enough in itself, is also one of the most chilling in the whole film dramatically – the nasty twist that it’s actually one of the monks’ blood is one thing, but it’s here that we see Damien’s increasing, sinister influence over the child. Before that, there’s a neat reversal of the kind of fates the victims in the first two films had; before it was they who were drawn away from the public and into solitude where no one could help them. This time it’s Damien who is led away from the hunt, leading to a confrontation on a bridge that – because it’s the monks we’re talking about – backfires spectacularly. One of the monks is on a horse, which is of course manipulated by Damien into throwing the poor sap off and over the bridge in a backward fall that stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong said was the most dangerous thing he’d committed to on film. The other monk is then savaged by a pack of beagles. Yeah, beagles. Still, I love that little slanted head move that Damien does in one shot – very Michael Myers – and the way he quietly tells his legion of canine murderers to ‘take him’. It’s a gleefully wicked moment.
In addition to little sadistic moments like that is the occasional shot of knowing humour – lines like ‘your father would have been very proud of you’ have a delicious double-meaning, and the bit when Damien stops his make-up assistant from fixing up his hair too closely is a neat wink to the audience, who know exactly why. There’s also some extremely nasty black comedy when two cheery boy scouts arrives at a mother’s house under the pretence of a friendly visit when what they really want to do is kill her baby. Ah yes, the baby-killing montage. After a sermon to his Disciples of the Watch – everyday folk who are really servants of Evil – in which Damien orders all babies born between midnight and 6am on the 24th of March to be, King Herod-style, massacred, we get a mini-run of infant deaths that thankfully, don’t include any shots of dead babies, but is still way more unpleasant and nasty than anything in the first two films. Normally in a film when a pram is accidentally let go and hurtles down a hill we expect it to be saved. Not here. Thankfully we’re spared any more than four instances of the thirty-one murders that the news report details.
Yet despite the Disciples’ best efforts, the Nazarene remains alive; in fact, it may very well be the son of Damien’s own chief assistant Harvey (Don Gordon), who ends up having a serious conflict of interest as a result. There’s a great bit when, upon being told to liquidate his own child, he pleads ‘for the love of God‘; Damien then turns his words against him by bringing up the example of Abraham, who sacrificed his own son for his God. Why shouldn’t Harvey do the same for him? Elsewhere, and weirdly, it isn’t until an hour into the film that we get that classic Omen-trope; the character who knows all about Damien and tries to convince an unbeliever about it. Thankfully, Father DeCarlo turns out to be the most effective of all the ones so far. Why? Because he’s not ranting and raving and actually has some evidence on his side. Okay, so Kate doesn’t buy it straight away, but she will do. And DeCarlo lives too, albeit barely. Weirdly, DeCarlo isn’t the victim of falling masonry or a hungry animal after sharing these details, but it’s best not to think too much about this film’s logic. However, young Peter listens in on the chat between DeCarlo and Kate and tells Damien, having become a spy for him. With Kate soon convinced of her new boyfriend’s nature, and fearing for the soul of her own son, the scene is set for a final showdown… yet lo and behold, it was not good. Dropping the ball totally, it may be final but it sure ain’t much of a conflict; just a quick stab with a dagger, a cameo from Jesus that should feel more monumental than it does and only a classic, petulant parting zinger in the form of ‘You have won…nothing!‘ from a dying Damien proving much that’s memorable. I mean, that line could have also been an aside to the viewer; this is what we waited for? It won’t satisfy anyone, except for bored viewers itching for a hasty finish. What of the Disciples of the Watch? Couldn’t they have got involved with this ending? We never find out what happens to them, although it is promised earlier on that if they fail to kill the Nazarene, they will ‘perish without trace’, or even better, spend an existence of ‘numbing eternity in the flaccid bosom of Christ’. Also, what exactly happened with the Nazarene? We’re led to believe it’s Harvey’s kid, but it appears that the mum has killed him (under dog-influence) and he’s not the one anyway as DeCarlo reassures Kate that the child is safe. What child? The novelisation apparently fills in the gaps of this mystery, but that’s not good enough.
Oh well, at least most of what precedes this anti-climax is jolly good fun, if occasionally very silly. The plot is sketchy – a far cry from the flawless screenwriting of the original – for instance, there’s some offscreen Thorn Industries related events taking place in Israel, but like the events in India that were similarly talked about in Omen II, this stuff is badly underwritten and not at all interesting. The lack of a consistent run of inventive deaths (only the shotgun one is an all-timer) will most likely frustrate fans of the first two films. Also, pure evil will inevitably prove more unique when personified as a child than as an adult. Yet The Final Conflict does share stuff in common with the first film that the second one doesn’t – Richard Donner has returned, albeit only as an executive producer, and having the action almost entirely set in the UK like in the original gives it that welcome English/European ambience, complemented by a return to the slightly soft-lensed look that gave Donner’s film such an elegant, handsome mood. There are lots of great London locations, beautiful scenes shot in the countryside and some nice, golden-hued morning photography too. That’s another reason why The Final Conflict might have been undervalued – its cinematography was spoiled utterly in the days of pan-and-scan VHS and TV presentations. There are fantastic uses of close-ups (especially eyes) and wonderful shot compositions. The one where a naked Damien lies on the floor, seemingly asleep, only for his eyes to suddenly open to us as Kate leaves him in shock after discovering his 666 birthmark, is a gem. It was shots like that and many more that made the trailer so magnificent – the run of images that take over the latter half of the promo, backed by Goldsmith’s awesomely suspenseful ‘The Dogs Attack’ theme from the first film, would have been more than enough to gee up anyone waiting for The Final Conflict at the time.
Still, despite its strengths, this can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, albeit one still with much to recommend it. I watched the dreadful, made-for-TV fourth instalment before this one; there it is revealed that the devilish child linked to a new spate of deaths is Damien’s daughter. When I got round to watching The Final Conflict, I was expecting a coda where we see Kate giving birth to the new Anti-Christ. That would have been corny as hell, but at least it would have been something, which is more than the final moments of this film actually gave us.