Monthly Archives: August 2015

Diabolus ex Machina – The Guilty Pleasures of Damien Omen II

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We have a great deal more to fear from religious extremism than from any iteration of The Devil. My mom raised me Episcopalian but her influence formed me into more of a secular middle-class materialist, and one of the products I consumed was 1970s and 1980s schlock cinema. Today I’m not even an atheist–I feel no need to quantify myself within a system lain out by so many unpleasant people. So instead, I’ll go with something I actually care to know more about–horror fiction and cinema.

(LOL, here’s a question: is “Damien Omen II” a film or a movie?)

I’d be naive to suggest that religious themes are absent from horror–indeed, they form so many of its core elements. “The Exorcist” elevated the genre to blockbuster levels. Now, that film had the good luck of timing in the post-Vietnam/Watergate trauma America experienced at the time. Lurking Cold War fears gave rise to pervasive fear of violent invasion by the other from out there. Fear of the dark is timeless.

And who better to fear and scapegoat than the guy with the horns, the pointy tail, and the excellent taste in Black Sabbath?

Ka-ching!

This is not my place to give a history of the 1970s Hollywood film industry. Suffice it to say that horror and sci-fi had attained blockbuster status post-“Jaws” and “Star Wars,” and I was a very impressionable kid. “Damien Omen II” (1978, dir. Don Taylor) was the first of the Omen trilogy I saw, and to this day it remains my favorite, even though it’s as silly as a bag of rubber dicks.

Here are some reasons why I love this atrocity, and I won’t bother with too much summary or too many spoilers. You’ve never seen the film, you’ve seen the film and forgotten it, or you love it even more than I do.

1.) There are some very shitty ways to die when you find out that forbidden knowledge about Damien Thorn.

The writers of this follow-up to “The Omen” (1976, dir. Richard Donner) decided they would use a raven as an “uh-oh” plot device, instead of the Rottweiler[s] of the original and subsequent installments–not one Rottweiler here, booooo–and with the exception of one admittedly horrifying instance in the film, the bird makes no physical contact with victims. It shows up, a terrible “accident” occurs, then it flies away with the ramp-down of the Jerry Goldsmith score. Sometimes the raven tenders that “Damien eye” close-up to illustrate that supernatural malevolence and plot devices are afoot.

DO2 has quite a body count: buried alive, heart attack, eye gouging whilst in the direct path of a speeding Mack truck, drowning beneath ice, toxic asphyxiation, cut in half, aneurysm, impalement, stabbed, burned alive–arguably there is a higher body count in “Omen 3: The Final Conflict” (1981, dir. Graham Baker), but here we have some very dreadful ways to go when you’ve suddenly found your Christian truth. We get it, dude–Damien, now come of puberty, is the cause of all of the Evil in the world. Who better to lead the world?

Aaaaaand The Devil is really good with machines. There is more mechanized death in “Damien Omen II” than in any of the other film in the trilogy, and you begin to wonder “Wait, if he could move that gear shift, control that electrical system, why doesn’t he just cause more plane crashes while his enemies are commuting into their naughty? In some cases he could take them all out at once!”

That’s a much too vulgar display of power, Larissa.

2.) It is much more clear that Damien has infiltrated one of the most powerful family dynasties in the world.

Born of a jackal, Damien is the Jordan Belfort of changelings. He’s coming into puberty (huh-huh), and he’s not stupid–he knows when to be politic even if he thinks a person is odd or unpleasant. On the flipside, he also knows how to take care of bullies.

I splurged and read the 1978 Signet novelization by Joseph Howard because there is only so much the film is going to tell you. I wanted more backstory. The book isn’t an earth-shattering literary achievement, but it is immersive enough to convey that, in their own way, The Thorns have eclipsed The Kennedys. Reginald Thorn is the father of both the late Robert (played by Gregory Peck with admirable restraint and pathos in the original “Omen”) and Richard (William Holden, who seems to know what a turkey he’s starring in but is, to his credit, convincing and professional)–Grandpa Reginald also had ramped up the family’s industry but never lost sight of his true passion: archaeology. Down we go into the Biblical rabbit hole. 

3.) The film moves at a much faster pace than the first installment. There is a good deal of ground to cover.

DO2 opens with Jerry Goldsmith’s Main Title running at twice the clip as the brooding, almost Doom-Metal pace of the first film. Although the timeframe of this one appears to cover but a single winter, there is a global scope and immediacy to Damien’s growing power. The plot speeds along so fast, you may recognize the plot holes, but in order to keep up, you basically just have to roll with it. I wonder how cynically 20th Century Fox brass behaved during their conversations with Stanley Mann and Mike Hodges (who went on to direct Flash! Ah-ahhhh!).

“Coherence, schmo-herence, let’s shift some units before this ship sails!”

By the time Damien’s infernal destiny is revealed to him at about the midpoint, he initially (and understandably) freaks out. I’m not going to speculate at length about the unfortunate and imposed parallel of what queer kids go through with their devout, brainwashed monster-parents whose adherence to their religion and social standing at Wal-Mart is more important to them than the well-being of their child. But here we have a time capsule for that drama. Damien eventually comes around. Thanks, Obama!

4.) These are not such veiled references to the clandestine, questionable business practices of Thorn Industries. Can you say Monsanto?

“Our profitable future lies in famine,” says Paul Buher, a Slayer “Hell Awaits” apostate in training who looks like a cross between Stephen Lang (Harry Black, “Last Exit to Brooklyn”) and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch dad).

In the beginning, we only know that Robert Thorn eschewed the executive levels of Thorn Industries in favor of DC politics–he eventually achieved success when he became American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James [let’s just call it Great Britain]. But then tragedies began to unravel his life– he lost his true progeny twice, lost his wife (whom he had obviously loved unconditionally), and after watching David Warner’s head make some disembodied gymnastics that would have made even Kurt Thomas (Gymkata) stand back in awe, he gets gunned down by the very human race he’s trying to protect from ruin.

Richard Thorn, on the other hand, toed the family line and became corporate head. Thorn is by this time massive on a global, geopolitical scale. But he is so traumatized by the loss of his brother, even after seven years, that the mere mention of Robert’s name sends him into a zone of melancholy and defensive rage. Richard’s love for his own son Mark by his first marriage eases the transition of adopting Damien into his immediate family.

But aside from this, Richard Thorn has enabled shady business practices to run rampant. Paul Buher is the new executive with his sights set on subjugating poor countries with Thorn-manufactured grain crops and despotism. Buher even goes so far as to start buying plots of land within the Indian subcontinent, behind Richard Thorn’s back, in order to enable Damien Thorn’s serfdoms.

“When you’ve got a knife at your belly,” he states early on, like a true humanitarian passionate about feeding the hungry, “you’ll keep your hands at your sides.”

What is all of this for? Why, Mr. Buher has finally been accepted, he realizes with an epic boner, when he finds three sixes on his ring finger one joyous night, the same night when Damien discovered the higher-echelon sixes on his own head.

5.) Why ask why? It’s just good, mindless horror fun.

There a good many things in DO2 that just don’t make sense–the most striking is Mark’s sudden change of heart about his cousin. Just because he’s the Antichrist doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have your back in a street brawl? Well, maybe not–I think the whole point is that when Damien’s underlying threat to the physical (and spiritual) safety of his family in order to move ahead like Anna Wintour with a 1970s mop-top military haircut, all bets are off. After so much death and a sense of unraveling not unlike his brother’s, Richard is finally convinced when he sees archeological evidence of Damien’s Truth. Obviously traumatized by the unfolding events, he resolves to kill his adopted child before he himself is killed. Good luck with that, dude. Lee Remick to the rescue! How else would we see a third movie?

Ka-ching!