When I initially got a DVD player back in 2000, the first flick I wanted to buy on disc was THE OMEN. It’s by far my favorite horror film, and for all my salt the best horror film ever made. To my dismay, I discovered that THE OMEN had not yet been released. Fortunately, a few months later, I had in my hands not just the first film, but a box sex that included the entire original trilogy! (We won’t talk about THE OMEN IV, even if that atrocity was also in the set.) So on the first night the set was released in stores, I sat down and watched all three films. That night, I had the same estimation of the middle film, DAMIEN: OMEN II, that I’d had for years since first seeing it, and I still have. THE OMEN is not only a great horror flick, but a great movie. Whereas the second OMEN flick is a solid horror film that comes nowhere close to reaching the greatness of the first.
OMEN II starts off promisingly enough. Bugenhagen, the archaeologist who had first warned Robert Thorn of the evils of his young son Damien, brings another archaeologist underground in Israel to see paintings of the face of Satan on a wall. Both men quickly perish as sand fills in and the cave collapses. Flash forward several years to a 13-year-old Damien and his adopted family. Damien’s uncle, Richard Thorn, and his second wife have adopted the boy, who is off to military school with his cousin Mark. When Richard’s Aunt Marion tells him to separate the boys and he refuses, the trouble begins. A series of violent mishaps lead Richard to question whether brother Robert really was insane when he tried to kill Damien, and if the boy might just actually be the devil on earth. As he tries to uncover the truth, Damien learns of his powers from a military commander, and starts to flex his demonic muscle. Will he win out over the forces that try to stop him from taking over the world, or will those adversaries crush him before he can bloom into his full demonic powers?
On THE OMEN LEGACY documentary, which covers the whole franchise, producer Harvey Bernhard agrees with my assessment of the sequel: good horror sequel, but not a great film, by horror standards or by more mainstream. The problem, Bernhard suggests, is that the plot has no meat, and I agree. The first OMEN was a tight drama about the unwinding of a family. Its narrow focus made the end of the world up close and personal. By contrast, DAMIEN: OMEN II tries to expand Damien’s influence, spreading the focus to cover the military school, Richard’s attempts to discover the truth, and the power of Thorn Industries. If the plot had been more compelling, I could’ve forgiven this. But it’s not. The flick plops Satan’s son into military school, then does very little with him. Given all the directions this could have gone and the potential to do anything with Damien, it’s a wasted opportunity, and a shame.
The flick also functions on another level, as a coming-of-age story for the Antichrist. Damien’s new awareness of his powers is beguiling, and hard to accept at first. It’s a great metaphor for puberty, on the Satanic level at least. As the film progresses, he transforms from confused kid to knowingly evil kid. If only this transformation were compellng. Simply put, Damien was cooler at 5 than he is at 13. That shouldn’t fall on actor Jonathan Scott-Taylor’s shoulders. He does his best to carry the unholy burden of both puberty and being the Antichrist. I blame the script by Stanley Mann and Mike Hodges, the latter who also acted as director before being fired and replaced by Don Taylor. Their writing can’t hold a candle to the far superior script of David Seltzer’s original OMEN. Given that Seltzer had offered to write for Fox a full order of seven OMEN scripts, I wonder just how much better things could have been in his hands.
That last two paragraphs might make it sound as if the flick is a failure, but it’s not. It’s a solid horror flick. So what works? The establishing shot of Damien frames him behind a fire, as if he’s walking through the flames of Hell. The movie’s high spots are the violent “accidents” that, while not quite on the level of the first film, are very effective: a reporter meets her fate at the beak of a raven, and the wheels of a large truck; a Thorn Industries employee who calls to question Damien’s power ends violently during a hockey game on an iced over pond; another associate of Richard’s discovers why people should not walk on train tracks; and Mesach Taylor of Designing Women and MANNEQUIN fame should have taken the stairs instead of the elevator. Tying together all these incidents are Damien and Richard, the latter played by one of my favorite actors, Academy Award winner William Holden. As Holden’s biographer Bob Thomas related it in Golden Boy, the actor was very upset with turning down the role that went to fellow Oscar winner Gregory Peck in the first film, and was therefore anxious when Fox offered to him the next OMEN film. As Peck did in the original, Holden adds a distinct touch of class and superior acting to a horror flick. His presence raises the level of the film.
Lee Grant, another Oscar winner, holds her own as Richard’s wife. Taken together, Peck, Holden and Grant might give the OMEN franchise the most acclaimed set of actors ever to appear in a horror series.
The flick also does really cool stuff with a crow. The black bird becomes the harbinger of doom, a symbol of Damien’s growing darkness and his black power. It’s a classic symbol, and the film puts it to good use, especially with its musical motif.
The use of a new score from Jerry Goldsmith is stellar and downright ominous. It ties this film to the first, and expands on the themes he’d lain down. My knowledge of music is nil, but I can say the score is just like every other aspect of the film: solid, but not spectacular as in the first.
Less than stellar are the DVD extras. Having put all their gusto into the release of the first film, Fox only awarded two special features to the sequel. Accompanied by the disc’s producer, Harvey Bernhard provides a commentary. He’s honest about his appraisal of the film, describing how Damien should have been older in the film. He’s also harsh in his judgment of Hodges, the film’s first director, describing how he dawdled all day in setting up one scene. He’s much more complimentary to Don Taylor, a friend of Holden’s who replaced Hodges and brought the film in on time and budget. Bernhard’s comments reflect what I’ve always thought about the sequel: it’s a good horror film, but it’s not on par with the original, and could have been so much better. A number of trailers for other Fox films round out the disc. I suppose I wanted something more in depth, perhaps a documentary or some interviews, but THE OMEN LEGACY provided much of what this disc lacks.
If I watch DAMIEN: OMEN II on its own terms, it satisfies. It’s got an ominous tone that’s hammered home by its solid score, and the high spot kills are in equal measure creative and gruesome. Unfortunately it’s hard not to compare it to its predecessor, and to what is yet to come for Damien Thorn in the better THE FINAL CONFLICT. But I’m happy to have it as a continuation of little Damien on his path to demonic adulthood, and as a part of a fine franchise and box set.