Damien: Omen II
(SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II, where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.
Kim Newman certainly thought so in Nightmare Movies. But then, he gave The Omen conspicuously short shrift. He suggested of the sequel’s merits that “it does manage some subversive hints about the ease with which the Antichrist slots into a disciplinarian military school and the chairmanship of the multinational Thorn corporation”. It helps too that Jonathan Scott-Taylor, a good few years older than the character he’s playing, can act (although he gave it up and became a lawyer). Beyond a certain point, he’s mostly required to glare malevolently prior to someone’s unfortunate demise, but it definitely benefits the infernal cause that this Damien isn’t reliant on lucky reaction shots.
I note there was an ill-fated 2016 Omen TV show – of course, there was a recent cash-in TV version – which featured the frankly baffling decision to make Damien a war photographer who has forgotten he’s the Antichrist; I’m presuming they were going the Dexter sympathy-for-the-devil route of inciting your empathy for the instigator of the apocalypse, because that’s Hollywood’s go-to carrot. Damien: Omen II offers something of that, but only to the extent of having him unaware of his destiny during the early stages. The irony is that this sequel would make a much better basis for a TV show than a movie, since there’s so much more scope. The corporate intrigue is more engrossing than anything we encounter involving the title character. Who, indeed, gets strangely short shrift. The military school has potential as a setting but is largely spurned after the first half, with Damien instead up to no good in and around his aunt and uncle’s snow-blanketed Chicago retreat.
Also more effective is the manner in which Damien is revealed throughout to be surrounded by protector Satanists in key support/mentor roles. There’s a degree to which this merely encourages the depiction of the main character as a cypher, but it also adds to the sense that there’s a ready-and-waiting serialised world here.
The academy’s Sergeant Neff (Lance Henriksen) reveals Damien’s true nature to him by suggesting he read The Book of Revelation chapter 13 for a quick biography. Henriksen was unimpressed with the finished movie and unimpressed with director Don Taylor (the Michael York The Island of Dr. Moreau, Escape from the Planet of the Apes). Taylor was brought in as a safe pair of hands, to get the picture in on budget and on time after Mike Hodges was given the heave-ho for being too slow and sure (Hodges retains a co-screenplay credit, with Stanley Mann). I can see why Henriksen was dissatisfied with the diminishment of his role, but at the same time, he might have shown us his dedication to the part. Like, you know, cutting his hair too look a bit more like a military man. As could all the cadets, come to that. Sloppiest-looking military academy I ever did see (not that I’ve seen any). The best scene there finds Damien’s teacher (Robert E Ingham) grilling him to increasing unease as the boy fires back exact dates for a slew of history questions.
Speaking of such things, Damien’s mind control abilities are a bit too magical, since they inevitably mean he doesn’t have to lift a finger to get what he wants. First, he spooks a fellow cadet. Then he gives his cousin (Lucas Donat) an aneurysm after the latter refuses to join him. Finally, he burns his Satanist protector mother Ann (Lee Grant) alive as fulfilment of the fate of the Whore of Babylon. Can he float about the place too?
It’s the deaths that created the talking points with these movies, of course. Although, given the sequel did significantly less business – it couldn’t even crack the year’s US Top 20, which likely explains nixing the return of Scott-Taylor in a projected third instalment that then took another three years to arrive – perhaps there was a fundamental misunderstanding at Fox of what the series needed to foment. Less towards the gruesome death fix and more in the direction of The Godfather might have been interesting. Instead, there are copious crows, scaring Aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) to death or pecking out prying journalists’ eyes (Elizabeth Shephard). Or showing up at the demise of Thorn Industries senior manager Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres), memorably trapped beneath an iced-over lake (an incident opening the door for Satanic Paul Buher – Robert Foxworth on good form – to take charge). Then there’s Dr Kane (Meshach Taylor) being sliced absurdly in twain when an elevator cable charges after him and through the roof of the lift he’s occupying. Dr Warren (Nicholas Pryor) also manages to get crushed by a train.
The latter has become a jabbering crazy on account of buying into Damien’s true identity. But there’s a problem in Omen II that this conviction – and that of William Holden’s Richard Thorn – relies more on the audience already believing than events establishing a rising crescendo of affirmative evidence. I much less swallow Richard’s decision to use the daggers, before wifey stabs him with them, than dad Gregory Peck’s in the earlier film. The twist with Ann is an effective one, although in retrospect, it seems a variant on the shock ending craze ushered in by the likes of Carrie.
As noted, the best of Damien: Omen II revolves around the corporate machinations at Thorn Industries. Obviously, the public doesn’t take much to be persuaded that big business is Satanic in nature, but here we have Richard Thorn posited as a good man surrounded by Satanists. At home. In the office. How can he hope to prevail? The resistance Buher meets to his plans for the company will inevitably be crushed; they are, after all, a virtual blueprint for the likes of IMF loans as a means to gaining a stranglehold on African countries’ decision making, leading to an influx of corporate dictators. And not just in Africa, when we have dear Mr Gates as the biggest owner of farmland in the US: “What is illegal or unethical about feeding people?” asks Buher, which is exactly the argument used, armed with starvation statistics (bring on the Bill). It matters not that this will make “slaves of the customer” and “If we control their land we make them tenants” (you will own nothing and be happy, as the World Economic Forum attests). That’s the whole point.
Buher doesn’t mince words when he announces “Our profitable future is in famine”, such that the reading of a situation “where the use of toxic chemicals we hope will one day feed the world’s hungry” isn’t even two edged. The devastation of GMOs (“strains of high yield, disease resistant grain crops”) and dependence on “pesticides and fertilisers” by these nations, as Thorn Industries buys up land, is announced outright as a Satanic plot. They even admit to the sham of green energy (and, er, fracking), proudly announcing “not only solar power, shale oil, the force of gravity”. And if your CEO (or leader of African nation) disagrees? Well, they may meet with a nasty accident, be it under the ice or at the end of a brace of devil daggers.
The performances are more than sufficient throughout Damien: Omen II. There’s more substance to both Richard and Ann than their equivalents in the original. The likes of Henriksen, Sidney, Shephard and Taylor are good, as far as they can be. It’s nice to see Ian Hendry and a returning Leo McKern during the portentous prologue.
The Omen sequels arrived at an interesting point, prior to Lucas and Spielberg reinventing the franchise concept, whereby as much if not more effort would be put into follow-up movies than the originals. Like Planet of the Apes, Damien: Omen II progresses the story, but like that series and the Dirty Harrys and Jaws of the same decade, the behind-the-camera talent is still seen as much less important. It’s true that would also be the case with the ’80s horror cycle, but this was supposed to be (relatively) prestige scare fare. It may also be the case that, with first Carrie and then Halloween four months after Omen II, a shift was already taking place in terms of audience appetites for the genre. You wouldn’t call The Omens cerebral, but for all their prized kill count, they were more about conceptual dread than the subsequent lurch into wall-to-wall slashers.