Released a full ten years after the last film in The Omen cycle, The Omen IV doesn’t feel like a continuation of the franchise so much as an attempt to renew the franchise – or, rather, an attempt to transform what had previously been a fairly self-contained trilogy into a franchise. For that reason, it is the least singular of The Omen films, as well as the least insistent upon its singularity, leaving behind the chilly auteurist aspirations of the first two films and the revisionist panache of the third film for a more serial sensibility. As the first Omen film to be released as telemovie, as well as the first to feature two directors, it largely displaces the patrilinear obsessions inherent in a formal trilogy, as well as displacing the inexorable paternalistic logic that had dominated the Omen franchise up until this point in favour of a melodramatic, maternal and feminine perspective. It’s not surprising, then, that creator Harvey Bernhard originally envisaged this new iteration of the Omen franchise as a Lifetime serial, nor that Lifetime was one of the main contenders when the franchise was ordered for serial adaptation in 2014 as Damien, even if it now looks likely that it will be A&E who screen it in the upcoming year. What is surprising is that a horror vision based on unwanted children and unwanted mothers should have taken so long to arrive at this matricentric perspective in the first place, and it’s a testament to the iron-clad insularity of the trilogy, as well as its utter obsession with patriarchal lineage and longevity, that this delay should have been so extreme.
Given that that patrilinear focus was utterly inextricable from the way in which the trilogy established a lineage between Gregory Peck, William Holden and Sam Neill as avatars of classical Hollywood style, it feels right that The Omen IV is the first film in the series that’s devoid of big-name actors. More generally, each of the previous films in the series was keen to establish itself as a successor, as well as to establish its own successor, which is perhaps one of the reasons why The Omen II, as the only film that could establish this lineage exclusively within the ambit of the franchise itself, also feels like the film that most typifies the franchise at its strongest, with The Omen reaching back to Peck’s performance in To Kill A Mockingbird to establish its lineage, and The Omen III resorting to camp to both extend and deform it into a notional space that is necessarily provisionally open to something beyond the trilogy as well. By contrast, The Omen IV is populated with a certain brand of actor – drawn from telemovies, daytime movies and soap operas – whose career subsists more on seriality than on succession, actors who are not expected to establish progeny nor to establish themselves as progeny, but to instead exist perpetually in that extended present-tense that often seems to characterise the soap lifeworld as a whole. As a result, it doesn’t exactly feel as if The Omen IV has descended from The Omen III in the same way that the The Omen III descended from The Omen II, or The Omen II from The Omen. Instead, The Omen IV seems to stand in a adoptive relationship to the rest of the franchise, or to be making a claim for adoption – and while that claim may have been definitively rejected by both critics and television audiences, that rejection just makes the film’s focus on an adoptive mother and potentially Satanic daughter all the more compelling and eerie, in what often feels like a forerunner of the Lifetime Moments of Truth series, telemovies that split the difference between suburban melodrama and horror to establish something like the substrate of the 90s slasher aesthetic, even if they have been all but ignored by horror theorists.
Of course, as in the earlier Omen instalments, the narrative is structured around the male professional world – that’s too big a part of the franchise’s worldview to ignore – with the film opening as Virginia politician Gene York (Michael Woods) sets his sights on Congress. In a quite characteristically Lifetime move, however, this narrative is dealt with in a highly peremptory fashion, condensed to a ten minute segment in which Gene makes Congress, sets about a highly successful reform campaign, and, in doing so, definitively establishes the professional and political sphere as irrelevant to women, and especially irrelevant to his wife, Karen (Faye Grant), who is notionally some kind of attorney, but is only ever seen in the guise of mother to their adopted daughter, Delia (Asia Vieiera). In another kind of film, this categorical division of gendered labour might seem somewhat tasteless, but part of what makes the Lifetime universe so powerful is the way in which it simply and quite neutrally accepts this gender discrimination for what it is, instead of trying to explain or excuse it away with the superficial concessions to female subjectivity that litter so much Hollywood cinema, as well as the first three Omen films. At the same time, there is a certain austerity to the franchise’s fixation with father-son relationships – and, by the third film, male-male relationships – that prevents it ever being too disingenuous about the way it excludes women from its worldview. For all the putative difference between the auteurist singularity of the first film and the telemovie aesthetic of this film, The Omen IV is really just an intensification of features that were already there to begin with, combined with a slight shift in perspective that makes them visible in a new kind of way.
In fact, watching The Omen IV made me realise how beautifully the Lifetime aesthetic performs something close to an aesthetics of visibility, offering up a lifeworld in which everyone – and especially every man – simply says what they are thinking or feeling about women. While part of me is tempted to say that the Lifetime outlook therefore “over-identifies” with or “accelerates” Hollywood ideologies, I’m not sure that’s quite right, since both over-identification and accelerationism suggest a militant aesthetic that’s quite inimical to the Lifetime experience. Indeed, the most revelatory aspect of the Lifetime experiment doesn’t lie in witnessing men articulate misogyny in a particularly programmatic way, but instead getting a taste for the way in which misogyny is above all a casual, incidental, almost unconscious stance, hanging around the fringes of every encounter between men or women, even or especially when the men involved are trying to be as helpful or hospitable as possible. In that sense, Lifetime offers one of the most sustained and systematic accounts of what it is like to live in a world in which mansplaining – as it has come to be known – is the norm, a world in which women are politely but firmly informed what is best for their own happiness. It’s not surprising, then, that Lifetime melodrama so often segues into horror, since this totalising discourse of mansplaining only requires the slightest tweak to transform into something like the plastic discursiveness that characterises so much horror cinema, as well as the way in which horror cinema also tends to present discourse itself as an object of horror – a move that’s particularly clear in the early stages of the Omen cycle, in which the arrival of the Antichrist is gradually eclipsed by the very vocabulary and apparatus that the Catholic Church envisages to prepare for and annihilate it.
From that perspective, there’s something misplaced about describing both Lifetime films and horror films as mechanical, discursive or clunky, since it’s the very constrictions of discourse that both these genres are so keen to pinpoint precisely as their object of horror. Indeed, bad reviews of horror and melodrama often simultaneously read as an appeal to mansplaining, which is one of many reasons why I think of Mel Gibson’s What Women Want as the anti-Lifetime film. Of course, this film is offensive – there’s no doubt about it – but there’s also something powerfully symptomatic about the way in which it casts aspersions on women’s capacity to inhabit discourse – to think rationally, concertedly or systemically – from the vantage point of the very smug, omniscient, mansplaining register that precludes the possibility of them doing so in the first place. At the same time, a film like What Women Want simultaneously plays out as a kind of denuded version of the entire Lifetime aesthetic, whose focus on what men want seems to adopt a kind of studied neutrality precisely to avoid the self-satisifed assumption and illusion of a position “outside” discourse adopted by Gibson’s film. Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t see the film when it came out, or that I didn’t laugh – our reactions to films are always contradictory – but to instead suggest that Lifetime telemovies are determined not to shirkfrom what men but equally determined never to presume to offer What Men Want either.
All of that goes some way towards capturing the unusual dynamic and atmosphere of The Omen IV, which is more melodramatic and horrific, in some ways, than the rest of the franchise, but also compensates with long stretches of casual naturalism that are quite unlike anything in the first three films as well, creating a composite tone that’s not so much uneven as episodic, designed to be slotted into a cycle of telemovies that never eventuated. Since telemovies don’t enjoy the splendid isolation of cinematic releases, cycles of telemovies tend to turn on resonances between scenes, actors and motifs as much as the succession of the films themselves, and there are many moments in The Omen IV that feel as if they might have been a draft for a future telemovie and will possibly crop up again when Damian is released next year. Interestingly, the moments that feel least durable are those relating to the motifs of lineage and longevity that preoccupied the first three films, with the directors relegating the religious legacy of the trilogy to a series of exploitative montage sequences almost as peremptorily as they relegate Gene’s career to the first ten minutes of the film. With the patrilinear and religious elements sidelined in this way, The Omen IV can devote most of its time to Kate and Delia’s relationship, which is not exactly to say that horror is no longer a part of the picture, but that there is more of a dissociation between horror and the objects onto which it is projected. More specifically, while Kate and Delia’s relationship is fractured, and there is clearly a supernatural element as far as Delia concerned, her supernatural infractions frequently seem less pronounced than the way in which the men around her, operating through Kate, work to demonise those infractions. In some way, that’s a pretty odd scenario – a demonic child who is even more demonised by the world in which she finds herself – but it’s no odder than the kinds of contradictions and doublethink required to arrive at this misogynistic milieu in the first place.
Put simply, then, Delia is far more likeable than Damien ever was, even if she is continually positioned within an amorphous projection of how much more horrific she could actually be. For the most part, what apparently makes her the next Antichrist is her willingness to stick up to bullies, her interest in politics and her determination to speak her mind. For great stretches, she feels like a nascent activist as much as anything else, which is perhaps why the horror atmosphere seems to actually diminish in her presence into something of a playful mock-Gothic approach that alternately recalls Tim Burton and Home Alone. In fact, some of the most powerful moments almost play as black comedy, such as when Delia single-handedly chases a pair of Bible salesmen away from her front door. Of course, I’m overstating things a little bit, but even Delia’s genuinely eerie moments don’t focus on her as a supernatural agent so much as a forerunner of the secular Bad Seeds that would become so popular in the 90s, which perhaps explains why it’s the Poison Ivy franchise that provides the best indication of where this new iteration of the Omen franchise might have gone, as well as why Vieiera often feels positioned midway between the Macaulay Culkin of Home Alone and the Macaulay Culkin of The Good Son. Just as the film turns more on new age and crystallogical interpretations of the Bible than the Catholic traditions of the trilogy, so Vieiera’s supernaturalism is more notional and provisional than that of Damian, and often seems to be most pronounced when people are discussing it that when it is actually present, recalling the incredible scenes in The Omen II in which Damien only realises his true status by overhearing his adoptive parents talking about it.
In many ways, that eavesdropping sequence is the inspiration for The Omen IV, except that is Kate who most strenuously insists on Delia’s strangeness as the film goes on, and increasingly in her presence. One of the other great strengths of the Lifetime universe is how matter-of-factly and neutrally it corners women in such a way that they have no option but to turn against each other, and that’s very much the case here, as Kate is continually and cruelly told to get a bit more detachment and a bit more objectivity about her daughter from the very figures of authority who have collectively precluded her having any kind of critical distance from motherhood in the first place. For that reason, my favourite moment in the film occurs halfway through a discussion between Kate and one of her mentors, a local priest, about Delia. In response to some throwaway comment that Kate makes about politics, the priest informs her, as a kind of blithe aside, that there is in fact “nothing outside politics.” For me, this condescending aside is the single most violent act in the entire film – the kind of sideswipe that the Lifetime aesthetic delivers so well – as well as possibly the single most patronising moment I have ever seen in any film, a riposte to any and all critics who consider melodrama to be the beneath the amorphous notions of the “political” that are so often synonymous with the putative depth, sophistication and intelligence so precious to a certain species of self-styled quality cinema. At the same time, it’s a gesture that, in one fell swoop, precludes any possibility that Kate could have the critical distance to arrive at this observation on her own, even as it somehow posits a privileged position outside the political from which to articulate it in the first place. In some ways, the real message is that everything – except men – is political, and watching this scene unfold, I was frequently reminded of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s wonderfully irreverent take on Fredric Jameson, at the beginning of “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”: “Always historcize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding temporal verb, “always”? It reminds me of the bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to “Question Authority.” Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they’re ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to the back of an automobile! Imperative framing will do funny things to a hermeneutic of suspicion.”
At one level, I feel compelled to say, as a kind of disclaimer, that Jameson is one of my favourite theorists and that I’m not intending to caricature him in any way. But neither do I think is Sedgwick, since part of the point of the reparative reading she is promulgating is to preclude this temptation to extrapolate a totalising repudiation of a theorist, concept or philosophy based on one discrete point of difference. In that sense, her choice of Jameson feels very deliberately designed to illustrate and enact reparative reading from the very outset of her essay. In this piece, I’m more interested in the way in which her reparative approach syncs up with the strategies of the Lifetime aesthetic and of melodrama more generally, both of which seem to offer a hermeneutics of suspicion while avoiding the imperative framing that generated that suspicion in the first place, thereby encouraging their audiences to question authority without simply replicating that authority in the process. In fact, framing the Lifetime aesthetic as reparative helps clarify what is radical about it, as well as why it adopts such a casual, even neutral attitude towards quotidian sexism, since what we’re dealing with here is not a sexist text that is desperately trying to conceal its sexism – what often passes for Hollywood liberalism – but instead a text that simply and frankly accepts and acknowledges the sexism of the world it inhabits and tries to look for ways for its characters to inhabit, experience and simply survive that world, rather than perpetually trying to convince us it doesn’t exist. Like horror films, the Lifetime aesthetic often attempts to come to terms with what Sedgwick calls “strong theory,” or paranoid reading, not aiming to replace it with yet another strong theory so much as trying to reparatively live amongst or despite it, in a series of object lessons in “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture – even [and I would add, in this case, especially] a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Lifetime women are forced to find sustenance in each other, nor that this sustenance generally balloons beyond what any one woman or group of women can reasonably accommodate. Forced to nurture each other within the roles that have been prescribed to them by an inflexible patriarchal agency, the boundaries between affection and repulsion typically grow more and more fluid over the course of a Lifetime film as well, culminating with a sickly, queasy, uneasy proximity that’s always supernatural insofar as it exceeds the natural order within which these women find themselves confined, and frequently condemned – often by the very women themselves – for devolving into queer, incestual or criminal modes of attachment. Interestingly, one key component of The Omen franchise was preoccupied with that amniotic claustrophobia from its very inception, even as the franchise itself hadn’t quite arrived at the vocabulary needed to realise it until this final film. From the second film onwards, it is suggested that Damien somehow consumed another child in the womb, a terrifying prospect that the second and third film don’t seem to quite know how to handle, although the queer proximities of the third film do sometimes speak to this sense of one body and subjectivity being somewhat viscerally absorbed by another. In The Omen IV, however, this body horror motif becomes very much the main focus by the third act, since it turns out that Delia, too, consumed her twin in the womb – and even worse, it was a boy – leading to a bizarre twist by which she managed to carry the evil seed of her twin which was then extracted and re-implanted in turn by one of the doctors acting on her apocalyptic behalf.
In other words, Kate became pregnant with both Delia and a twin, Delia consumed the twin and then transmitted her spirit back to Kate, who became pregnant with her again in turn, totally dissolving and dispersing any distinction between mother and daughter into a kind of self-consuming female presence that is itself the real object of horror in the film, especially to the two women who have found themselves subsumed into it in lieu of any other acknowledgement or function within the film’s world. On the one hand, it’s the kind of contorted proximity that Lifetime films do so well, but it’s also precisely this contortion that is required to bring this nascent possibility of the trilogy to its logical conclusion as well, destroying any consoling or nostalgic fantasies of patrilinear stability in the process. As both their own daughters and mothers, Kate and Delia find themselves set adrift in a patriarchal universe that requires them to play the role of both mother and daughter at the same time but to also deny that continuity as well, suffusing the film with a drifting, aimless, ambient melancholy that is surely designed to recall Kate’s namesake in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and her efforts to extricate herself from a system that seems to preclude the possibility of proper communion amongst women even as it leaves women with absolutely no function but to continuously commune amongst each other.
It’s fascinating, then, to consider where this rebooted Omen serial might have gone, since it’s by no means clear from The Awakening, even if it does end on the kind of perfectly poised note that suggests there was some sequel in store. While 2006’s The Omen is officially the next film in the franchise, it’s not really a continuation of the fourth film in a traditional sense. Luckily, Damian is in the works for 2016, and part of the pleasure of watching it will surely lie in trying to discern the various ways in which it channels and completes this telemovie cycle that never was. Interestingly, Barbara Hershey has been announced as a part of the cast, and while this may signal the migration of cinematic actors to television – even melodrama – in the wake of the recent resurgence of “quality” programming, it also suggests interesting parallels with Black Swan, as well as with Mia Farrow’s role in the 2006 Omen, arguably the one part of the reboot that genuinely feels like an organic and serial extension of the original franchise. Whether the series represents a return to a more cinematic register, or whether it opts for the heightened seriality of The Omen IV, it promises to be one of the most interesting television events of 2016, as well as a nostalgic throwback to the revival of the great 70s and 80s horror franchises in the late 00s, a process that – up until this point – seemed to have passed this particular franchise by.