Written by: Harvey Bernhard (story), Stanley Mann & Mike Hodges (screenplay, David Seltzer (characters)
Directed by: Don Taylor
Starring: William Holden, Lee Grant, and Jonathan Scott-Taylor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Yes. Born in the image of the greatest power in the world! The Desolate One. Desolate because his greatness was taken from him and he was cast down!"
You know what was great about The Omen: its apocalyptic grandstanding, its gothic overtures, its sinister sense of propulsion, and its directorís commitment to spinning a yarn about an infant Antichrist into a glossy, dignified studio picture. But do you know what was fucking awesome about The Omen? The radical gore, the likes of which rarely permeated such A-list fare in the 70s, as the signature impalements, decapitations, and hangings served to reflect a growing belief that the world was at the edge of doom, the filmís violence working in tandem with its more refined virtues to create that apocalyptic fervor.
Clearly, it was this violence that made the deepest impression on the filmmakers behind Damien: Omen II, a follow-up that seems to be less guided by a desire to explore the life of a burgeoning teenage antichrist and more by a need to simply upstage its predecessorís gore quotient. ďHey, how can we top that priest kebab?Ē was likely the overriding concern at the pitch meeting.
Granted, there are worse directions to take a sequel built on such a ludicrous concept, especially since Damien actually delivers the gruesome goods. After a brief prologue wraps up some loose ends from the first film (Leo McKern, we hardly knew ye), we flash forward seven years, where we find that 12-year-old Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is in the care of his adopted aunt and uncle (Lee Grant and William Holden). The latter is the president of Thorn Industries, a conglomerate that will serve as the perfect breeding ground for a young antichrist, as itís been infiltrated by Satanís minions (Robert Foxworth is a ruthless exec looking to aggressively usurp his superiorís position while he keeps an eye on Damien). Meanwhile, Damien himself is shipped off to boarding school with cousin Mark (Lucas Donat), where a particularly watchful commanding officer (Lance Henriksen) slips him a Bible and points him straight to Revelations.
All the while, horrible shit happens to anyone with even an inkling about Damienís true destiny. Released on the precipice of the slasher boom, The Omen II keys in on the sort of stuff that audiences would devour en masse a few years later. Not only are its gore sequences more elaborate and bloodier than its predecessors, but theyíre also meant to be somehow appealing. Where the first film actually bothered to develop characters and kill them off in impactful fashion (again, that movie positively hurtles to the edge of disaster), this follow-up only bothers to introduce fodder and swiftly pick them off. In some cases, such as an ill-tempered, crabby aunt (Sylvia Sidney), youíre almost expected to delight in their demise because they somehow invited it by sniffing out Damienís identity.
Plus, itís hard to deny how rousing these sequences are; in some respects, theyíre even more impressive than the last filmís displays, even if the first half of the film is an especially thinly-plotted show-reel of gore effects. Damien himself isnít even around for most of them, as an ominous raven acts upon his behalf to herald an unpleasant doom. If you were to only casually watch the film without paying attention to its dialogue, you might assume The Omen II to be the tale of a severely pissed off raven capable of causing embolisms and serving unsuspecting victims up to speeding semi-trucks. Once the raven disappears from the film, the splatter is no less impressive, as dark forces conjure up some real Rube Goldberg shit (over two decades before Final Destination!) to slaughter potential interlopers. Meshach Taylor makes a hell of a screen debut on the business end of one of the most outrageous displays of blood-and-guts in a studio film to this point.
But beyond this gruesome calling card, Damien stumbles in its attempt to keep up with The Omen. Sure, it looks an awful lot like the original at first glance, as Bill Butlerís photography renders the ghastly proceedings with a slick polish, while Jerry Goldsmith returns to provide the familiar, unholy strains to accentuate Damienís rise to power. Even the cast is once again incongruously great for what is ostensibly a B-movie chronicling the antichristís adolescent years, yet everything feels just a little underdeveloped from the outset.
Holden and Grant suitably replace Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, though their plight doesnít feel quite as urgent; indeed, the adopted uncle seems much less conflicted about the truth than his brother was in the previous film. Most alarming is that these two are otherwise so passiveóit seems like every other scene just has them expressing their disbelief that yet another one of their acquaintances has died under mysterious circumstances. Quite a capable cast provides support, including Lew Ayres (in his final performance) and Henrisken, but the script provides neither with much to do besides function as plot devices (though Henriksen is quite spooky as the dead-eyed general helping Damien navigate military school).
What the film really misses out on is just how fascinating its title character could be. Even the antichrist should find puberty to be hell, and it would have been much more compelling had The Omen II played out as an adolescent parable. The skeletal framework is there, as Damien shows hints of internal conflict upon learning what heís destined for, and itís one that should especially play out in his relationship with his cousin. Instead, so much of this is glossed over in an effort to hurry Damienís ascension to full-bore heart attack-inducing, fire-spitting antichrist, which I suppose is more likely given his lineage. I doubt the Beast will have much self-doubt and will just want to get down to business. If anything, Scott-Taylor is a perfectly snobby antichrist. Assuming he ever actually reveals himself to the world, this is how I imagine the son of Satan will be: an insufferable twerp with horrible sideburns and a really grating English accent. The antichrist is definitely going to be the type of asshole that will flash a gaudy class ring from a prestigious school as he subjects the Earth to his reign of darkness.
Damien feels like the safest, most predictable horror sequel imaginable: compared to the likes of, say, fellow Satanic spawn Exorcist II, itís not in the least bit daring and aims only to deliver more of the superficial splatter thrills of the original without any of the subtext or atmosphere. Only a few instancesósuch as the revelation of an ancient mural depicting Damienís faceóare preternaturally chilling in the same way the original film is. Otherwise, itís the sort of sequel that tries very hard to fit in the same clothes as its predecessor but just ends up making a mess of them. Itís fitting that The Omen feels like a spiritual precursor to the splatter film movement because its sequel essentially helped to establish the boilerplate for that genreís franchise assembly line: when in doubt, cast a familiar-looking mold but spatter it with more gore. In this case, itís not a bad formula. Buy it!
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