Thursday, March 16, 2006

Growing Up Satan: A Look at the OMEN Trilogy


Horror remakes are all the rage these days. From beloved classics like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE to camp romps like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, Hollywood seems obsessed with low-budget horror circa the 1970s.

So it's only natural that they'd get their claws into a remake of THE OMEN, the flick that spawned a slew of devilish doses of cinema through the years. With the new OMEN bound for theaters in a few months, I thought it was time to step into the Wayback Machine and visit the STAR WARS Trilogy of Hell Spawn Cinema.

THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

The original OMEN flick (1976) and its 1978 follow-up DAMIEN: OMEN II (dig those Roman numerals, how very Biblical!) always held a weird fascination with me as a kid. Being a ten-year-old Catholic in 1976, the whole Antichrist thing seemed like a crazy cool idea for a flick. Plus, whenever Mom planted me in the book department of the grocery store while she went shopping I snatched the novelization ("With 8 pages of movie photos!") quicker than you could say "Our Father full of something, the Lord is somewhere."

Luckily, college years filled with booze, drugs and rock 'n' roll didn't dull my memory too much, and I can still see the black and white pix from both the OMEN and DAMIEN novelizations in my creepy head. There's Dad getting ready to plunge a holy dagger into Damien's black little soul. Oh, now there's that nice journalist woman fighting off the crows that are plucking her eyes out. It was like a Manson Family vacation slide show!

I suppose Hollywood was still riding the wave of post-EXORCIST boffo horror box-office when they greenlighted the original OMEN back in the mid-70s. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick star as the parents of bouncing baby Damien. Of course, what Mom doesn't know is that her real baby died at childbirth and Dad took a replacement baby whose mother also died at childbirth. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm dubious when somebody tries to give me food or a newspaper for free, let alone a baby! We didn't think to ask any questions, check the kid's hairline for the Mark of the Beast? Inquire whether or not Mom was a jackal? Anything...?

And so we go happily along until little Damien's fifth birthday when stuff starts going, well, not right. First the nanny hangs herself during the party, then creepy new nanny and her Hound from Hell show up, all the while some priest keeps stalking Gregory Peck, and David Warner has problems with his camera that turn out to be way more than he had bargained for.

The direction by Richard Donner (fresh off his success on 'Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic' and 'The Banana Splits Adventure Hour') is workmanlike, with little to do other than stand people around waiting for them to get killed. The few scenes intended to put the "thrill" back in "thriller" ain't much to write home about, and the big price of admission sequences (Warner's head getting chopped off by a plate of glass and the old impaled priest trick) are yawntastically tame by today's standards.

But, when you've got a hit ya follow it up.

EVIL IN A LEAGUE WITH SATAN

DAMIEN: OMEN II reached theatres in 1978, but some of the star firepower from the first installment had been downgraded. Donner departed for the greener pastures of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (smart move), and all the big names from the first flick were, well, dead. At least as far as their characters were concerned.

So, Peck was succeeded by William "I Never Met a Drink I Didn't Like" Holden as his brother, and Lee Grant as Holden's wife Ann. With those has-beens on board, Robert Foxworth (you don't know his name, but he was in that great Lifetime TV movie starring Meredith Baxter-Birney as a suburban drug fiend!) and a pre-craggy Lance Henriksen turn up as the adolescent Damien's helpers-in-waiting.

Now, I know what you're thinking. If Damien's five years-old in the original which was released in 1976, how is he twelve when the sequel unspooled in 1978? Scratch, scratch. Well, riddle me this boy/girl wonder: how the hell does he age an additional twenty years in between the end of DAMIEN and the third installment, THE FINAL CONFLICT, released a scant three years later in 1981?! Now, I know he's the Antichrist, but that's a pretty nifty trick I think somebody would've caught on to. But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

DAMIEN: OMEN II isn't exactly THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the series. Oh, sure, it's all dark and cryptic - Foxworth and Henriksen seem like they're there to educate and help the Lil' Devil, but then disappear at the conclusion - but it's even more a bunch of death scenes strung together by dialogue about the Book of Revelations than the original. If you really want to enjoy DAMIEN: OMEN II, have a drink every time somebody walks into the room with a bad perm. Considering the screen time given to Foxworth and Allan Arbus (affecting an outrageous accent as "Pasarian"), you'll be drunk before you realize just how bad the whole thing is!

And for you eagle-eyed viewers, the doctor who discovers that Damien is full of jackal DNA is indeed Meshach Taylor, later to turn up in such horror epics as MANNEQUIN, MANNEQUIN 2: MANNEQUIN ON THE MOVE, and the 'Designing Women' tv series. Now that's something to shudder about.

MY SWEET SATAN

By 1981, cinematic horror had taken on a whole new look thanks to the likes of John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13TH series. And while that makes FINAL CONFLICT: OMEN III the grisliest entry in the series, it blows its load twelve minutes in with that great "ambassador ventilates his head ala Bud Dwyer" moment. Sure, there are other scenes of grisly horror (the failed assassination attempt at the TV studio, Lisa Harrow's naked ass), but that's a little early for the big payoff.

Of course, the most intriguing thing about FINAL CONFLICT is that Sam Neill somehow escaped from its evil clutches with a career intact. His take on the 32-year-old Damien is more "creepy, gay bar cruiser" than "evil son of the devil," and his relationship with young Peter (Barnaby Holm) made me visibly itchy skitchy on more than one occasion. Considering it was only his sixth film, one wonders how Neill avoided a National Enquirer headline like: "FINAL CONFLICT STAR KILLS SELF, 4 OTHERS OVER FAILED ACTING CAREER." Lucky for him a star-making turn in the mini-series "Reilly: Ace of Spies" was only three years away.

2 comments:

Clurg said...

Jerry Goldsmith's score for The Omen is fantastic, too!

Hitch Magazine said...

I have always loved THE OMEN movies. Except for the made-for-TV OMEN IV, which sucks, but hey, it was in the box set, so I have it.

I never realized until recently that the FINAL DESTINATION franchise has kind of ripped THE OMEN off in the death scene department.