Tony reckons the number of the Beast.
Judaeo-Christian mythology has always been a fertile ground for fictional interpretation: from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Milton’s Paradise Lost and CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. In 1976, author David Seltzer took the premise of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby – the birth of the son of Satan through the collaboration of a coven of would-be worshippers - and imagined what would happen if the premise were played out on a larger, more worldwide canvas. What would happen if the coven of Satanists planted the AntiChrist not in a suburban family, but one with wealth and political power? What would happen then?
The answer is played out across the first three Omen movies – The Omen (1976), Damien – The Omen II (1978) and Omen III – The Final Conflict (1981).
Much has been made of the Omen movies as an object lesson in the diminishing return of trilogies (and the ultimate foolishness of quadrilogies – on which we’ll touch in a follow-up article), but this does a disservice to the second and third movies, and rather demands that they be something they were never intended to be – hardcore dramas – rather than leaders in a genre that was finding its own definition in the seventies and eighties – the blockbuster horror movie.
The idea of the Omen movies as drama is seeded by the theatrical and Hollywood heavyweights who populate the first instalment – no less a star than Gregory Peck takes the lead as Robert Thorn, the US Ambassador to Great Britain into whose family Damien, the infant AntiChrist, is planted. Lee Remick plays the child’s unwitting ‘mother,’ Kathy. A mad-eyed Billie Whitelaw plays Mrs Baylock, the child’s Satanic nanny. Patrick Troughton turns in a desperate performance as Father Brennan, the priest who tells Thorn the unbelievable truth about his son, and is spiked through the neck immediately afterwards. David Warner is photographer Jennings, whose moderately mystic pictures are one of the movies’ MacGuffins, showing the approach and means of death of Satan’s victims as he protects his son. Leo McKern is archaeologist Bugenhagen, who discovers another key MacGuffin, the daggers of Meggido, the only weapons which can kill the AntiChrist. The cast is impeccable all the way down the line in the first instalment. Particularly of course, the movie is held together by a chilling performance: that of Harvey Stephens, who plays the infant Damien, and who rarely says a word in the film (an instance of necessity re-purposed as cinematic genius – Stephens was English, and had a very British accent, so he was kept silent through most of the film, adding to the sense of unease around the child).
The storyline is well-paced, developing the horror-movie itch of anticipation all the way to the child’s sixth birthday party, and after that event (when to all intents and purposes, Satan sends his little boy a birthday gift in the horrible suicide of his previous nanny, paving the way for the arrival of Baylock), the film is sustained and powered on from one horrible death to another – through Father Brennan to Kathy Thorn, through Jennings to Baylock and ultimately, in almost the film’s final scene, to Robert Thorn himself. Richard “Yes, the Superman guy” Donner milks the movie both for tension and for the impact of its gory death scenes (the moderately absurd decapitation of Jennings is rendered in nine rapid shots, the head tumbling end over end in seven of them; the impaling of Brennan likewise uses nine rapidly cut shots to deliver the fear and inevitability of the death). The narrative itself is present but less powerful than the death scenes – it just about makes sense if you really want it to, but once the genie of the gory deaths is out of the bottle, what keeps you glued to your seat is what might happen next and the performances, not least by Harvey Stephens. That’s the thing about the original Omen: you want a scene where the Devil’s son goes all red-eyed and evil-teethed, but what Stephens and Donner deliver is actually far more unnerving – a little cherub, a normal-looking, adorable young child. That’s never clearer than in the final scene, which was a last-minute change. Damien was supposed to die with his surrogate father, but the final scene has him alive at Thorn’s funeral, flanked by the President and First Lady. He turns to camera, looking severe. And then – and again, this was unscripted – he fights a smile, but cannot keep it contained, until he’s beaming straight at the camera, the cherub gleeful. That final, last-minute addition is what makes The Omen a series, the potential of the idea encapsulated in that moment: the child of Satan, smiling at destruction, holding hands with the American President.
Damien: The Omen II has been criticised as being just a series of gory deaths, but of course by the time the movie was released, the bolt of suspense had already been well and truly shot by the first movie. We’re no longer wondering whether Damien is really the AntiChrist – we’re just waiting to see what happens next. The film is both a coming-of-age story and a heightening of the cabalistic theme, the coven of Satanists extending from Mrs Baylock the Nanny to Paul Buher the businessman, to Sergeant Neff the teacher, and ultimately to Ann Thorn, the second surrogate mother for the child of Satan. It sees Damien, now thirteen and ‘becoming a man’, having lived the last seven years with his uncle Richard Thorn (the brother of Robert, and the one who has headed the family business without dabbling in politics). There’s one key non-death scene in the movie, where, having been clued in by Neff to find out who he is in the Book of Revelation, Damien is disturbed and runs for miles, ultimately stopping and screaming “Why me?!” at the sky. It’s the death of the innocence of the boy – when he returns to his room at the Academy that night, he has accepted who he is, and is more ready to use the power he has.
The power in this movie is more than adequately embodied in a creepy raven, which has already been present at the death of the archaeologist Bugenhagen, Damien’s Aunt Marion, and a nosy journalist named Joan Hart. The daggers of Meggido are uncovered again in the movie, but there’s also a second, fairly redundant and timewasting MacGuffin: Yigael’s Wall, which shows the faces of the AntiChrist throughout his time on Earth. Again the movie ends on a shot of Damien smiling, though this time, the teenaged, self-aware Damien, played by Johnathan Scott-Thomas, has an air of unstoppable pride: with his uncle, aunt and cousin all dead, there is now no-one to stand in his way from becoming the owner of one of the world’s largest corporations. If the first movie ended with the threat of Satan in the political world, the second saw him ready to take on the crown of business.
Omen III: The Final Conflict has been seen as the weakest of the three movies, and there’s some justification there – while providing a career-launching role for Sam Neil as the adult Damien, there’s a sense of re-tread about the plot: the Meggido daggers are back, this time in the hands of a bunch of monks who, in the manner of all good mobs, decide to attack their quarry individually and one at a time, allowing him to pick them off with relative ease. It also shows Damien make the transition from business back to politics, becoming Ambassador to Great Britain after the incumbent commits a ghastly, convoluted suicide. The Final Conflict becomes a race against time for Damien when a new Star of Bethlehem alignment signals the birth of the Messiah, and the now adult AntiChrist shows and wields his power, conducting a Slaughter of the Innocents akin to that of King Herod (and responsible for most of the gory and creepy scenes in the third movie), before being finally killed by the woman with whom he has almost fallen in love (the scene where their lovemaking is turned to one of suggested buggery – love quashed by pain – being the key non-death scene here), his reign of evil ended.
The original Omen trilogy remains a vital sequence of horror movies to this day not just for the inventiveness of the death scenes, and not just because of the performances by some of Hollywood’s finest. Nor is their importance simply down to the soundtracks by Jerry Goldsmith (though, damn! Even in an age of fantastic movie music – Jaws, Star Wars, ET, The Godfather – Goldsmith’s original score came away with an Oscar). They are vital for the breadth of the imagination inherent in the central idea of the AntiChrist on Earth, and the translation of ancient prophecy into pulsing contemporary horror-thrillers, still relevant forty years on.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk