Friday, October 28, 2011
From That Devastation
There’s no way I could do an accurate count but it feels like I’ve seen Richard Donner’s THE OMEN about a hundred times. Its follow-up, 1978’s DAMIEN: OMEN II directed by Don Taylor I’ve seen exactly once, years ago, and about all I remember about it is William Holden’s anguish as someone is pulled under the ice at a lake. I even made it a point to see the superfluous remake of THE OMEN on the day it was released, 6/6/06, because, well, I just couldn’t resist. However, until now I’ve seen the third film in the original series, THE FINAL CONFLICT (the most recent DVD release referring to it on the packaging as OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT) exactly zero times. I cannot explain this. There is no reason. But Halloween was coming up, the desire to see more horror films than usual was in the air, so it made sense to finally take care of this one. In spite of never actually seeing it I’ve been curious about THE FINAL CONFLICT for a long time and now that the deed is taken care of I guess I’m still a little curious, partly because the movie really doesn’t leave much of an impression. It’s as if Twentieth Century-Fox decided they needed to make another sequel but didn’t feel like putting that much money into it and nobody had a really good idea for what the story should be but they just decided to make it anyway. There is some dialogue about the state of the planet which could just as easily be speaking about the way things are now but that right there makes the film sound more interesting than it is. The whole thing is just kind of a void, with too much about what’s happening left vague, as if in search of an idea for this movie. Or maybe my attention just kept wandering. There wasn’t all that much to focus on anyway.
Antichrist Damien Thorn (Sam Neill), who was adopted by Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn in THE OMEN and raised as a teenager by William Holden’s brother Richard in the follow-up, is now the 32 year-old head of Thorn Industries, the numbers 6-6-6 still hidden under the hair on his head with him in charge of much of the world supply of food (for those who care—the film ignores how the first two films were contemporary to when they were released and just retcons it to date them as happening decades before). Fully aware of his true identity and presumably biding his time until he can make his secret known to the world he discovers in the Book of Hebron that a particular alignment of the stars indicates that the Second Coming is at hand. Meanwhile, he convinces the President to appoint him as Ambassador to Great Britain after the current one conveniently arranges to have his own head blown off in front of the press. Once in England, Damien shows an interest in television journalist Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow) and her pre-teen son. As he settles a group of priests led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi) who are also aware of the celestial activity have acquired the seven daggers of Megiddo, the only ancient holy weapons that can harm the Antichrist, intent on destroying him. Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to prevent what has been prophesized Damien has his own disciples track down every male child born on a certain day so he can destroy any chance of the second coming occurring and presumably, take full control of all the world once and for all. I guess.
One element about THE FINAL CONFLICT which has long intrigued me was Roger Ebert’s review written when the film opened which discusses in great detail the opening section, in which we follow the precise path leading to exactly how the seven daggers of Maggido find their way into the right hands about which he says “The first ten minutes of THE FINAL CONFLICT are such a masterful job of storytelling that I dared to hope that the OMEN trilogy had pulled itself out of the bag.” In truth, the sequence is just under four minutes (as we all know, Roger has sometimes been a little inexact about these things) and maybe shouldn’t be considered anything more than a compactly told sequence of events designed to play under the opening credits. I’m not sure it shouldn’t be considered masterful as much as simply a well-executed montage told in an appropriately cinematic manner, something you’d think should be a prerequisite when we go to the movies but maybe it was just the context of things that surprised Roger. It might not exactly be a sudden display of filmic genius, but it is a nice scene. And, as it turns out, just about the high point of the entire film.
It feels like something was lost along the way while making THE FINAL CONFLICT, as if the budget got reduced or some sort of key element to the script (written by Andrew Birkin, based on characters created by David Seltzer) got lost in rewrites. There’s no real continuity of character to make this feel like the conclusion of a trilogy and one of the key selling points of the first two films then and now—respected actors being knocked off in increasingly gruesome, painful ways—feels done away with not to mention how few of the costars of lead Sam Neill seem up to matching him. Even the casting of familiar face Mason Adams “as the President” feels off as if the actor doesn’t have the physical stature to be a plausible commander in chief. Interestingly, two directors of photography are credited—Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter—which seems like a possible indication of strife during production but while it does manage to be a rich-looking film with striking Scope compositions throughout it’s all very flatly directed by Graham Baker (ALIEN NATION) who never seems interested in much that happens beyond placing emphasis on the twitching of a few bodies that have recently been brutally killed. The strange thing is that THE FINAL CONFLICT is a film which in the first fifteen minutes we see someone’s head get blown off with a shotgun in full graphic detail and yet the film couldn’t be more humdrum about how this is all portrayed with even an assassination attempt on Damien that goes awry shot in such a way that doesn’t seen to notice that a pretty impressive stunt would be noticed by the cameras if only they could get a decent angle on it. Even when Damien and Lisa have a serious discussion about the state of the world how true evil is as pure in its way as innocence it’s staged in such a faraway shot it’s as if it all just bores him.
You could feel free to consider the overall approach of the OMEN series as garbage or hackwork but there is a certain showmanship at other points in the series which is undeniable—you know, David Warner meeting up with a certain sheet of glass, that sort of thing. In comparison, THE FINAL CONFLICT just sort of lies there, no real energy to it, zero flair even when it’s well-photographed which it often is. It does have a certain multinational feel that I associate with certain films of this era which is actually kind of comforting but it’s really not enough. I’m no real expert on the cycle of devil-related horror that was around in the 70s but while watching this I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing was kind of played out by 1981. Whether it was or not, THE FINAL CONFLICT certainly doesn’t help. It’s an 80s horror sequel with no particular cult following which seems like an impossibility but I suppose it’s also stranded between the two eras—the devil/disaster cycle combo and the slasher cycle which hadn’t taken full shape just yet. Plus it’s not at all scary. Or even particularly unnerving. Or entertaining.
Too much of what happens is just humdrum. Damien skulks around plotting. The priests skulk around plotting. Damien shows interest in Kate Reynolds but any implied romance comes off as half-baked beyond the two of them ending up in bed together in a scene that is at least a little odd, implying that some kind of violation takes place but is too oblique to ever be offensive, just another ‘so what’ event that occurs. Damien takes her son on as a disciple but that feels half-baked as well, as if he’s only doing it because he thinks the kid kind of looks like him. Damien knows who he is and is never conflicted about any of it, so there’s no suspense on that angle. Don Gordon (Steve McQueen’s partner in BULLITT, so he’s a-ok in my book) is his right hand man and seems to be fully aware of it who his boss is as well but it’s never clear if he’s a Satanist or a loyal employee or what—he certainly doesn’t seem all that committed to the cause when he needs to be. It’s a film without a hero or at the least anyone to maintain a rooting interest in so the experience of watching it becomes too detached. The few characters who could have had such a role are either too thinly drawn or not focused on enough such as Rossano Brazzi’s priest who is second billed but he could almost have a ‘special appearance by’ credit considering how much screen time he has. There’s a long foxhunt scene which isn’t bad (you don’t get many foxhunts in movies. The only other ones I can think of offhand are MARNIE and THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER) although having someone attacked by relatively benign looking dogs is a nice spin on the beasts who attacked Gregory Peck and David Warner in THE OMEN it doesn’t quite feel like a bullseye. Maybe because they still look like nice dogs.
The film also seems to misunderstand what I assume people have always responded to in the other films in the series, which mainly focused on the brutal deaths of people (some of them played by big stars) with the hint of the power of Satan hanging over it all, as well as the subtext of parents’ fears of their own child in the first film. The events that took place may have been patently absurd but they also managed to be strangely unnerving, walking the line between odd accidents and something else unexplainable going on—as improbable as many things were they weren’t impossible, keeping away from supernatural elements or even simple stalk-and-murder scenes, even arguably the death of Lee Remick. THE FINAL CONFLICT seems to drop much of the mystery found in this ambiguity in favor of boring astrological details, people having dull conversations in rooms and Sam Neill brooding, occasionally giving long speeches (one scene where he speaks to an enormous gathering of disciples is strikingly shot, I’ll give it that much) and building to the ultimate plan to prevent the second coming. None of this is ever as scary as Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock merely staring at someone and much of it is shot so discreetly it’s almost as if the film is embarrassed that it has a plot about killing babies. Hey, I think that sounds kind of unpleasant too, but if that’s the case why are you even bothering making this movie? There’s also the feeling that it wants to suddenly develop this entire mythology around Damien so the trilogy can be paid off but did anybody ever really care about that angle? The film feels underpopulated. Underwritten. And under-thought out. A key showdown between two characters late in the film involving a hot iron for example should have some impact but since there’s been so little reason to care about them, outside of not wanting to see their baby get killed, there really isn’t any. I’d heard long ago that the ending is lame beyond belief and, well, it is, feeling rushed, incomplete and anticlimactic as if they just ran out of shooting time. Or money. Or ideas. I can’t tell. Instead the film just gives us glorious music and biblical quotes shoved onscreen as if to try to disguise the fact that not very much happened followed by the quick appearance of the end credits. Thank you and goodnight. Is THE FINAL CONFLICT the dullest Satanic horror film ever made? I’m probably not the person to answer that. The late Hammer entry TO THE DEVIL-A DAUGHTER was also somewhat unfulfilling in this regard with a similarly undernourished conclusion but it still probably works better. Either way, there can’t be very many other such entries out there that feel quite so lackluster, so uninterested in what the film is supposedly about.
Sam Neill is a very good actor who is clearly trying to make this all work in his first American lead role with a very nice slipperiness to his voice at times but there still isn’t much he can do with this script. He does at least have presence (we also get to hear him say the word ‘Nazarene’ about two-hundred times) and that a few weeks ago Salman Rushdie of all people made a reference to him playing this part on Real Time With Bill Maher a few weeks ago has to say something about what kind of impression he makes. But aside from the way his hair is styled which seems queasily appropriate for the visage of Damien Thorn he still feels left a little on his own, as if the film is missing an elder statesman role as a follow-up to Peck and Holden for him to play off of so it places a kind of void at the center of the film. Brazzi barely has any screentime with him and while it’s interesting to see how Neill works with Don Gordon (whose huge glasses are almost as much of a character as he is) it’s not really enough. Shouldn’t this be one of those films that have the stars in boxes at the bottom of the poster? Lisa Harrow actually began a lengthy relationship with Neill from this film and they had a child together but she never seems strong enough either. Few other actors who appear make much of an impression although Hazel Court, star of Roger Corman’s THE RAVEN and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, can be quickly seen at the start of the fox hunt in her final film appearance. Jerry Goldsmith, one of the few names in the credits who carry over through the entire trilogy, provides much of the power that the film does have with all the spectacular bombast of his score and while its effectiveness never rises to the heights of the first film—the one which gave him his only Oscar, of course—what he had to work with probably wasn’t all that inspiring.
After watching THE FINAL CONFLICT via Netflix I was curious to look at OMEN II againt for reference to see how it matched up and oddly Amoeba had zero copies of that film but had about a dozen of this one. What’s up with that? Did everyone who got a box set decide there was no reason to keep this one? And why did I even bother seeing it anyway? I do have a vague recollection of it playing at a theater while getting pizza one night nearby with my family so maybe deep down I have a strange desire to see every film I vaguely remember playing when I was a kid but was too young for. There’s probably a reason for that buried deep down within my psyche but I don’t need to figure it out just now. So it goes without saying that I’m not at all sorry I finally saw THE FINAL CONFLICT but I’m also not that surprised the experience turned out to be not much of anything either. I could believe that if there had been something mildly interesting to it maybe I would have heard something by now but there’s nothing wrong with keeping an open mind. It can be fun to do that with these things, particularly horror sequels that you’ve wondered about for over thirty years. There’s always the hope that one of those will offer you something completely unexpected which makes it all the more unfortunate when what it gives you isn’t much of anything at all. And when that happens, you just have to move on to the next one.