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Damien: Omen II Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 14, 2008

    Damien: Omen II Review
    “The day will come when everyone will know who you are ... but that day is not yet.”

    It is hard to imagine that there are still people out there who haven't seen this trilogy but, for any who are reading this that actually haven't, my advice would be to skip to the technical details and the verdict for, as with The Omen, there will be many spoilers here. But if we are to discuss this important and hugely influential series of movies at all, we may as well do it in detail. Thus, this review, as with those for the rest of the movies in this collection is primarily for those who know and love them.

    For a while when I was a kid, Damien: Omen II was my most watched film out of the original trilogy. The reasons for this were simple - this outing had the more elaborate and nastier deaths, I loved Jonathon Scott-Taylor's bratty performance as Damien and could obviously associate more with his character than either the malignant moppet in the first one or Sam Neill's all-growed-up incarnation in the third. Plus, the increased use of disciples safeguarding him was quite convincingly put-together without seemingly going too overboard, making the whole shebang feel a bit more credible. In fact, many people cite Part 2 as the one that they enjoy the most. Perhaps this is because it is also the least disturbing of the three films. I went to great lengths in my coverage for Donner's original to convey just why the first, and greatest, entry in the franchise is so powerful, so it goes without saying that these follow-ons, either individually or taken together lacked such emotive resonance. Basically, the older Damien gets, the less affected we become by either his plight or of those around him - well, save for one sequence in The Final Conflict, which I will discuss in its own review. Here, the screenplay from Stanley Mann and Michael Hodges, but based on a concept from series producer Harvey Bernhard, is much more episodic and less inclined to fixate upon the intimate nature of the unfolding drama. It captures Damien at what would be a crucial turning point in anybody's life, let alone the son of the Devil - thirteen years old and on the cusp of self-awareness. Puberty can be Hell for some people.

    “Karl Bugenhagen, I hope this guarantees me a place in the kingdom of Heaven!”

    After the deaths of Cathy and Robert Thorne in the first film, Damien, now played like a vision of a young Hitler by Jonathon Scott-Taylor, has been sent to live with his Uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his family. Having been with them for seven years he is practically as close to them as could be. The bond between himself and his cousin, Mark (Lucas Donat) is tremendously strong, and we meet them as they prepare to go away to military academy. Our very first sighting of Damien, rather tellingly, is through the rippling flames of a garden pyre. But this obscuring blaze has not been enough to stem the suspicions of a select few dotted about the family, and threats to his destiny will suddenly rear up, once again, and force Damien's dark side to manifest itself and wreak bloody havoc. The question this time out is not so much what those around him are prepared to do to halt the prophesied rise of the Antichrist, but whether Damien, himself, is prepared to accept his true heritage and do what is necessary to fulfil it.

    When The Omen looked like it was about to smash box office records, the original creative team, under Fox's money-hungry auspices, immediately plotted the story's perpetuation. They deemed that a trilogy could easily be accommodated and, in all honesty, the notion is pure gold. Three pivotal stages, three separate tales - one demonic crusade. Few would argue that either Omen II or The Final Conflict came anywhere near the stature, power or class of the original, but this does not mean that they aren't still tremendously enjoyable chapters in a saga that starts with a crash, pitches forth some challenging enigmas and certainly provokes debate. Damien: Omen II, directed by Don Taylor (whose films Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and The Final Countdown I will be reviewing on Blu-ray soon) and exquisitely photographed by the award-winning Bill Butler, looks lavish indeed, luxuriating in the panoramic views of a lush winter wonderland - the country seat of the incredibly wealthy Thorns - and hopping from Jerusalem to the big city of Chicago. Like James Bond with horns (two devilish ones as opposed to 007's single, but potent variety), the Omen films like to move about and take in the scenery. But whereas the first one used England as its home base, this one likes to spread America out before us, yet, even as it does so, Taylor, Bernhard and Butler make it glacial (literally in the film's most infamous sequence), austere and unwelcoming. This is not New York - no neon, no bright lights - and the tone actually feels very English once more, very definitely maintaining a degree of the visual mood that Donner created a couple of years before. But, with Donner away making us believe that a man could fly, Taylor possibly struggled to balance-out the thrills with the characterisation, and the intricate conflict between family and theology.

    But, and this is important too, he had fun with the screenplay.

    One of the standout sequences comes when Damien outsmarts his history teacher, delivering facts and dates (“Dates, let's stick with dates ...”) in a gradually speeding rollercoaster fashion that reduces his tutor to sweaty palpitations. It is never clear whether or not he actually has a tremendous knack for memorising little details of historical conflict (in fact, Lance Henrikson's paternal Sgt. Neff even remarks earlier on that Damien only has a “fair” grasp of military history and that there is room for improvement), or whether his daddy - the big red feller (no, not Hellboy - but close) - is feeding him the answers via some diabolical thought-wave, but the trick is undoubtedly unnerving. Personally, I wish that Henrickson's gaunt-faced, warrior-warlock Neff hadn't intervened for a little while longer - the fast-paced wordplay, Scott-Taylor literally anticipating and, indeed, overrunning his antagonist's questions before he has even finished them, getting into truly record-breaking territory before they are interrupted. This sense of humour extends to the use of the sinister crow acting as the instigator of death, a very pantomimic element even in 1978, when the film was made. And Damien's use of mind-power to defeat the Academy bully is also a sly little nod to all those persecuted nerds out there - literally mind over matter. It is also rather conceited that everybody who stumbles onto the truth becomes a wailing, manic zealot almost immediately - to wit Elizabeth Shepherd's scarlet-coated reporter Joan Hart and Nicholas Pryor's otherwise mild-mannered museum curator Charles Warren. After all those ungodly paintings depicting the different faces of Damien, from sprog to man-beast, found on Ygael's Wall by Leo McKern's barnacled old archaeologist Bugenhagen and fatefully revealed to victims-in-the-waiting aren't exactly hi-def photographs, are they? Similar, yes. But hardly definitive evidence of the Satanic at work.

    “I love you, Mark. You're like my brother.”

    “No! No!

    “You are my brother. And you mean more to me than -”

    No! The Beast has no brother! Don't call me your brother!”

    But Scott-Taylor is outstanding as the son of the Antichrist. What makes his performance so compelling is that he simply doesn't know who he is. He might have some vague and dark impressions, but unlike that smiling demon holding the President's hand at the end of the first film, he is much more the conventional teenager struggling to find his own identity. His shrewdness and calm, calculating manner could be attributed to his having been forced to overcome family tragedy and the isolation of being absorbed into another household. The aloofness and “oddness” in his makeup that Aunt Marion (Sylvia Sydney) so resents could be indicative of any forceful nature at the mercy of their own hormones, and the confidence that he exhibits are, once again, just traits of teenage ego. Only when certain events have unfolded and little truths have been whispered in his ear, does the full implication of his pedigree begin to dawn on him. And then, quite audaciously for the story, he even offers this gift of unholy power to Mark, proving that he does have genuine love and affection for somebody, that residing within him there is, indeed, a degree of humanity. This quasi warmth that he shows his new parents and, especially Mark, is actually quite touching at times, meaning that, cunningly, we actually feel safer in his company - such as when Mark is being squashed by classmates jealous of his family's status and Damien comes to the rescue. Of course, this is the dreaded charisma of the serpent, isn't it? And Scott-Taylor does the job impeccably of selling, if not his soul, then certainly his acting skills to the Devil.

    “He's not human.”

    “He's your brother's son ... he's a boy you've loved for seven years.”

    “The boy has got to die!”

    Holden, as ever, is dependable, though our heart does not go out to him as it does to Peck, as his doomed brother in the first movie. Unwell at the time, though it definitely doesn't show, the veteran actor seems vaguely uneasy with the role. Perhaps part of him still wants to be the man of action and isn't content to simply react with growing horror to the loss of so many friends and family all around him. He provides a gruffly cosy face to the boys, though, even if his chemistry with his wife, Anne (Lee Grant), is not so authentic, and there are moments, quiet ones, when his grave expression of forlornness lend the film poignancy.

    Robert (Falcon's Crest/The Prophecy) Foxworth, with hair like teddy-bear fur, provides a nice line in sinister insinuation as another one of Damien's acolytes and protectors, who seem to be coming out of woodwork this time around. Essaying Paul Buher, one of Thorn Industry's prime movers and shakers, Foxworth is allowed a dangerously lulling relationship with Damien that deliciously and somewhat cryptically alludes to his imminent dark ascension. In many ways this delicate moment of mystical mentoring could have been played out like some paedophiliac predator bolstering Damien's pride and self-esteem and it is interesting to wonder how a topic like this would have been perceived had the writers actually gone down this road. Naturally, we would have been forced to side with the Devil, wouldn't we, and urged Damien to kill, kill, kill such a deviant - yet how would that sit with our moralistic conscience, knowing that we had defended evil in another guise? Although the series never does delve too deeply into the pros and cons of what the Devil really is and what he stands for, I find this line of conjecture endlessly fascinating. Sometimes films - even when they appear as clear-cut and as black-and-white as Omen II - can still throw a psychological curve-ball at you, without even realising it. Sticking with Satan's little helpers for a minute, I think that this element throws up all sorts of other mysteries too, such as when do these people receive their ungodly orders? Have they always been bad and just lain in wait for a call to arms from the underworld? Or were they once quite normal before being gradually swayed to the dark side? Of course it works best that we never find out. They are simply ... there. But this does give an indication of the unspoken, unseen power that is growing with every diabolical breath that Damien takes on God's Earth. Sgt Neff's cold respect for Damien is a clear message about the influential guides that crop up to act as his mentors. “I see you're an orphan ... well, that's something we've got in common,” he says glibly to his new recruit at the academy, but this line is so veiled with hidden possibilities that his obvious war hero becomes masked with Machiavellian ambiguity. Hero and Devil's aid. The allegorical finger-pointing would continue in the third part.

    “You must not draw attention to yourself. Not yet.”

    Those deaths, as memorable as they are, now seem quite contrived and over-exuberant. Sure, they are more spectacular, but the delicious frisson of devil-play/fate that once governed the cavalcade of slayings has been lost. Joan Hart's gory demise at the beak and claws of a vicious crow and the unforgiving bulk of a freight-truck really is pure indulgence. I used to love this sequence as a kid, but in the history of cinematic set-piece slaughter it is actually one of the daftest and most overwrought. The straining for effect is much too obvious and the tension and shock-value are unavoidably diminished as a result. The suffocation of the interloping Ian Hendry down in old Bugenhagen's archaeological site, alongside McKern's holdover from the first film in the sprightly prologue set just after the events that occurred therein, also seems slightly tacky. Doctor Kane's (Mesach Taylor) elevator to Hell - actually, an elevator literally to Hell would have been really neat, wouldn't it? - is loud and aggressively handled, but once again seems like so much overkill to take out one enemy. And the chemical spill at the plant that transforms Allan Arbus' Vasarian into something resembling a frothy-mouthed zombie from Night Of The Living Dead is something of a letdown - panic stations for a second as Damien and chums flee the poison gas, but when we don't get serious fleshy-meltdown, we feel slightly short-changed. Nevertheless, Don Taylor clearly had instructions to top the first movie in terms of sensational kills, but this neglects the point and tone of what had gone before. Previously, those who died had been the instigators of their own extinction, as is the style of the story, but they had all been perfectly valid characters as well and their own narrative arcs were necessary, but never contrived. This time around, it is as though characters have been created simply in order to be wiped-out, which can't help but lessen the actual effect when it eventually happens. Such manipulation is signposted and only serves to remind us that there is a money-hungry studio, and not the Devil, pulling the strings. I do, naturally, concede that the most haunting demise, the one that really lingers in the mind afterwards is that of poor old Lew Ayres, as the President of Thorn Industries, Bill Atherton, who plunges through the ice during a winter's game of hockey out on the frozen lake. This is the scene that everyone remembers. Quite literally chilling, the misted-over plate of ice acts as a horrifically impervious barrier thwarting attempts from would-be rescuers topside to break through and equally desperate attempts from beneath as the aged Atherton pounds and scratches in futility to escape. It is bravura stuff that culminates in a terrific shot of Holden on his knees in despair, whilst others carry on the useless rescue. It is here, in this moment, that Omen II smacks an emotional homerun. It is also worth noting that this death is cannily pre-empted in the scene when Mark cuts his birthday cake, his knife cracking open the icing decoration of the frozen lake just as Atherton enters the room. I wish Taylor had incorporated more such portents - it would have been in-keeping with his much more mischievous style of movie-making.

    “A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come ...”

    Now, it we turn our attention towards Jerry Goldsmith's score for the film, we find that the composer, as dynamic and as inventive as ever, is strangely over-kinetic with this one. Omen II has the least-regarded score of the original trilogy and rightly so. Retaining the hellish inversions of Gregorian chants and violent thematic mischief, his music here is still a little too chaotic and schizophrenic for its own good. It is as though Goldsmith, himself, wasn't too fussed about the lack of directorial thrust that the film had and opted to craft a big, ballsy symphony of strenuously wild hullabaloo to compensate, providing the momentum and impetus that Taylor seemed to mislay. He rams the satanic motifs deep into us this time around, injecting them with a blisteringly intense choir and some percussive, electronic-enhanced blasts - the crow motif is truly unearthly and primal - and the effect can often be paralysing. Thus, the shock-scenes are exquisite moments of aural bombardment. But the film doesn't gain any deep signature for itself, unlike the two entries either side of it. Nothing here really flows in the same way that Ave Satani or the lament from The Omen do. Or the marvellously portentous main theme that runs through The Final Conflict, playing out in various guises and forms. His music here is much faster and more frantic. In fact, that main title is like a speeded-up version of the Avi Satani cue, almost as though the Devil, himself, is chasing the orchestra out of the Pit. There are still moments that rock the senses - the build-up and denouement of Atherton's bone-numbing swim, say - but nothing really stands out as totally unique this time around. Goldsmith appears to have been cutting-loose and jamming with Mephistopheles this time, but perhaps he was saving himself for the mighty battle between good and evil that was to come. His score for The Final Conflict is justly celebrated and we shall cover it in more depth in the coverage for that movie.

    Omen II certainly isn't The Empire Strikes Back of this series. As enjoyable as it is, it feels machine-tooled and studio-governed. The singular track of the overall plot, once part one is out of the way, is never once in question. Let's face it, we know how this is going to end. There is never any doubt that Damien will win this round as well, sort of voiding a lot of suspense and tension that could have been wrought with a little more thought and complexity. When Richard Donner slowly unravelled the heinous revelations regarding Robert Thorn's son, there was genuine fear, doubt and moral issues invoked. Plus, most importantly of all to a genre film such as these three are, there was an undoubted sense that Peck's torn and conflicted hero could still somehow win the day. Even viewing the first film now and knowing full well exactly what is going to happen, you still get that electric charge of exhilaration - we are right there alongside Peck's damaged Ambassador until the very last second, Daggers of Meggido in hand. That is filmmaking for you. And that is exactly how we should feel about William Holden's plight - but, right from the very start, we are under absolutely no illusion about the eventual outcome. At least The Final Conflict, when it arrived in 1981, was already a different enough type of narrative to get around this and place the emphasis elsewhere.

    Kudos must go to the creators of this series for establishing the diabolical as a popular and, indeed, marketable genre. Rosemary's Baby opened the doorway, but was also a paean to hippy free-love. The Exorcist was a revelation - if you'll pardon the pun - but the Devil and his workings have never been the most accommodating when it comes to visual, thematic or emotional vigour. Hammer tried it and came up with their comic-book-style adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, but foundered when it came to his similar To The Devil A Daughter. Peter Hyams wrecked the Sabbath with the ludicrous End Of Days, and beyond this, the truly demonic has rarely been invoked in movies. Which means that The Omen trilogy is still the benchmark for such esoteric, existential and downright eeeee-villl doings. Damien: Omen II is a fine, if flawed stepping stone in the career of the Antichrist. I'm actually torn between a strong 6 or a generous 7 out of 10. Ahh, what the Hell, eh?