Taylor: Damien: The Omen II (1978)

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Like so many horror franchises of the 70s and 80s, The Omen series started with a sequel, then turned into a trilogy, only embracing total seriality with the fourth film, which would ironically turn out to be the last, even as it envisaged a new flourishing of the franchise as a sequence of telemovies. At the same time, The Omen franchise is quite distinct from most other serials of the period insofar as it doesn’t feature a slasher figure or a slasher sensibility as its driving force. In that sense, it is questionable whether The Omen really belongs with franchises like Halloween, Elm Street or Friday the 13th, since all of these series developed a mode of seriality that was inextricable from the insatiability and inscrutability of the slasher himself. Not only did the radical asubjectivity of the slasher exceed the victims of any one story or scenario, but it suggested a mode of perception that was divorced from the linear narratives and lineages that had preoccupied an older mode of seriality, and that Richard Donner would revive, once again, with Superman in 1978 . As a result, these slasher serials were usually quite inconsistent in their tone and focus, with only the slasher himself remaining more or less constant, offering up a serial experience for the age of the multiplex and video store in which the connection between successive instalments tended to be lateral rather than linear, contiguous rather than continuous, presumably because these franchises tended to play out in – and play to – an exurban and suburban sprawl that itself increasingly resisted any linear or continuous mapping.

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By contrast, The Omen franchise is very much a character study – albeit a supernatural character study – of Damien as he gradually fulfils his destiny as Antichrist, with the result that it tends to refrain from the serial sensibility of its slasher counterparts, replacing their suburban optic with a more classical oscillation between rural, aristocratic spaces and urban, corporate spaces. That’s not to say, however, that The Omen is necessarily classical or old-fashioned in its sensibility, since there’s just as much of a concern here to destabilise the linearity and lineages upon which seriality depends. However, where slasher serials tended to drift away from linearity, The Omen franchise transforms this very preoccupation with lineages into the object of horror, producing a hyper-continuity that makes it feel as if each film prophecies the next, and imbuing the entire franchise – at least at this stage – with an apocalyptic inevitability is just as insatiable and inscrutable as the identity and motivations of the great slashers themselves. In that sense, The Omen II is less a sequel than an intensified manifestation of the first film, which is perhaps what allows it to reprise The Omen so economically and efficiently without ever feeling derivative. If anything, it distils the events of the first film, making it feel as if Richard Donner’s original vision has only now come to pass, as we jump forward seven years to Chicago, where Damien is staying with his uncle, industrialist Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his second wife, Ann (Lee Grant), before commencing his first year at an elite military academy.

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From the very beginning, it’s clear that we’re in the same chilly austere space as The Omen, with Holden seamlessly taking over the reins from Gregory Peck, and his palatial Chicago estate shot against a panoply of sublime winter landscapes that seem to channel the most frozen moments in The Godfather Part II. At the same time, there’s a certain spatial extension in this film as well, as the action balloons out to encompass the military world, in the form of Damian’s exclusive academy, and the corporate world, in the form of the Thorn Corporation, which preoccupies most of Richard’s time. If the elegance of the first film lay in how blithely Donner’s aristocratic, diplomatic lifeworld took these military and corporate interests for granted, then the elegance of The Omen II lies in how deftly it dissociates them, with the film playing out as kind of symmetrical schema whereby we’re given increasing access to the military and corporate wings that flank the Thorn mansion. As the heir to the Thorn millions, this military-corporate complex predictably centres on Damian, with a great deal of the film’s tension turning on the question of whether it will be his military mentor or his corporate mentor, his lieutenant or his uncle’s business manager, who ends up playing the role of Satanic guardian embodied by his nurse in the first film. Great segments of time are spent patiently watching and waiting for these two potential mentors to make their move, allowing director Don Taylor to seamlessly and beautifully draw out the Satanic protectionism lurking beneath the rhetorical flourishes of the American military-industrial complex, on the one hand, and the push towards Reaganomics on the other, both of which inform the Thorn Corporation’s determination to pair its flagship investment in electronics with an aggressive appropriation of third-world agricultural assets.

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Part of the reason that these competing claims for Damien’s attention are so effective is that Damien himself is a more complete and fully-rounded character this time around. Not only does his evil take much longer to manifest itself, but it tends to occur in a second-hand, reactive kind of way, as part of an extended series of eavesdropping sequences in which he hears his adoptive parents discussing the possibility of him being the Antichrist, then the likelihood of him being the Antichrist and, finally, the viability of killing him if he does in fact turn out to be the Antichrist. Encapsulating every adopted child’s fears of being unwanted by their new parents and abandoned by their old parents, Damien’s erratic, destructive and evil behaviour manages to feel both naturalistic and supernatural at the same time, imbuing him with a sympathy that sets him apart from the rest of the characters, with the possible exception of his aunt, played by Sylvia Sidney, who dies before she has a chance to properly defend and protect him, but steals the show in the few short scenes that she has, in a kind of forerunner of Jessica Lange’s monumentally and melodramatically classicist presence in American Horror Story. In fact, it’s only in the very last scene that Damien feels like a pure embodiment of evil, perhaps explaining why the horror that he generates tends to be less abstract or iconographic than in the first film as well, and to verge on science-fiction or techno-horror more than religious or demonic motifs.

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As a result, a great deal of the tension and the drama in The Omen II turns on the way in which these military and corporate interests gradually converge. In one of the most spectacular scenes, Damien takes his military school friends on a tour of the Thorn Corporation’s factory – the nexus between its lush downtown offices and aggressive third-world aspirations – where he manages to exact revenge upon some of his bullying classmates by gaining control of the mainframe computer. At this point, Damian’s demonic powers turn into something more akin to David Cronenberg’s “scanning,” with the result that most of his subsequent interventions take on a more mechanical, technological and functional quality as well, with two especially incredible sequences – involving a train accident and an elevator accident – transforming him into the logistical cusp of the Thorn Corporation’s empire and setting up his transition to CEO in the third film quite elegantly. It’s at this point that Damien starts to feel more like a corporation than a character, and the great strength of the film finally lies in the way in which it manages to subsume his subjectivity into the demands of the Thorn empire. For the first two thirds of the film, Damien is surprisingly sympathetic and by no means evil in the unqualified manner of the first film. In fact, his evil is something he discovers about himself from other people, coming to terms with his identity with the same dismay and dread as his father in the first film, especially since even the most petulant pubescent outbursts are increasingly attributed to this Satanic potential by his adoptive parents and mentors. By the third act, however, Damien has somehow shifted from self-discovery to self-realisation, consummating himself and the corporation wit such conviction that it’s hard not to feel that something about the franchise stopped with this film, especially since the final sequence is the strongest and tightest in the entire franchise. If The Omen seemed to prophecy The Omen II, then The Omen II finally breaks away from its predecessor to feel like a film that self-realises in much the same way as Damien, fulfilling itself with an intensity that renders any further manifestation unnecessary. Similarly, while the third and fourth films may move the action closer to the apocalypse – which has already occurred in some sense by the time of the 2006 – the apocalyptic conviction is also clearer in these closing scenes than at any other point in the franchise, which isn’t ultimately to deny the ingenuity and importance of the subsequent instalments, but to suggest that the last scene of The Omen II pre-empts and contains them so as to ensure that it remains the franchise’s final note, with a flamboyant horror conviction that rivals the very best of John Carpenter’s conclusions, which is about the highest compliment that anyone can give to a horror film released around this time.

About Billy Stevenson (694 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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