In many ways, The Omen III marks a bit of a break from the previous two films, which are so organically intertwined that it almost feels as if the first prophesied the second. This time around, Damien, the Antichrist, is an adult, and both more and less singular in his Satantic identity. Whereas the tension of the first two films often turned on waiting for Damien’s latent tendencies to manifest themselves, here he’s an embodiment of evil from the very beginning, which makes The Omen III less suspenseful but also more open to a new kind of camp, as well as a new kind of banality, since Damien is “known” in a different manner now that he’s an adult, in a variety of different ways. First and foremost, he’s known to himself, with the result that The Omen III is utterly disinterested in anything resembling the kinds of character development or introspective depth that characterised the first two films, with Damien fulfilling himself more than actually growing as a person in any conventionally realistic way. At the same time, Damien is known both to his followers, as well as to his pursuers, a collection of monks whose efforts to track him down often seem to segue into a late Cold War espionage drama in the vein of Le Carre. Finally, and perhaps most enjoyably, Damien is known to his corporate staff, discussing his Satanic concerns with his personal assistant as matter-of-factly and as functionally as he discusses the Thorn Corporation’s business policies.
For all those reasons, The Omen III is more apocalyptic in style and scope than the previous films in the series, since it’s clear that, by this point, Damien has done about as much as he can as Antichrist, and only has to sit back and stay safe until the end days that he’s engineered come to fruition. Ironically, that apocalyptic horizon is conflated with the boom of the 80s, which the Thorn Corporation spearheads by way of an aggressive marketing policy that internalises the apocalyptic rhetoric of the first two films to make a case for their forcible appropriation of third-world land as an asset in their burgeoning electronics empire, an initiative that quickly turns them into the coal face of Reaganomics, with Thorn using his corporate heft to defend Israel, help quash “quasi-Marxist” insurgents and liberation movements in countries decimated by United States foreign policy, and assist the President with any dirty business that requires plausible deniability. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Thorn is appointed as Ambassador to Great Britain and President of the United Nations Youth Council, positioning himself at the interface between corporate, governmental and NGO agency in ways that feel quite mythological from the perspective of a present in which this nexus has become the driving force of neoliberalism, but must have felt visionary for a world on the brink of massive deregulation.
Of course, with Damien having more or less propelled himself to the cusp of world domination, it’s only a matter of time before an antagonist comes along, which in this film takes the form of the Nazarene, the second coming of Christ whose birth is prefigured throughout the film. In some eschatological traditions, the proximity of the Antichrist and the Nazarene tends to somewhat confound their respective apocalyptic horizons, and that’s very much the case here as well, as the dissolution and recreation of the world gradually come to feel like the same thing, as if the creative destruction characteristic of capitalism – and of late capitalism in particular – had internalised the logic of apocalypse to such an extent that the end of the world were destined to arrive indefinitely, or serially, perhaps explaining why The Omen III is also the moment at which the franchise moves from the logic of sequels or trilogies to the logical of full-blown seriality, paving the way for the telemovie format of The Omen IV. Poised between the Antichrist and the Nazarene’s respective futures, the film seems to gather and recapitulate the events of the first film in a compressed, distorted way, with Damien moving into the Ambassadorial role held by Gregory Peck in the first film, where he in turn is haunted by the birth of the child who is prophesied to constitute his own personal apocalypse.
At one level, then, Damien is somewhat displaced by the apocalyptic process that he has set in motion, with the film moving away from the cloistered aristocratic and corporate spaces of the first two films towards a more global aesthetic, as the alignment of the heavens above the Antichrist gravitates the film towards huge, rocky, empty vistas, often shot at dawn or dusk, that build upon the techno-horror of The Omen II to produce a full-blown science-fiction aesthetic. In particular, the oscillation between observatories and monasteries gives the film an otherworldly, archaeoastronomical kind of atmosphere that works perfectly with the necessity for a truly apocalyptic mindset to be both ancient and futuristic at the same time, paving the way for the Vatican Observatory that plays such a pivotal role in the 2006 remake of the first film. In their advertising campaigns, the Thorn Corporation increasingly treats the Recession as a geological event that only they can overcome – the return of the Ice Age for what promises to be “the last great upheaval” of the world – and a great deal of the film’s tension and elegance stems from this paradoxical, short-circuited logic of late capitalism by which an Antichrist can promulgate apocalypse by only by presenting their corporate portfolio as the Second Coming needed to defeat it.
In many ways, that paradox – “Liquidate the Nazarene” – is what defies the kinds of realistic characterisation of the first two films, and so it’s a brilliant piece of casting that puts Sam Neill in the role of Damien, especially since Neill was a relatively unknown actor at this point in his career outside of Australia and New Zealand. As an Australian, I’m always especially aware of the different ways in which Australian actors adopt American accents, and while there are some, like Russell Crowe or Nicole Kidman, who go for naturalism, there are others, like Neill, who embrace the artificiality and plasticity of the endeavour in a different kind of way, which works particularly well in this instance, since Damien’s diction is quite theatrical and much more discursive than anything in the first two films, packed full of explanations, invocations, prayers, chants, monologues and soliloquies that frequently achieve a kind of camp Shakespearean intensity that’s really enjoyable to watch. It feels right, then, that one of the most important monologues takes place against the backdrop of Speaker’s Corner, which had become a kind of symbol, in the early 80s, for the urban oral cultures that were increasingly dispossessed by the kinds of gentrified corporate downtown that Damien leaves in his wake. Moreover, this monologue takes place amidst a series of other monologues extolling the importance of leaving London’s theatrical cultures intact, drawing a connection between the theatrical and the occult that intensifies as the film proceeds, especially given Neill’s artificial accent, which, in its pronounced rhotic diction, provides him with one of the few early roles where his Northern Irish background really feels front and centre.
For those, like myself, who grew up with Neill in the 90s – and were probably first introduced to him through Jurassic Park – there’s something quite startling about this stylised, silky, sinuous presence, especially since it’s so far removed from the earnest naturalism of My Brilliant Career as well. And part of what makes his take on Damien’s own brilliant career so powerful is the way in which it takes the professional male melodramas of the first two films to their logical conclusion, as Damien collapses back into Gregory Peck’s trajectory to become both father and son, witness and harbinger to apocalypse, which perhaps explains why his slightly effeminate swagger tends to hone in on a series of father-son relationships that take the homosocial overtones and paranoid family romances of the franchise to their logical conclusion as well. If the first two films are utterly disinterested in women, and the fourth addresses itself almost exclusively to women, then The Omen III forms a kind of fascinating transitional point, imbuing this earlier, casual disinterest in women with a queer potentiality that seems to revise Gregory Peck and William Holden’s staunch paternalism even more adeptly than they revised their own screen personae through the very gesture of appearing in the franchise in the first place.
As the third film in a trilogy that segued into a serial, then, The Omen III is above all a transitional work, and quite fascinating in the ways in which it splits the difference between The Omen II and The Omen IV, if only in retrospect, since for all intents and purposes this was the last note from the franchise for the next decade. Gathering all the latent camp tendencies of the first films without quite giving itself over to the melodramatic telemovie aesthetic of the first film, it’s contradictory in many ways, but that’s part of what makes it interesting – as well as part of what made it so critically reviled at the time it came out. As it now stands, it’s something of a lost horror film, just as the Omen franchise has tended to pale in comparison with other great 70s and 80s serials, presumably because there hasn’t been a really sucessful reboot or remake in the new milennium, although the release of Damien on A&E next year may address that. Nevertheless, for sheer camp panache and histrionic theatricality, The Omen III is one of the most striking 80s horror films I’ve seen in some time, an apocalyptic vision of apocalypse gradually displaced and internalised by Reagonomics that wouldn’t make sense or be so resonant without the internal contradictions that are always threatening to collapse it in on itself.