Saturday, 24 November 2012


William Holden (Richard Thorn), Lee Grant (Ann Thorn), Jonathan Scott-Taylor (Damien Thorn), Robert Foxworth (Paul Buher), Elizabeth Shepherd (Joan Hart), Lance Henriksen (Sergeant Neff), Lew Ayres (Bill Atherton), Lucas Donat (Mark Thorn), Nicholas Pryor (Charles Warren), Alan Arbus (Passarian), Sylvia Sidney (Aunt Marrion), Leo McKern (Bugenhagen) 

Director – Don Taylor, Screenplay – Michael Hodges & Stanley Mann, Story – Harvey Bernhard, Producer – Harvey Bernhard & Mace Neufeld, Photography – Bill Butler, Music – Jerry Goldsmith, Special Effects – Ira Anderson Jr, Makeup – Robert Dawn & Lillian Toth, Production Design – Fred Harpman & Philip M. Jeffries. Production Company – 20th Century Fox.

Considering how ubiquitous the term “Damien” is when describing an ill-tempered or problematic child, it’s quite surprising that before The Omen in 1976, that term had no satanic significance. Nothing Biblical, no urban legend, nothing. It’s a testament to that film’s lasting impression that that term has endured when even “Regan” from The Exorcist, the movie The Omen is forever indebted to, is a word few know or remember. Damien proved so popular, in fact, that they simply used the name to title the sequel (a similar case would happen a decade later with Rambo). While the demonic possession sub-genre was already showing its seams in 1978 (aggravated by the venomous response to Exorcist II the year before), Damien: Omen II still brought in enough bank and proved successful enough to spawn a second sequel a few years later. Before he ran for office, though, Damien went to military school. What’s in a name? Let’s find out!
A week after the climactic tragedy of the first film, Damien jumps to an archeological dig in Israel, where archeologist Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern) frantically rushes to the side of colleague Michael Morgan (Ian Hendry). He’s got a box intended for the guardian of Damien Thorn, whom Carl claims to be the anti-Christ. Since Morgan is still understandably unconvinced, Carl takes him down into an excavation site where, scrolled on the ruin of Yigael’s wall is the anti-Christ with a stunning resemblance to Damien. Before either of them can get the word out, the two are buried alive by an earthquake.
The movie picks up seven years later, where Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is now twelve and living with his adoptive uncle and owner of the multinational Thorn Industries, Richard Thorn (William Holden). He seems to be getting along great with Richard, his wife Ann (Lee Grant) and their son Mark (Lucas Donat). He’s quiet, polite, intelligent and mild mannered. Not so nice are the animals that seemingly follow him around, from a hypnotic Rottweiler to a perching raven. Wherever those animals go, bad things seem to happen, be it cracked ice on a hockey pond or a burst pipe at Thorn Industries. It’s all part of Satan’s plan to take over the world, and Damien’s still in the dark.
After enrolling in military school, Damien finds himself top of the class and under close watch by Sgt. Neff (a young Lance Henriksen), who knows Damien’s destiny and instructs him to read Revelation, chapter 13. Damien learns his fate, and quickly after finds his powers growing. He’s able to control minds or will the environment. He’s also got some help from inside Thorn Industries, too, as manager Paul Buher (Robert Foxworth) tries to push a controversial business strategy that will see Thorn Industries becoming a major global business by buying up third-world land. As people who threaten Damien or Buher start dying, Richard starts to become more skeptical until ultimately he aims to complete what his brother couldn’t: kill the anti-Christ.
While The Omen director, Richard Donner was off making Superman and his cinematographer was off shooting Star Wars, series producer Harvey Bernhard was able to still wrangle up talent for the sequel in the form of Don Taylor (The Final Countdown, Island of Dr. Moreau) and cinematographer Bill Butler (Jaws, The Conversation). Perhaps the key ingredient was securing Jerry Goldsmith behind the podium once more, hot off his Oscar for his ominous, chanting score for The Omen. Lee Grant was fresh from an Oscar, too (for Shampoo), and casting William Holden was about as close to Gregory Peck as you could get (and indeed, Holden was Bernhard’s first choice for Peck’s part in the original). With all the elements in place, it’s no surprise, then, that Damien: Omen II is nearly as distinguished and professional as the original. At the same time, that’s part of the problem.
While professionally made, Damien offers little new to the series, instead rehashing the same basic arc of the first film, right down to the music and deaths. Looking at the way people die in this movie, it’s almost as if the producers had a checklist from the first film and tried to follow it verbatim. The setup is all around the elevator eviscerating, which is no surprise given all the fuss about the sheet glass beheading in the original. Then there are those shots of animals getting humans to do fatal things, or the zoom ins on Damien as he wills people to kill themselves. You’ve got Holden running around doing the same thing as Peck in the first movie, Lee Grant doing the same distressed mother shtick as Lee Remick in the first, and Lance Henriksen serving as Damien’s protector the same way his nanny was in the first. From the archeological dig at the start to the downbeat finale, Damien does every single thing the first film did. It does it well, but the same thing can be said for cover bands.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the film is that it does not effectively explore Damien’s consciousness of his destiny. The film tries to follow an arc where Damien slowly learns of his power and begins to comfort in using it by the conclusion, but really, Damien shows his command of the power early on when he nearly Scanners-izes a bully’s head and doesn’t do much more other than that by the end of the movie, either. Partly to blame is Taylor’s portrayal of the anti-Christ, making him too nice and proper, never having that hint of malice that little Harvey Stephens was able to do as a boy in The Omen. You get the sense that Damien doesn’t really care what’s happening either way, so long as he’s keeping up in school and minding his manners. But most of the blame falls on the screenwriters for not allowing Damien’s growing maturity alter the course of his development.
The other major fault in advancing the story forward, is that the movie conveniently switches from animals and disciples doing Damien’s bidding to Damien himself. Sometimes it’s the force of Satan that kills Damien’s adversaries, while other times it’s Damien. What decides either depends on what is easier at the time to ensure the bodycount remains high and consistent. It’s tough to feel any real threat towards Damien since no matter what, there’s some force that’s going to protect him. If Satan’s force can just do away with anyone that stands in his way, what does he need Damien for, anyway? You’d think with the devil so much in control that there would never even be close to the conflict that there is in the film, and that’s why any altercation seems forced, because really an omnipresent force should be so much more powerful. As good as the narrative setup was in the first film, this sequel wastefully uses story merely as a device to get us from one death scene to the next.
Of course, the fun is all in the death scenes, and to the film’s credit, they are orchestrated rather well. The drowning under the ice is expertly covered from all angles, while other scenes, like when a wire cuts a torso in half or a raven picks out the eyes of a nosy reporter, are particularly gruesome. For a film that has a pedigree as a serious faith-based thriller in lines of The Exorcist, Damien is surprisingly able to cater to the B-movie crowds as well with it’s grand, violent death scenes. Before Savini’s gory reign of terror starting in 1980, Damien represents one of the most gruesome death parades of the late-seventies.
It’s a shame it isn’t more than it is, but Damien is still a proficient thriller with A-list talent across the board serving a B-grade script. The story’s a rehash, but the death scenes are big enough and bad enough to still give the film purpose. Would the story finally grow up with Damien for the third film?

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