The Omen That Portended Wolf

by Arthur B

Do you really want to dig up The Omen, A&E? Don't you remember what happened to everyone else who tried to reprise the success of the first movie?
Like the child Antichrist on its original poster, The Omen casts a long shadow. Gleefully tapping into Biblical prophecy for the sake of churning out a big-budget horror film, it benefitted from being made at a time when thanks to the likes of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist a big ol' Satan-themed horror movie had a shot of actually getting a big fat budget. But with each repeated sequel, the dark promise of the original progressively faded until the series limped to a close in 1981 (with a 1991 TV movie and a 2006 remake attempt failing to rekindle the franchise's fortunes).

Now A&E are apparently intending to remake the story of Damien Thorn as a TV series, so it's about time to give the original trilogy another look. Did The Omen point to anything of substance, or was it just all sound and fury signifying nothing?

The Omen

It's 6 am on June 6th, in Rome, and American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is dealing with an absolutely miserable situation: his newborn son died shortly after childbirth, and he has absolutely no idea how he is going to break this to his wife Katherine (Lee Remick). A priest at the Church-run hospital that the maternity ward is housed in makes a curious suggestion: by sheer coincidence, another child was born in the ward at the same time, a child whose mother died at right about the same time that the Thorns' baby did. Why not adopt? Katherine need never know; if anything, it would be a kindness not to tell her.

Some years later, Robert is appointed US ambassador to the UK, giving the family the chance to move out of their admittedly luxurious Rome apartment into a grand stately home in the English countryside. It's all very idyllic, and as time passes Damien Thorn grows to become a charming little boy - a little quiet, maybe, but more than capable of playing happily with his friends.

It all changes one day when the family's hired nanny (Holly Palance) hangs herself at Damien's birthday party, loudly declaring "Damien, it's all for you!" - an incident accompanied by the mysterious appearance of a large black dog who soon becomes a recurring visitor. When the ambassador next pops into his office, he receives a visit from the Second Doctor Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), a terrified Time Lord priest who claims that he was at the hospital the night of Damien's birth. Is there any truth to the Doctor's Father Brennan's hints that there was something terribly wrong about Damien's birth? What can we make of the Doctor's Father's insistence that the only hope for Robert is if he takes Communion each and every day? What's up with the mysterious Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), a new governess who shows up out of the blue to take up the vacated position, and why did she seem to know that Damien's ordinarily impeccable behaviour would descend into the mother of all tantrums if his parents try to take him into a church? Perhaps it's something he gets from his real father…

One of the top tier of big-budget 1970s horror movies, The Omen is brilliantly cast (along with the above cast members, there's also treats like Leo McKern - the best Number Two from The Prisoner - as Carl Bugenhagen, an archaeologist working in Israel and an expert on the lore surrounding the Antichrist), with every member of the ensemble turning in a top-notch performance, and benefits from strong direction and a carefully crafted script, which feeds the audience a slow drip-drip-drip of little incidents, each of which could be perfectly explainable on its own but when taken all together start to suggest that We Need To Talk About Damien.

Director Richard Donner also remembers to give the film room to breathe, letting each incident play out sufficiently for the full import to sink in without letting anything drag. In keeping with the film's title, there's not a single extraneous line or shot in the piece, every moment having something to tell you - if not about the main plot, then at least giving you insight into the characters - Peck, in particular, is great at showing you how he's struggling with the secret of Damien substituting for his stillborn son constantly throughout the film, and Lee Remick is not only able to sustain a great onscreen chemistry with Peck but also nicely conveys on how she gets more and more tired of Damien's shit as things progress. The film is also, whilst comparatively bloodless as far as horror goes, replete with really striking images - for instance, I'm sure Kubrick must have been inspired when making The Shining by the sequence of Damien peddling his little tricycle about the corridors on a mission of malice targeted at Katherine and her unborn child. (Who needs siblings when you have a demon doggy to be your best friend?)

Despite the existence of the sequels, The Omen also tells a great self-contained story. Gregory Peck took on the role in part because he liked how the script veered away from horror movie convention and drew more on ideas more associated at the time with psychological thrillers. Whilst there are numerous scenes and incidents in the movie which are rightly seen as classics of horror cinema, the psychological thriller angle remains in the finished product; taken as a whole, the film isn't really a story about Damien being the Antichrist so much as it's a story about Robert slowly and gradually coming to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is something dreadfully the matter with his son, and ultimately being pushed beyond his limits by the realisation that he has raised a monster.

Damien: The Omen II

After a prologue set a week after the events of the previous film - in which Leo McKern makes a welcome return as Carl Bugenhagen in order to show a fellow archaeologist a mural depicting Damien at various ages as the Antichrist before a cave-in kills them both - Damien picks up the action 7 years later. Damien (now played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is 12 and is attending a posh military academy with his cousin Mark (Lucas Donat), having been adopted by his uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden). Whereas Robert Thorn was the politician of the family, Richard's interests lie in business, being as he is master of the Thorn corporate empire. As Damien and Mark head back to school, they're looking forward to a new school year - and why shouldn't they? After all, bad things have a way of happening to bullies who mess with Damien…

Mike Hodges originally took the helm for this film with a script by Stanley Man, but the producers were unhappy with Hodges' slow and steady pace of directing and replaced him with Don Taylor, who had a reputation for being able to knock things out in a hurry. It's notable that the few scenes Hodges did complete - sequences at the Thorn chemical factory, the military academy, and a dinner sequence in which Richard's aunt Marion (an on-fire Sylvia Sidney) tries to warn Richard about Damien - manage to pack a little more power than most of the rest of the film; yes, they're slower in pace and feel like the result of just the sort of slow, perfectionist process the producers were unhappy with, but they have more emotional resonance than the rest of the film, which fails to feel like the product of any cohesive or vivid creative vision.

Whilst Taylor proved to be able to produce an entertaining enough pot-boiler, the completed film can't compete with the grand stature of its predecessor - as much as it tries to. In fact, a major flaw of the film is that it ends up providing more of the same as its predecessor when the original movie already gave us more than enough. Slightly too often, the movie feels like it's not so much continuing the themes of the original so much as ransacking it for material. Mr and Mrs Thorn this time feel a lot like a recast version of Mr and Mrs Thorn from last time - William Holden was even considered for the Robert Thorn role in the original but turned it down - Elizabeth Shephard's interfering journalist character feels like a mashup of Patrick Troughton and David Warner's roles in the original in terms of what she contributes to the plot - hell, even Nicholas Pryor's archaeologist character ends up copying the whole "loads and loads of crucifixes on the wall" deal that Patrick Troughton had going in the original. On top of all that, the film relies way too much on perpetuate a simplistic cycle of "somebody suspects something awful about Damien or gets in the way of Satan's plans, a wacky accident happens and they end up dying, Damien is often present when it happens but he doesn't need to be because a friendly crow will help out when necessary".

At points it seems like Taylor is just spinning his wheels making time; the decision having been made to turn The Omen into a franchise means that he doesn't have to provide as much context as Richard Donner did in the original movie and he doesn't need to actually wrap up any plotlines satisfyingly (provided that nobody who discovers Damien's true nature survives the movie), so rather than bothering to provide a satisfying self-contained plot arc like the first movie did the whole thing is just an exercise in narrative clock-watching.

That isn't to say it's without its charms, mind. The various death sequences up the ante on the previous film, and whilst they are a little excessively flashy and ridiculous in comparison, they're at least entertaining. (The exception is the bit where Damien kills Mark by staring at him, which ends up looking like Scott-Taylor and Donat's rejected Scanners audition tape.) Robert Foxworth is a treat as Paul, the smooth, businesslike Satanist who's infiltrated the upper echelons of the Thorn corporate empire, though the subplot he's mostly involved with is a huge dead end that seems to be intended to lay the foundation for one of the sequels. We know Paul is evil because he's in charge of an agricultural project that can feed masses of people but at the cost of massive corporate ownership of farmland which, erm, doesn't seem like it'd be that unusual in the capitalist world in the 1970s. Was Don Taylor under the impression that the American food industry wasn't already dominated by corporate giants? Has Don Taylor ever been in a normal people food store?

Damien also tries to fill out its running time by working in a subplot about Damien not knowing his true nature and gradually discovering it over the course of the film, but this isn't particularly interesting. We already know that the Antichrist is going to become the Antichrist - having him refuse the role might work for a Gaiman/Pratchett farce but won't really pass muster here - and like I said above, Richard Donner understood that well enough to make the story in the Omen not about how the Biblical prophecy unfolds over the course of Damien's life (it's really hard to compete with St. John on that one) but about how Robert Thorn is clued into this terrible secret. I think it's pretty damn clear from the original film that Damien knows gosh-darn well who he is and what he's doing all along - just look at that evil smile he flashes at the audience in the closing shot, for crying out loud.

Indeed, it's all too fitting that Damien ends with the eponymous herald of armageddon once again fully accepting his evil nature and flashing an evil grin in our general direction. Ultimately, the whole film has been one enormous waste of time; it fails to develop Damien's character at all because he ends up in more or less exactly the same place he was at when the credits rolled last time, and no other prominent character survives this movie in the first place. The Omen could get away with making Damien a cypher because he was just a plot point in a story full of well-realised characters, but what works when you're just a five year old McGuffin won't pass muster when you're meant to be the central character (and, indeed, more or less the sole recurring character) of a movie trilogy.

Omen III: The Final Conflict

For the last film in the original series (OK, there was a shitty made-for-TV Omen IV 10 years later, but you don't make a movie with a title like this one's if you're already considering a sequel and everyone prefers to pretend it doesn't exist), Graham Baker took the director's seat. This was his first shot at helming a feature film, and the selection of a neophyte director rather than a tried and tested old hand isn't the only sign of a reduced budget compared to its predecessor - the cast also has less gravitas than previous entries in the series, with big names like Gregory Peck or William Holden absent in favour of less expensive actors.

Still, Baker and scriptwriter Andrew Birkin try their best with what they have. They make the smart move of jumping forward a couple of decades to catch up with Damien as an adult, played by Sam Neill (who embraces the opportunity to gnaw on the scenery just as much as he likes). Our lad has spent a few years in sole charge of the Thorn corporate empire, but now it's time for him to make his mark in the world of politics; one demonically-induced suicide later, and he's appointed ambassador to the UK (and president of the UN's youth council at that).

He isn't just out to follow in his adoptive daddy's footsteps; nor is he here for fun - though he does take the opportunity to date Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow), a popular BBC journalist. Apocryphal prophecies and a scientifically implausible conjunction of stars herald the Second Coming of Christ somewhere in Britain, and Damien wants to be on the scene to curbstomp the Messiah just as soon as he shows up - even if he has to take rather Herodian measures to do that. He isn't the only one out for blood, though: an international cabal of Catholic priests have got their hands on the Seven Daggers of Meggido, featured in the previous two movies' abortive attempts to kill Damien, and they're intent on stabbing him up before he's in any position to harm the returning baby Jesus.

To give Baker and Birkin their due, throwing in a conspiracy to off Damien that is operational throughout the film (rather than having people spend most of the movie trying to work out his secret before they try to kill him) is actually a neat way to reinvigorate the formula, since you're then pitching the assassins' increasingly elaborate ploys against Damien's occult power to ensure that circumstances play out in his favour. Indeed, this is key to the best part of the film - a fox-hunting sequence in which a cunning plan to isolate and kill Damien falls foul of his infernal command of unbaptised beasts.

Unfortunately, this subplot doesn't quite work when you set The Final Conflict against the other films, since it relies on the assassins simply stabbing Damien once with one of the daggers; in the previous movies, Carl Bugenhagen made it extremely clear that only an elaborate ritual involving Damien being stabbed by all seven daggers like some murderous acupuncture process. It is, of course, entirely possible that Bugenhagen is wrong or the conspirators are wrong, but the film doesn't really seem to make space for either possibility; Damien certainly thinks he was in real danger from an assassination attempt involving only one of the daggers, and he regularly chats with his real dad via a Satanic temple hidden in his mansion so you'd expect him to know.

This is a niggling issue compared to the more profound problem with the film's premise and story, which is that it ends up promising a Jesus-versus-Damien smackdown that it ultimately chickens out on delivering. You can't really depict the climax of the Antichrist's career without having Christ show up in some form, but at the same time Jesus does very little explicitly in the film beyond making baby noises as Damien bleeds out and then appearing before him in a spectral adult form before disappearing again. Of course, arguably you would be treading on all sorts of sensitivities to have Jesus actually show up in this movie and walk about and talk to people and do Christly stuff, but then again if you're squeamish about getting a little sacrilegious then this is really the wrong movie series for you to be working on, especially given the amount of baby-killing this movie packs in before it's all over.

Of course, by going for the "Surprise Jesus!!!" ending (with its accompanying indication that some sort of miraculous intervention allowed our heroes to backstab Damien) the film has a literal deus ex machina, and the ancient Greeks wore out that convention so hard that it still feels abrupt and unsatisfying even today. Granted, "Jesus shows up, wins with ease" has been part of the story since St. John wrote it down, but yet again I have to say that this is a good reason why the actual story of the Antichrist's rise and fall isn't a particularly thrilling or gripping subject for a horror movie treatment in the first place compared to a story about someone who finds themselves part of the prophetic narrative in some fashion and how they react to that.

As it stands, the film positions itself in such a way that it can't please anyone; if you're after scares, that rather depends on the unexpected, and nothing is more expected than Jesus winning against Satan, if you liked the way the previous movies put this wild, bizarre spin on Biblical prophecy you'll be disappointed with the unimaginative ending, and if for some bizarre reason you came here hoping for some sort of Biblically accurate depiction of the Revelation narrative then you well and truly are barking up the wrong tree. In fact, up until the very last scenes in which the vision of Jesus is followed up by a bunch of Bible quotes clogging up the screen, this is the movie in the series which gives the least shits about dropping in clever Biblical references here and there, relying instead mostly on the invented mythology already established in the prior movies and apocryphal sayings made up on the spot. This dependency on established canon only makes the change in the way the Daggers of Meggido are supposed to work even more incongruous.

The movie's inconsistencies don't just stop with the plot; it seems to be terminally confused as to what sort of tone it's going for with the death set-pieces. At some points it seems to be trying to return to the more restrained killings of the first movie, whilst other slayings outdo even the most wildly convoluted death sequences of Damien: The Omen II. In fact, not really being sure what tone it's going for is a recurring problem in the movie, as with Damien, it isn't really suspenseful or scary or really anything so much as it's just there, a rote depiction of a series of events without much of a solid idea of how it wants the audience to react to this stuff.

Also, there's a completely incongruous and pointless scene where I think we are meant to understand that Damien anally rapes Kate, which just seems utterly gratuitous.

As far as Sam Neill movies from 1981 with apocalyptic and demonic themes go, Possession takes the crown. (For that matter, if you want to follow Sam Neill down the primrose path to Hell then Event Horizon at least has cool spaceships.)

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Comments (go to latest) at 14:59 on 2015-10-02
Clearly, anyone looking for the quintessential Omen experience should check out the hit PC games Lucius and Lucius II.

The Omen is a horror franchise I've had zero contact with. I think this is largely based on the most recent remake, where Damien was played by that kid who was doing tons of creepy kid roles at the time and the whole thing just didn't seem very interesting, which in turn coloured my perception of the earlier movies.
Arthur B at 15:41 on 2015-10-02
Richard Donner's best decision in the first film is to strictly limit the extent to which Damien is expected to act creepy. at 15:32 on 2015-10-05
The film is also, whilst comparatively bloodless as far as horror goes...

Heh, funny seeing this comment if you've read Harlan Ellison's essay "The Thick Red Moment" where he describes in his usual even, measured tones just how grossed out he was by the death of David Warner's character in the film.
Arthur B at 16:55 on 2015-10-05
David Warner's death is easily the nastiest in the original film. Even Patrick Troughton's isn't quite as grim in execution (pun unintentional but endorsed).
Arthur B at 17:28 on 2015-10-05
Having looked up the essay in question, I am bemused that Ellison assumes that the audience in his showing were applauding because they specifically morally approved of David Warner's death, and not because, say, they thought the death sequence was impressively scripted and masterfully executed - which it is.

It's also interesting that Ellison, who admits that he hasn't seen the film for five years when he describes the incident, describes all sorts of shit which just plain doesn't happen in the scene in question. Which rather blunts his argument that the violence was in excess of what was necessary; clearly, the depiction in the movie managed to create such an impressive illusion that you see way more than you're actually shown that even years later Ellison is able to make a powerful description of what he imagined to be happening and the various gaps his imagination filled in.

And isn't being able to present you with something which is both awful on the face of it, and which is even more awful when you remember it than when you see it again, one of the cornerstones of horror?

Then again, factual accuracy clearly isn't Ellison's priority, given that he lumps in the likes of Scanners with the "knife-kill" films he's ranting about. And whilst I'm with him on Dressed to Kill being bigoted trash, I can't follow him in denouncing Blow Out.
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2015-12-01
We already know that the Antichrist is going to become the Antichrist - having him refuse the role might work for a Gaiman/Pratchett farce but won't really pass muster her

Well, at least, having read this article, I now know what franchise they were riffing on with Adam's backstory and upbringing and elements like "Dog," in that book. Funny, I hadn't really realized before they were parodying something specific (though with Pratchett's involvement, I probably should), let alone how closely they were parodying it.
Sister Magpie at 20:44 on 2016-02-19
I loved this first movie when I was a kid, and I realized I never quite got one of the biggest differences between it and the others, which I didn't like as much for all the reasons you describe here. Listening to the director's commentary confirms that one of the main points of the first one was they always wanted the possibility there that all this is a coincidence. That the Satanists are nuts and Peck's character is just having the worst week ever with his fragile wife etc. At one point they point out that in the climactic fight between Peck and the nanny Damien "never declares" a side. Even his smile at the end, while obviously reading as Satan winning the day, did not involve the little boy being told to "look evil" or anything like that. He's just looking and then smiling as the director makes him laugh.

So I realize now looking back that the other movies all come across as really silly because the accidents in the first movie were all there to validate the possibility that the devil isn't involved. Once he obviously is involved it's just kind of silly to have Damien choosing to kill people by dropping pianos on their heads etc. It starts to seem like a weird little hobby than a Satanic conspiracy.
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