The Omen trilogy: Devilish good fun

The Omen trilogy directed by Richard Donner, Don Taylor, Graham BakerThe Omen trilogy directed by Richard Donner, Don Taylor, Graham Baker

The Omen trilogy directed by Richard Donner, Don Taylor, Graham Baker horror book reviewsThis viewer was a tad late in coming to the whole Omen phenomenon … a good 30 years late, actually. But I have since eagerly made up for lost time and taken in the entire trilogy of films dealing with filmdom’s favorite little Antichrist, and here, in these three short reviews, offer up some comments as to how they struck me. Consider this your one-stop shopping resource for all things Damien! And HAPPY HALLOWEEN to one and all!

The Omen: By the time I finally got around to watching it, I had a feeling that I might have been the only person in North America who had not seen the megahit The Omen. (Well, OK, maybe my Aunt Frici in the nursing home hadn’t seen it yet either.) So permit me a moment or two while I “preach to the choir.” Far from being just another Exorcist rip-off, The Omen is a literate, handsomely mounted horror picture that shows us what happens when American ambassador Gregory Peck discovers that his cute little boy is no less a personage than the Antichrist. (And you thought you had problems with YOUR 5-year-old!) Peck’s presence, as well as Lee Remick’s, add immeasurable class and dignity to the proceedings. The picture would have been far less an achievement without their presences, but Richard Donner’s imaginative direction and Jerry Goldsmith’s creepy score (incorporating what sounds like Gregorian chants) help put it over the top. Billie Whitelaw should be singled out as well, for her turn as the (literal) nanny from hell. Leo McKern, strangely uncredited, is also fine in his small but crucial role.

The film contains at least half a dozen classic and violent set pieces, culminating with what might be the most suspenseful haircut in film history. But then again, the entire film is extremely suspenseful and believable, and not a little scary. My stomach was in knots by the final credits, but I’m so glad that I FINALLY got to see this modern-era horror classic. Oh, by the way, the extensive extras on this commemorative DVD are fascinating to watch, as well…

Damien: Omen II: When I first saw the phenomenally popular, satanic thriller The Omen, as I said, it was almost 30 years after its 1976 release, and I do believe that I may have been the last person in North America to see it for the first time. The movie knocked me out, as it does most people, but somehow, it took me another eight years to catch up with the film’s sequel, Damien: Omen II, which was released two years after the first. The second film of an eventual trilogy (part 3, The Final Conflict, came out in 1981), it does what all good sequels should do; namely, it expands on the themes of the original, advances the story line in an intelligent manner, and leaves the viewer wanting even more. The film ups the murderous violence of the initial entry considerably (there are 10 imaginative and stunning diabolic homicide sequences in this film, as opposed to five in the first), and if it is by necessity a tad less original in concept than its predecessor, yet remains an unqualified success.

The sequel picks up only a week after the events of The Omen, with archaeologists Bugenhagen and Morgan (uncredited turns by Leo McKern and Ian Hendry, respectively, McKern being the only returning actor from the original film) becoming trapped in a cave-in whilst examining some incriminating ruins in Israel. The film then flash forwards seven years, to catch up with the doings of our favorite little Antichrist, Damien Thorn. When we last saw the lad, he had survived a murder attempt by his own savvy father, played by Gregory Peck. Now 13, Damien lives with his wealthy industrialist uncle, Richard Thorn (played by William Holden), his stepmother Ann (Lee Grant) and his cousin Mark (Lucas Donat). At this point, Damien is completely unaware of his satanic pedigree and of the “666” number of the beast that is branded on his own scalp. But all that changes, when he and Mark go off to a nearby military academy and become cadets. And as the number of grisly deaths both in the Thorn family and surrounding it escalates, Richard, like his brother before him, comes slowly to the realization that cute little Damien “must die”…

As in the first film, Damien: Omen II is given great gravitas, dramatic heft and credibility by dint of the terrific cast of seasoned pros that has been mustered to put the conceit across. Peck and Lee Remick worked wonders in the original picture, and here, Golden Age Hollywood stars Holden, Lew Ayres (playing Holden’s business partner, in his final screen appearance) and Sylvia Sidney (aka “The Face of the Depression,” here playing Holden’s Aunt Marion) perform the same office. They are more than ably abetted by Grant (another Lee playing the senior Thorn’s wife), Allan Arbus (aka Dr. Sidney Friedman on TV’s “M*A*S*H”), Meshach Taylor (in his first film, and eight years before achieving fame on TV’s “Designing Women”), Lance Henriksen (as a very mysteriously motivated drill sergeant at Damien’s academy) and Robert Foxworth (as a very mysteriously motivated executive at Thorn Enterprises). And then there is 16-year-old Jonathan Scott-Taylor, who does a marvelous job with his difficult lead role.

Helping to put the film over is the very assured direction by Don Taylor, the imaginative lensing of DOP Bill Butler (I love the first shot of Damien that he gives us, with his face superimposed by the flames of a burning pile of leaves), and the freaky-sounding Latinate choral effects provided by Jerry Goldsmith. Shot in large part at Lake Geneva and Eagle River in Wisconsin, the film has a wintry beauty that must have looked very impressive on the large screen. The picture is well paced and consistently suspenseful, and those 10 gruesome homicide sequences (by cave-in, induced coronary, crow attack, drowning under a frozen lake, a chemical factory disaster, an elevator accident, the rupturing of a cranial artery, a runaway train car, by dagger, and by fiery immolation) are all brilliantly staged and fairly horrifying. The film certainly does leave us with unanswered questions, mainly regarding the actions of the Henriksen and Foxworth characters, and of course as to the destiny of the 13-year-old Antichrist. Guess we’ll have to proceed on to the 1981 film and hope for some devilish explication…

The Final Conflict: The Omen, Part 3: By the end of the 1976 smash The Omen — one of the most successful films of that year, returning $60 million in domestic box office receipts on its $3 million budget — the foster parents of 5-year-old Damien Thorn both lay dead … as well as most of the personages who had had anything to do with the kindergarten-age Antichrist. His mother, Katherine (Lee Remick), had been offed by the (literal) nanny from hell, Mrs. Baylock (a remarkable performance from Billie Whitelaw), while his ambassador father Robert (played with classy gravitas by the great Gregory Peck) had been killed by the cops while in the act of attempting to slay his adopted Satan spawn with one of the Daggers of Megiddo. By the conclusion of the film’s sequel, 1978’s Damien: Omen II, the guardians of 12-year-old Damien also lay dead: Uncle Richard (William Holden) had been knifed by wife Ann (Lee Grant), while Ann herself had perished in a conflagration. Viewers would have to wait another three years to see what deviltry young Damien would be up to next, but were well repaid for their patience when part three of the trilogy, The Final Conflict, was released in March 1981. The film performed only 1/3 as well at the box office as compared to the original Omen installment and does not seem to be highly regarded today, which surprises me. The picture certainly does up the ante of the previous two films, and while necessarily not as original or fresh in conception, more than makes up for that with some truly shocking developments.

In the film, the viewer learns that Damien has graduated from both Yale and Oxford, is now in his early 30s and, as portrayed remarkably well by Sam Neill, is not only the supremely wealthy head of the Thorn business empire, but, in consequence of the Satanically-induced suicide of the U.S. ambassador to Britain, is next in line for that august position as well. The film basically consists of two running, parallel plots. In the first, Father De Carlo (the great Italian actor Rossano Brazzi, giving the film’s most likable performance), head of the San Benedetto monastery in Subiaco, Italy (which featured prominently in the original film), along with six select priests, each armed with one of the seven Daggers of Megiddo, go out into the world to slay the Antichrist. In the second, Damien searches throughout London to find the newly born Christ child, and to slay him before his own powers are greatly diminished. He is abetted by his personal assistant Harvey Dean (some nice work here by Don Gordon), whose own newly born son may or may not be the Christ child himself, while British investigative reporter Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow) interviews the new ambassador and learns a little too much about him. And so, a genuine conflict arises: Can Damien kill the newborn Christ before the seven priests kill him?

Unlike the previous two films, here, we have a Damien in full knowledge and acceptance of his Satanic lineage. For the first time, the Antichrist doesn’t just slay the pesky meddlers surrounding him, but actively goes after Jesus Christ himself! THAT’S what I call upping the ante! As in the previous films, Damien’s and his Pops’ slayings make for memorable set pieces, and the deaths of the Subiaco priests are brought about most impressively (by fire, knifing, lightning, dog attack, and so on).

Surprisingly, however, these infernal homicides are not the film’s most gripping scenes. Rather — at least, for this viewer — it is the pair of speeches that Damien makes that manages to impress the most. In the first, he addresses a Jesus crucifix with the most shockingly abusive language, calling Christianity a “grubby, mundane creed,” and declaring “…2,000 years have been enough … Nazarene charlatan, since the hour you vomited forth from a gaping wound of a woman you’ve done nothing but drown Man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality … I will drive deeper the thorns into your rancid carcass, you profaner of vices…” After which Damien Thorn, a genuine thorn in mankind’s backside, does indeed drive the thorn crown on the Christ effigy deeper into Jesus’ head, remarkably making the image cry bloody tears! It is a flabbergasting sequence, supremely well performed by Neill.

And in his other great speech, Damien exhorts his heterogeneous minions to track down and slay the new Christ child with these words: “…Slay the Nazarene, and you will know the violent raptures of my father’s kingdom. Fail, and you will be condemned to a numbing eternity in the flaccid bosom of Christ.” For the first time, thus, the viewer is witness to a genuinely evil Damien, one who is not only fully aware of his devilish ancestry, but reveling in it.

The Final Conflict, besides showcasing some shocking violence and speechifying, is perhaps most startling in its willingness to feature infanticide as a subplot; indeed, by the film’s end, no less than a dozen male infants have been exterminated throughout England in Damien’s quest to eliminate the Christ child! Screenwriter Andrew Birkin’s script certainly does not flinch from taking risks here, and he is ably complemented by some nice work from director Graham Barker and still another fine score from Jerry Goldsmith. Oh … and for all the gals out there who are attracted to so-called “bad boys,” in this film, they will get to see what a bout of lovemaking with the ultimate bad boy might be like. And for once, we have an Omen film that ends on a happy note — even Damien himself smiles as one of those blessed daggers plunges into his back! Damien may finally be vanquished here, but for those viewers who are interested in seeing what kind of mischief his demon daughter Delia is capable of spreading, there is always the TV sequel Omen IV: The Awakening


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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