The Final Conflict Review
“Most people confuse evil with their own trivial lusts and perversions. Now, true evil is as pure as innocence.”
Now grown-up into the charismatic and handsome figure of Sam Neill, Damien Thorn, self-aware and single-mindedly determined to bring about his father, the Devil's counterfeit kingdom here on Earth, finally becomes the centrepiece character in the last entry in the successful Omen trilogy. And it is about time, too. For two movies, the Antichrist has been the most important role, but the stories have revolved around those out to destroy him much more than they have around the main man, himself. Seeing a stepping-stone to greater power in becoming the US Ambassador to Great Britain, a posting that is shockingly brought about via his own infernal influence, Damien returns to his home turf of England, bringing the series full-circle and back to its roots again. Big budget horror films had been most content when either set or produced in old Blighty right throughout the seventies and The Final Conflict, which hit screens in 1981, was possibly the last of such lavish, mainstream projects. In fact, barring a couple of scene-setting shots of the San Beneddeto Monastery in Subiaco, Italy, The Final Conflict remains steadfastly British - even deviating from the globe-trotting antics of the first two instalments which enjoyed little sojourns in Old Jerusalem. But, once he is ensconced there, with the full backing of Mason Adams' grandfatherly President, his popularity roadshow - secretly propagating trouble for Israel and fostering a steadily growing youth movement - comes under threat when a nightmare reveals to him that his greatest enemy, Jesus Christ, is about to be reborn.
This devastating blow to his and his father's plans is cemented when, at the same time as his portentous dream, astronomers and priests observe the significant alignment of stars that mark the exact time of the Nazarene's birth. Hope is returned to a select order of monks who have been searching out the sacred Daggers Of Meggido which, having been unearthed from the ruins of Thorn Museum in Chicago, after Damien brought the place down at the end of Omen II, have now found their way into the hands of the crusading Father De Carlo (Rossano Brazzi), and battle-plans for the final conflict are drawn-up. Graham Baker's movie brilliantly sparks off this genuinely momentous confrontation with a deadly serious and earnest tone for the warrior-monks and an appropriately mischievous, playful and somewhat disarming air for Damien. With a renowned and attractive TV journalist called Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow) drawn to his Machiavellian charms pursuing him for unwanted exposure and the knowledge that his enemies are slowly, but surely encircling him, Damien Thorn realises that his final destiny will be revealed once and for all, unless he can slay, in true Biblical fashion, every baby boy that was born in England on the 24th March - the date of the Second Coming, and, incidentally, my own son's birthday, too. Mind you, considering the personality of my little monster, Damien would probably have approved!
Sam Neill hit the genre quite spectacularly in 1981. After years of toil on the small screen - The Sullivans in Australia and Reilly: Ace Of Spies over here - he landed not only the role of the Antichrist but also made the curiously repellent, but cult-embraced Possession opposite a young Isabelle Adjani. Yet whilst Possession is barely recalled by many other than the most devout of followers, his turn as the enigmatic Damien is something that nobody forgets. It isn't that he is amazingly terrifying, or that he commands the screen with demonic presence - but rather that he is able to carry off the role by bleeding suavity and depravity in equal measure. His smug half-smile and slightly tired, condescending voice give Damien a real sense of having been around the block a couple of times, yet still award him some degree of satanic naiveté. In short, he makes you care about him and that is quite a stunt to pull off considering what he intends to do with us all. Although predominantly one of the talkiest villains in a horror movie, he does have a way with words that make him both marvellously convincing as a politician and devilishly manipulative with almost courteous threats. Listen to his semi-rhapsodic monologue as he belittles the corrupted statue of Christ on the cross - a distressing effigy even without the merciless put-downs from Damien, in that Christ appears backward and almost spine-broken - and the way he uses the word “Nazarene” as a kind of insult towards his pitifully helpless nemesis and his wry menace towards Harvey Dean, his human lieutenant played by Don Gordon, whose devotion Damien soon realises could be waning. “Chin up, old boy,” he quips with a sadistic twinkle in his eye.
“He was born last night... I feel his presence. Like a virus, a parasite feeding on my energy ... trying to drain me of power. For everyday that he lives and grows, my force will weaken.”
And it is nice to see that Damien reverts back to the canine protectors of the first film as opposed to the winged terror of the second. The loyal Rotweiler padding along beside him, or putting the fear of God - quite literally - into the odd fool that stands in his way. Though never put to anywhere near the same level of intimidation as in the first movie, Damien's devil-dog is a stylistic representation of the Beast and a nice addition to his visual depiction, something that comes to replace the black cloak and fangs of, say, Christopher Lee's Count Dracula. It is also quite nice that Robert Foxworth's character of Damien's mentor, Paul Buher, from Omen II is mentioned a couple of times as still acting on his behalf. If only Lance Henrickson's Sgt. Neff had managed a reference too. But now Thorn's army is, indeed, legion, as is made abundantly clear when he is helicoptered to a secret Black Mass to deliver a rousing sermon to his troops in the moonlit cavity of a vast cliff.
“You know Thorn the man... but do you know his soul?”
Whilst Neill supplies boundless oozing deviance across the screen, some cool sensuality is provided by Harrow's moth to his flame. That spark in their eyes whenever they look at one another - Harrow, especially, seems the most entranced - is not surprising when you learn that the two formed an almost immediate alliance off-screen. Their relationship even produced a child, although the two weren't to last as a couple. Both hailing from the same neck of the woods - Harrow is from Auckland and you can definitely hear a slight twang in her “proper” English accent from time to time - and having mutual backgrounds in television possibly made them natural partners during a shoot that was bigger and more lavish than they were probably used to. Harrow's journalist/interviewer is not a strong character, though. Pivotal and even instrumental in the ultimate sacrifice, she is nevertheless such an underwritten folly neighbouring Damien's rock-solid edifice that you long for a more visceral actress for him to play off. It is not entirely her fault that she doesn't really register, of course. Despite suffering a brutal bout of demonic lovemaking and being one of the primary weapons used against him, Kate Reynolds is little more than exquisite and refined eye-candy, a yummy-mummy in the snare of Damien's dark heart. The plotting that conceives of the Antichrist falling for a mortal woman could have been utilised so much better than this. In a blasphemous parallel life to that of Jesus, this element could so easily and dramatically have brought psychological and philosophical texture to the story. But Baker and writer Andrew Birkin opt for a more formulaic bond between the two, and one that doesn't affect Damien's own spirit in anything more than a simple, animalistic fashion. The intent was to have the Antichrist, himself, become smitten with a human woman and, perhaps, to question his own values as a result of emotions within himself that he can neither fathom nor control. Had the film embraced such a concept properly, then the story would have had another battlefield on which to wring its final conflict. The makers probably didn't have the studio acceptance for such an idea, Fox seemingly content to let their meal-ticket play out in a more streamlined and conventional manner.
Conventional meant that the Antichrist would, instead, fixate upon Kate's son, Peter, played as a typically annoying spoilt-brat by Barnaby Holm. But, again, the film sort of wimps out with regards to what should have been a disturbing connection between the two. Plus, despite being the amazingly persuasive raconteur and tempter that we know Damien to be, he seems to win the child over simply by showing him how to use a radio-controlled boat in the lake. The sense of a child being swayed and inevitably turned against its mother is not in the least bit troubling here. Imagine if Richard Donner had been at the helm - without ever resorting to any overt dramatics, he would have brought the twisted angst of this situation to a bubbling thunderhead and put our hearts in a vice in the process. Much the same can be said of the infamous montage of infanticide that, unfortunately, takes on a very Monty Python-esque zeal, what with careering prams and perversely grinning cherubic-killers going door-to-door. And that business at the font is near-legendary. All of this, however, is necessary to the plot - it is just the way that it is handled that dilutes the tension and distress that we should all be feeling.
“Oh my Father, Lord of Silence, Supreme God of Desolation, though mankind reviles yet aches to embrace, strengthen my purpose to save the world from a second ordeal of Jesus Christ and his grubby mundane creed.”
Don Gordon was also highly visible on TV, but alongside The Final Conflict, he would court the company of the Devil again in Exorcist III, confront stretchy latex and blood-squibs in The Beast Within and annoy Danny Glover in the first Lethal Weapon. He plays a strange sort of character here. As Harvey, Damien's personal assistant and press aide, he is also aware of his boss's true identity and, for the most part, highly complicit in his dealings. Yet there are many flaws with his interaction with the Antichrist and their relationship is not exactly consistent. On the one hand, he is gleefully subservient to this greater power, in whose grasp his own destiny undoubtedly lies. But, on the other, he is far too casual, too flippant and bizarrely mundane to be the Devil's key disciple and closest confidante. When made privy to the machinations of Satan and his son, you would think that the world, itself, would offer up enormous potential and that both he and Damien would really be “living-it-large”. Instead, Harvey is a family man (his wife has a baby boy suspiciously close to the 24th ...) and a devoted husband. You can see the vicarious position with which he has hung himself from a mile away - Damien uses this devotion like a sword hanging over his head, obviously. But it still doesn't totally add up. For a demonic “yes-man”, Harvey isn't one-hundred percent and this is even before he has a personal stake in things. He questions his boss, he even keeps things from him, yet he must know that Damien comprehends his every move, thought and desire even before he does, himself. But then this just proves the human gullibility and fallibility in us all, I suppose. Gordon allows Harvey to be immensely likeable, though, for all his dreadful associations and this, as with the unavoidable magnetism of Sam Neill, means that the film is frustratingly tricksy when it comes to giving us clear-cut bad guys to boo and hiss. All three movies manage to do this, actually, which is the ace (of Spades) up the sleeve of the franchise - we pity and love the young Damien, we feel for the frightened and unaware teenage Damien and we can't help but enjoy the company of the adult Damien. Clever, that.
“Nazarene, charlatan, what can you offer humanity? Since the hour you vomited forth from the gaping wound of a woman, you have done nothing but drown man's soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality.”
Talk of the Devil, eh?
Father De Carlo assigns his heavenly hit-squad, seven clandestine warrior monks each armed with one of the seven Daggers Of Meggido and their covert, world-saving mission to vanquish Damien Thorn begins in earnest. I love this aspect of the story - I mean look at these guys, these men of the cloth ... they are some of the most intimidating bit-part heavies to have done the rounds throughout numerous hard-line Brit-thrillers throughout the seventies and I'll bet that all of them have been in The Sweeney at some point. Or The Professionals. Their schemes for Damien's assassination are quite audacious too. But there is a desperate, blackly comic lunacy to their hit and run tactics that almost puts you in mind of Wiley Coyote or Dick Dastardly, such is their remarkably bumbling incompetence. The idiot that dreams up the attack on Damien whilst the Beast is engaged in a TV interview really deserves what he gets and just look at the Insp. Clouseau-ish antics of the world's clumsiest assassin as he takes a tumble from the rafters, gets tangled-up in ropes and burning plastic and ends-up swinging across the set like a grisly pendulum. Not a good advert for the God Squad, but he would certainly get my vote on Britain's Got Talent! Things take a definite upswing (ahem) when the wildman/vagrant-type monk, who is the prime instigator of the fox-hunt ambush, sets his beady eyes on Damien's skilled equestrian - “You've got the fastest horse, Mr. Ambassador.” This sequence is the film's knock-out one-two. With Goldsmith unleashing one his best-ever cues - commencing gently and ominously with distant bells and rolling bass drums, the film then swiftly coming alive with the orchestra literally galloping alongside the scarlet-jacketed riders as the damp, but luscious English countryside is brought vividly to life with a immense and challenging rendition of Damien's main theme transformed into full-on action mode - and some dazzling camerawork from Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, the hunt is on. But the fox isn't the only thing being hunted. These cassocked-commandos may not have a good track record, but this strategic lure seems almost divinely assisted. Cleverly separating Damien from the rest of the hunt and trapping him in the centre of an isolated bridge, De Carlo's last two foot-soldiers move in for the kill. But Damien's best defence is a good offence and with half of the pack of ravenous hounds at his disposal, those little daggers in the monks' hands look mighty pathetic indeed. Baker cuts to a wonderful shot of the dogs, en masse, silently staring at a much meatier treat than a mere fox, and Damien's simple but devastating command of “Take him” makes the blood run cold.
The film would have benefited from more such episodes. Damien, rather than dark fate, would have become a much more formidable character if he had taken the battle to his enemies a bit more often. The lightning-lit fracas in a ruined church on the moors is all a bit daft, and something of a letdown, if we're honest, though.
But there are still other moments of greatness to savour. I love the extravagant suicide by the American Ambassador to Great Britain (played by Robert Arden). Sure, Baker drags it on for far too long, with relentless build-up, build-up, build-up, but the driving persistence of Goldsmith's cue makes the entire set-piece go beyond mere indulgence, creating a mini-saga of madness and possession capped-off with a terrific skull-blasting brain-shower against the American Eagle. Check out his incredibly grave expression when the dog's malevolent stare and growl combo has worked its wicked black magic upon him, Arden literally transforming before our eyes from normality to out-and-out damnation in the blink of an eye. The opening passage of events showing us how the seven daggers are located and moved all over the world is another protracted sequence that strives to be epic. And Damien's devious riverside-stroll is nicely overwrought once he begins his tale of “Old Nick”, although this is the moment that flicks the film into its regrettably mediocre final act.
“Every child still living born between those hours is in mortal danger if, indeed, he has not already been killed.”
“Are you suggesting they've been murdered?”
“No, no, I am not. I'm stating it as a fact.”
After a lesser display of his customarily virtuoso talents for the music to Damien: Omen II, maestro Jerry Goldsmith was back on incredible form for the score to The Final Conflict. Hailed by many soundtrack aficionados and Goldsmith fans as one of the composer's greatest works, his score is both a phenomenal tour de force of blistering demonics and incredibly impassioned, almost Golden Age-style Biblical transcendence. That he was able to combine the two extremes into one cohesive whole - and make it a staggeringly exciting work in its own right by his, already peerless, standards - is nothing short of genius. The ominous grandeur of the main theme, that exists for both Damien and the film, itself, runs throughout like a surging tide of unstoppable water. The rhapsodic retaliation of the theme for the Light - soothing, ethereal and basking in purely un-contrived rapture - is the perfect antidote, the battle between good and evil perhaps far better evoked by Goldsmith and the National Philharmonic Orchestra than by Neill, Baker and all the amassed imagery of the third outing. For what is absolutely certain is that The Final Conflict would be nothing without Goldsmith's incredible score. I've mentioned the cue for the fox hunt sequence a couple of times before now, but it ranks, as far as I am concerned, as one of the composer's most versatile, energetic, propulsive and exhilarating set-piece compositions. It tells a story all by itself, even when divorced from the imagery and delivers adrenaline and shudders and leaves you breathless by the end.
I, along with many others, have problems with the notion of the series using the Second Coming of Christ as the antidote to Damien's devilry. Of course it seems like such a cop-out. Why didn't God and his son simply derail the Antichrist right from the start, saving a lot of lives and theological hassle in the process? But the crucial thing is that if we have already bought into the concept of the Devil's son living-it-up on Earth, then we should be equally able to bite into the flip-side notion of Christ finally putting in an appearance to rain on his despicable parade. The story, itself, is all about prophecies and, in actual fact, the Second Coming is about the only way that this trilogy could possibly come to an end. Ask yourself how satisfied you would be if the film simply ended with someone doing Damien in with those daggers - it would hardly be spectacular, would it? And, as it happens, it most certainly isn't. And after all that has happened throughout three movies of fate-nudged set-piece mayhem and diabolical intrigue, you couldn't really ask for a more powerful, awe-inspiring and poetically neat denouement than that of his one true nemesis putting in an appearance, could you? I find it amusing - and something of an irony, too - that audiences mock and dismiss this finale so glibly. As I have already stated, I am a non-believer, but for the purposes of the story I can quite happily accept the work of the Devil and ignore what my own thoughts on the matter are. Yet, for a long time, I was just as unwilling as the next viewer to accept the Holy Light bathing our charismatic baddie like the neon-filtered charge of US Cavalry arriving at the last minute through the gloom of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire. But when you sit back and analyse this finale, it is borne of pure catharsis - the flow of the series has been consistently dark and ominous and the foreboding clouds of Damien's reign can only be fully exorcised in this manner for the epic tale to have any resonance at all come its climax. But what is all the more worrying - and, incidentally, folks, a canny final trick that this satanic triumvirate manages to pull off with staggering aplomb - is the warped feeling that we are actually going to miss Damien. I mean, we've grown up with him for God's sake! We were virtually there at the birth and we've witnessed all those pivotal junctures in his life as he grew to manhood like veritable godparents. We are closer to him than to any other character in the series. Thus, it is hard for us to let go. Obviously, I am discounting the risible Omen IV: The Awakening, as this Blu-ray collection has also done, and the curiously unnecessary remake (which this set hasn't left out and I will review shortly), but the tale has been told superbly throughout these three original movies. It is a shame that The Final Conflict tails off with such a whimper, for what starts out as a much “bigger” story - global in its implications - winds-up very small and humbled. And the most emphatic thing to come out of it is the fact that, even after all these events, no-one beyond a chosen few - most of whom are now dead, anyway - even knew anything about it. Armageddon nearly came and went without anybody even noticing. Then again, I suppose that's really what it's all about at the end of the day - and the entire Omen Trilogy is just an allegory of the secret wars being waged around us constantly. At worst, the series remained entertaining as it went on. At best, it began with a story and a concept so powerful and haunting that we just had to know more, and it remains a darkly fascinating saga however you cut it.
Oh, and before I forget, have a gander at the early performances of Ruby Wax, as the secretary who opens the door for the unfortunate Ambassador to Great Britain, and The Bill's Sgt. Bob Cryer (yep, that was a long time ago, too) as one of the astronomers who spots the Trinity Convergence and utters lines like “Convergence in T-minus thirty seconds.” And, for the really dedicated, see if you can spot Roger Corman's horror starlet Hazel Court (Julianna from The Masque Of The Red Death and Lenora from The Raven) when she appears at the hunt.