Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Oh Damien, You Devil


Horror movies are among my chief cinematic pleasures, and the one that scared me the most as a child was The Omen (1976). I begged my father to take me to see it, and he reluctantly complied, but it scared the bejesus out of me and I was forced to sleep with a night light on for years to come. I would even run out of the room in terror whenever the TV commercial for the film would come on...the frighteningly hollow and cold-blooded tones of the Gregorian chant-inspired theme music by Jerry Goldsmith (the aptly titled opus “Ave Satani”). I was 10 years old.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the Blockbuster Video era in the mid-1980s that I was able to muster up the courage see the 1978 and 1981 sequels to the terrifying original. As a college student at Northwestern University, I also had the opportunity to take a screenwriting seminar taught by a fellow alum—the talented David Seltzer, who wrote the original screenplay that started the Omen phenomenon.

The Antichrist is perhaps filmdom’s greatest arch-villain, bringing about not only murder and mayhem but quite possibly the end of the world itself, and the character of Damien Thorn as portrayed in the Omen trilogy gives viewers a fanciful birds-eye view into the mind and heart of a born killer as he grows from infant to adult.

The three faces of Damien: Stephens, Scott-Thomas and Neill
Obviously inspired by the huge popularity of previous horror classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen enjoyed less critical acclaim but was nevertheless a big box office hit that spawned two entertaining sequels. Seltzer’s original screenplay boasts a strong and compelling narrative and an inventive mythology that provides the blueprint and the backbone for the rest of the series. Punctuated by violent set-pieces and steeped in Catholic and apocalyptic lore, the Omen films chillingly represent the personification of evil in the person of a single character—Damien Thorn.

Born of a jackal and bearing a 666 birthmark—the sign of the Beast as described in the Book of Revelations—Damien does have his share of issues. But he does not have to bear the burden of responsibility alone. He’s surrounded by a bevy of hellbound helpers (played by some of filmdom’s finest character actors) determined to do away with anyone standing in their antihero’s path to ultimate power. One can’t be an effective devil without fearless acolytes, and Satan’s minions are brought to vivid life with wonderful performances in all films. 

Over the course of the three films, each of Damien’s enemies is dispatched in a creatively vivid and violent fashion through a series of gory freak “accidents”—including but not limited to hangings, stabbings, burnings, impalings and dismemberments—that are the hallmarks of the Omen oeuvre.

The Omen (1976): The Littlest Devil
The diminutive Antichrist is portrayed in the original Omen by young Harvey Stephens, but Damien is really just a supporting character in this opening chapter. This first film is headlined by Gregory Peck (Gentlemen’s Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird) as diplomat Robert Thorn, the Ambassador to Great Britain, and beautiful Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder, The Days of Wine and Roses) as his wife Cathy. (The ever-prolific horror movie genre is a saving grace of aging A-list talents who want to keep their names above the title!)

Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn

Lee Remick as Cathy Thorn
As the movie opens, the Thorns’ newborn child has been murdered and replaced with the spawn of the devil, setting the prophecy and plan of the Antichrist’s rise into motion. All is idyllic for the young family until, at Damien’s elaborate fifth birthday party, his nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack) is given the evil eye by a big black Hellhound dog and ends up swinging from a rope in a spectacular suicide sequence. (“Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” )

The new governess, Mrs. Baylock, played by the brilliant Billie Whitelaw (Night Watch, Hot Fuzz), is soft-spoken with a gentle brogue and wears sweater sets and sensible shoes. But she turns out to be one tough customer, aided by her fearsome familiar, the ferocious black dog, by her side, to guard her young charge: “Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee.” Mary Poppins she is not—a spoonful of hemlock rather than sugar seems to be her preferred prescription.


The marvelous Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Religious imagery and terminology are laid on thickly throughout the film. “Accept Christ, Mr. Thorn,” a crazy old coot of a priest admonishes Gregory Peck. “Drink his blood and eat his flesh.” Later, the seven knives of Megiddo, the sacred implements that are the only weapon that can destroy the Antichrist (and appear as an important plot device in all three films), are given to Thorn by Buchenhagen (Leo McKern).

David Warner (Time After Time, Titanic) is memorable as a photographer whose pictures show premonitions of the violence to come—to others as well as himself, the victim of one of the most gruesome “accidents.”

The devil dog, hound of hell, appears in chapters one and three

At first, it’s not quite clear if Damien, played by the young, cherubic-faced Harvey Stephens, is truly the embodiment of evil, or merely a hyperactive and migraine-inducing spoiled brat. Indeed, he drives his adoptive mother Cathy Thorn, played beautifully by Lee Remick, batty to the point of neurosis.  When the animals at the Windsor Lion Country Safari are terrified of Damien, the giraffes stampeding away and the baboons attacking the car, Cathy muses, “What could be wrong with our child?”

Just follow David Warner's bouncing rubber head in the decapitation scene
Indeed, the obstreperous Damien pitches a hysterical fit when approaching an Episcopal church for a wedding, ripping off poor Lee’s glamorous blue satin turban and socking her in the face; and is truly an annoying presence in the Thorn drawing room, throwing billiard balls and yelling at the top of his lungs. (No wonder Cathy starts seeing a psychiatrist, since spanking the little devil is clearly out of the question.)

But alas, Cathy’s fears are not unfounded. When she gets pregnant, her new baby must be gotten out of the way. While she balances precariously against a top-floor balustrade to fuss with a potted plant, evil Damien mows her down with his tricycle, causing her to fall, break her back and lose her unborn child. (Later, Mrs. Baylock pays her a visit in the hospital to finish the job.)

Young Stephens does give a memorable performance, especially in the climactic scenes with Gregory Peck and Billie Whitelaw, fighting tooth and nail against his adoptive father, who has had quite enough of Damien by now, thank you very much.

Damien: Omen II (1978): The Devil’s Advocates
Now living in Chicago with Robert’s brother, Richard Thorn (William Holden), his wife Ann (Lee Grant) and Richard’s son Mark (Lucas Donat), thirteen-year-old Damien (Jonathan Scott-Thomas) attends a military academy and comes of age—with a little help from his friends.

Top stars like Lee Grant, recent Oscar winner as Best Supporting Actress for Shampoo, and William Holden, who had headlined the acclaimed 1976 Best Picture Network, obviously never declined any paying gig, including this schlocky horror movie (indeed, Miss Grant’s autobiography is entitled I Said Yes To Everything). Actors need to work and earn a paycheck just like the rest of us!

A-listers Lee Grant and Bill Holden—slumming for a paycheck?
 A bloody continuation of the violent acts that must be taken to ensure Damien’s clear path to omnipotence, this chapter focuses upon the many protectors and helpers that surround Damien—conspirators are everywhere to prepare the way for Satan’s kingdom.  At the military academy, platoon leader Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator) is so enamored with his young hero that he can barely look the boy in the eye. “Our time has come,” remarks businessman Robert Foxworth, who does away with old Lew Ayres to run Bill Holden’s vast conglomerate until Damien comes of age. Lee Grant, the nurturing earth-mother stepmother, plays favorites, turning out to love one of her adopted children just a wee bit more than the other...

Jonathan Scott-Thomas as Damien Thorn
 As for Damien himself, Scott-Thomas portrays him as a well-mannered and well-behaved young man, but does use his “evil eye” to punish a bullying classmate, and later to murder his cousin and best friend Mark in order to claim his birthright. As Damien’s latent talents emerge, he is admonished not to attract attention: “Someday everyone will know who you are.”

In this film, the satanic familiar switches from a black dog to a raven, ostensibly for one of the violent murder scenes to steal boldly from Hitchcock’s The Birds. (For the third film, the black Hellhound canine returns.) Poor Elizabeth Shepherd, resplendent in a fur-trimmed, blood red coat, gets her eyes pecked out by the nasty, angry bird, then stumbles into oncoming traffic. Ouch!

Elizabeth Shepherd and a Hitchcockian feathered friend

Before William Holden can end the madness by destroying Damien with the newly rediscovered knives of Megiddo, Lee Grant literally stops him dead in his tracks with histrionic aplomb, and chapter two ends in an operatic fiery conflagration as the Thorn Museum burns to the ground.

Lee Grant camps it up in the finale: "Daaamieeeeeen!"

The Final Conflict (1981): Devil-May-Care Savoir Faire
This one is all about the eternal appeal of its bad boy antihero. In The Final Conflict, New Zealand actor Sam Neill (A Cry in the Dark, Jurassic Park) makes a handsome and charismatic Damien—but make no mistake, this is one mean and cold-blooded dude. Unlike the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite Damien played by Scott-Taylor in Omen II, Neill’s Damien is as hard as nails.

Sam Neill as the DILF version of Damien—the devil you'd like to....
 As the third film opens, the seven knives of Megiddo are unearthed from the remains of the Thorn Museum fire just as a cosmic alignment is taking place in the heavens, the one that will herald the Second Coming of Christ. Thus Damien, now an adult, must accelerate his plan for world domination by doing away with the Ambassador to Great Britain to obtain his father’s old job (apparently part of the prophecy and a prerequisite for Damien’s rise to political power) and gain a coveted appointment as president of the (obviously Hitleresque) United Nations Youth Council. Indeed, the American Ambassador’s gruesome suicide is the first of several violent set-pieces in the tradition of the other two films.

Damien and his evil brethren then embark upon a crusade to destroy all infants born on March 24th—the date of the Nazarene child’s birth.



Damien and his nemesis

Not quite as broad and campy as Omen II, The Final Conflict does have its share of over-the-top characters and broadly outlandish scenes of gory violence. The knife-wielding monks (including an elegant and thickly-accented Rossano Brazzi) and religious fanatics fight for the good guys, while Damien’s satanic henchmen include a pair of mean-spirited boy scouts, a wild-eyed priest who drowns the baby he is baptizing, and a sinister nurse (with a faint female mustache) wielding a hypodermic.

Neill is effective, even though he does gnaw the scenery in a few places. Damien’s monologue, a prayer to Papa Satan before a grotesque life-size Christ statue hanging backwards on a cross, is memorably florid as he praises “the violent rapture of my Father’s kingdom…” “Oh god of desolation…save us from Jesus Christ and his grubby, mundane creed…” he intones (with a remarkably straight face). 

A large part of this devil’s appeal is as a sex symbol—indeed, Mr. Neill is very easy on the eyes as the grown-up Prince of Darkness. In the film, Damien is having sex with reporter Kate Reynolds—“The Barbara Walters of British journalism” (well played by Neill’s real-life former paramour Lisa Harrow)— and (it’s implied), maybe even with her teenage son Peter (Barnaby Holm), who turns out to be another devil-worshiping acolyte. In bed with Kate making love, Damien roughly flips her over to face the mattress in order to—well, let’s just say the devil’s favorite flavor definitely isn’t vanilla.

"Nazarene, you have won...nothing."

Lovers of the Omen chronicles like me were delighted when 20th Century Fox released digitally remastered versions of these horror classics in a Blu-Ray collection a couple of years ago. The collection includes the trilogy, plus the 2006 remake with Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles and Mia Farrow in the Billie Whitelaw role. (The less said about that one, the better, though!)

Of the three Damiens, only Mr. Neill still works as an actor. Stephens is now a real estate developer in London, while Brazilian-born Brit Jonathan Scott-Taylor added only a few more film and TV roles to his credit before disappearing from public life in the mid-1980s.

When Shadows and SatinSpeakeasy and Silver Screenings announced this year’s Great Villain Blogathon, Damien Thorn was the first character to pop into my mind. Thanks to them for inspiring me to add the Antichrist to their villainous lineup this year! I look forward to reading all the entries of this stellar annual event! 




17 comments:

Quiggy said...

I saw Omen III when it came to cable back in the early 80's, but I still haven't gotten around to watch the two others. Nice review.

John/24Frames said...

Excellent post! You frame it all beautifully. I have only seen the original, and that was way back when it first came out. I liked it, but of the three big horror films of that period, the others being Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, it would rank number three. Remick was a wonderful actress as well as a sophisticated looking beauty. She died way too young.

angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy, thanks for stopping by. I think you'll appreciate the sequels if you like horror films. Enjoy!

angelman66 said...

Hi John - I would rank Rosemary, Exorcist and Omen in exactly the same order as you. And yes, Lee Remick was a class act and a wonderful actor.

Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment.
- Chris

Caftan Woman said...

There are moments when every child I've ever known has had moments that make my mind leap immediatley to Damien. Yes, this is a franchase that truly makes a lasting impression.

angelman66 said...

:-) So true, Caftan Woman, and often it lasts far beyond the "terrible twos!"! I read that little Harvey Stephens won the role of Damien after he had kicked director Richard Donner in a sensitive male area during the audition!

Thanks so much for stopping by!!
-Chris

Silver Screenings said...

I've not seen any of these films, but I did enjoy your overview very much. Truthfully, I'm a bit afraid to see this trilogy, so you've done me a huge favour. I feel all caught up! :)

Thanks for joining the blogathon with this comprehensive look at the Omen trilogy.

angelman66 said...

Hi Silver Screenings - thanks so much for cohosting the Great Villain Blogathon event!
I am having fun discovering so many new movie blogs, thanks to you.

And if you are not into gory horror, I definitely do not recommend these films...they are nightmare-inducing and over-the-top.

-Chris

Yvette said...

An excellent choice - hardly debatable. I do remember seeing the first OMEN film many years ago and being shocked by the violence. (I am NOT a horror movie fanatic.) But I also remember that little boy's creepyly smiling face. SCARY little dude.

William said...

Nice write-up of these movies, Chris. I've always thought The Omen was actually a better and more atmospheric film than either Rosemary or Exorcist. Damian was an exciting thriller, and Final Conflict was a slick piece of horror movie-making. A very entertaining trilogy.

Of course, these flicks aren't meant to be intellectual pursuits, which is just as well as they make no attempt to explore their themes in any halfway profound manner. In the final film it is clearly implied that Damian is a pederast (read: homosexual, although they are not the same) to make him even more evil by Catholic standards. I've always thought the whole business of the Catholic Church representing the ultimate in "good" was hilarious, but that's just my opinion.

Sadly, there are people who take these movies seriously instead of just seeing them as entertaining horror flicks. I remember a co-worker saying to me "I won't go see that Devil picture," as if she was actually afraid Satan would pay a call on her if she went to see "The Omen!"

angelman66 said...

Yvette, thanks for stopping by! You are so right, little Harvey Stephens's sly smile was almost more frightening than the over-the-top blood and gore!
-C

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - I couldn't agree with you more, these films are sheer entertainment and escapism. As you noted, the religious "good guys" are just as one-dimensional as the villains here...the violent scenes so creatively planned and choreographed...this genre is almost like a live action comic book, in many ways.

And I also agree that the original Omen does have artistic merit and atmosphere--Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score had a lot to do with that, in addition to the great performances and David Seltzer's then-very-original screenplay.

I always look forward to your comments here, Bill, and to reading your wonderful and prolific Great Old Movies blog! Thanks as always!
-Chris

said...

Great post! I only watched the first movie, and when I was already 21, so no nightmares for me here. I enjoyed the first, and maybe I'll do a double feature of the second and third someday.
I get the impression that Damien grows up and gets some kind of Norman Bates quality, doesn't he?
Thanks for the kind comment!
Cheers!
Le

angelman66 said...

Hi Le - thank you so much for stopping by and for your comments.
Yes, i think that if you enjoyed the first one, you will also be interested in parts 2 and 3. I agree, they will make a fun double feature.
Best,
Chris

Kristina Dijan said...

Great pick, unforgettable evil in a terrifying little package. Loved reading this and thanks so much for being part of the blogathon!

angelman66 said...

Hi Kristina - thank YOU so much for your visit and comments. It is always a pleasure to participate in this blogathon--a wonderful opportunity to share our passion for films!
-Chris

angelman66 said...

And big thanks to you Kristina (Speakeasy), Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings for hosting so fabulously!!