Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural (and personal) infamy: This I Watched This On Purpose entry has been 27 years in the making. As a kid, I fell victim to early-onset cinephilia. Early symptoms included poring over the daily paper to look at movie ads and reviews, especially the Thursday and Friday editions, when the new reviews ran and studios ran the really big ads for that week's new releases. For a while, I even kept a scrapbook of favorite ads, with special pride of place given to a full-page ad for Return Of The Jedi. But the habit began a few years earlier. I can distinctly remember being confused as a 7-year-old by the ads for the 1980 "Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol compete over who will lose their virginity first" comedy Little Darlings, but sensing that there was something dirty about it. And I knew there was something dirty about the tiny ads for the porn theaters showing movies like Champagne For Breakfast. (Looking it up now, I see that the main character is named "Champagne." Aha.)
But a different sort of ad filled me with fear and fascination: horror movies. At the height of the slasher trend, I obsessed over ads for movies like My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night, speculating on the terrors promised in their lurid graphics. I wasn't allowed to watch such movies, but had a friend who claimed to have seen all of them, and would make up plots to satisfy my curiosity. I didn't realize until years later that he was lying. Turns out that New Year's Evil isn't about tiny creatures that invade homes and eat their victims' feet. Maybe it should have been.
Cultivated alongside this budding obsession was a complementary fixation on the end of the world. I grew up in the hot end of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation seemed somewhat probable. I also grew up in a Baptist church that strongly suggested the end times were at hand. By then, years before Left Behind, evangelical Christians specializing in Biblical prophecy had already created a fairly coherent narrative that found parallels between Bible verses and contemporary events. The signs of the End, we were told, were all around us. I suppose that the looming apocalypse wasn't on the minds of every kid in America in the early '80s, but it was very much on mine.
Thus the ads for 1981's The Final Conflict, billed as "the last chapter of the Omen trilogy," filled me with special dread. I'd never seen the 1976 movie The Omen, but I knew its basic premise—the antichrist comes to Earth in the form of a child named Damien—and I knew scenes from history-of-horror movie-clip shows that used to air on television to fill space around Halloween. The ad featured a malevolent-looking actor, playing the grown-up Damien, standing in front of the presidential seal. In my imagination, this was a movie that would present the full horrors of the End Times as suggested by the Biblical book of Revelations, a horror that, since it was in the Bible, was accessible to me in a way horror movies were not. I imagined a Satanic president ordering suffering on his people. Missiles falling from the sky. The population forced to take the Mark Of The Beast. Etc. Etc. This movie had to be terrifying.
And yet, even when I was old enough to rent movies on my own, and I started to catch up on all those horror movies that once filled me with dread, I never watched it. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't want to be disappointed by the reality of the movie vs. the movie I'd built in my mind. Maybe it's because, when I saw Richard Donner's The Omen, I thought it kind of sucked. Gregory Peck is ridiculously overqualified as the unwitting adoptive father of the Li'l Devil, and the whole film is basically one long excuse for elaborate death scenes that happen near the boy. And it isn't like The Final Conflict has a great reputation, either. Variety noted, "The Final Conflict is the last chapter in the Omen trilogy, which is too bad, because this is the funniest one yet." Roger Ebert, after singling out its opening scene for praise, wrote, "If Armageddon is as boring as this movie, we'll need a program to tell the players."
The viewing experience: Still, keeping this column in mind, I decided to check it out when the Blu-Ray set The Omen Collection landed on my desk. And you know what? It pretty much sucks.
Sam Neill plays the grown-up Damien. Maybe his subsequent work in movies like Jurassic Park has clouded my vision, but I don't find Sam Neill terribly frightening. Potentially misguided and frustrated? Sure. Knowingly evil? That's a tougher sell. (It doesn't help that he looks like a Jack Kirby-drawn good guy.) And unlike in The Omen—and, apparently, Damien: Omen II, which I have not seen—Neill's Damien is aware of his demonic destiny. He even has a mortal aide de camp (Don Gordon) who's in on the whole becoming-the-evil-master-of-the-world scheme. They're in a good position to pull it off, too. With the world in the midst of a "Great Recession," the Damien-controlled Thorn Industries is riding high, thanks to its control of much of Earth's food supply. Damien uses this to leverage his way into the position of ambassador to England. But first, he has to make sure the position is vacant, which he accomplishes by having one of the series' demonic Rottweilers psychically command the current ambassador to kill himself. (Shades of Budd Dwyer, he commits suicide after calling a press conference. And in typical Omen fashion, he rigs up a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that shoots him as a chipper-looking bunch of reporters enter the room.)
Why does Damien need to go to England? Because it was foretold in the completely made up biblical book of Hebron that the second coming of Christ will arise "out of the Angel Isle." (At this point, I must point out that the name of England comes from the word "Angles" as in "Angles and Saxons." Not "angel." But anyway…) More likely: England is where they had the budget to film the movie.
Successfully nestled in the embassy post, Damien sets about preparing to squash Jesus 2.0 before he can rise to power. This also involves dodging a bunch of priests carrying the seven magic daggers that can kill him. Fortunately, they're a bunch of bumblers. In the movie's most elaborate death scene, one of the priests tries to stab Damien on live television, only to trip and then burn alive between sheets of plastic while swinging back and forth in front of the cameras. This incident somehow leads to a friendship and tentative romance with the interviewer (Lisa Harrow), whose creepy kid comes to look up to Damien. Why? Because it wouldn't be an Omen movie without a creepy kid. (It also wouldn't be one without a demon dog, which I found especially non-scary, since this movie's Rottweiler looked an awful lot like my extremely sweet German Shepherd/Rottweiler hybrid Sophie, who's only demonic when she wants to be taken for a walk, while I'd rather sit on the couch and watch 30 Rock on DVD.)
Ebert wasn't kidding about this movie being dull. Director Graham Baker, later to helm Alien Nation and the John Stamos drama Born To Ride, has little gift for atmosphere, and apart from one inspired sequence, I suspect I'll forget every aspect of this movie in a couple of days. Still, that sequence does bear mentioning. After meeting with his hundreds of English followers in a canyon, Damien orders them to kill all children born on a certain day. Cue a long stretch of scenes in which random people murder random babies that's so over-the-top, it quickly turns into comedy. At one point, I started to feel sorry for the Foley artist who had to imagine what the sound of a baby being suffocated during a baptism would sound like.
As things wind to an end, Damien has a sex scene with Harrow's reporter that takes a rough and, it's strongly implied, anal turn. I mention this only because Wikipedia notes that the 1983 novel Omen IV: Armageddon 2000—which has nothing to do with the fourth film in the Omen, ahem, trilogy, the 1991 TV movie Omen IV: The Awakening—plays off this scene by having the reporter give "rectal birth" to something called "the abomination" after Damien's death.
Oops, I started to give away the ending. I'll finish. Yeah, Damien dies after getting stabbed by one of the magical daggers. And then an image of Jesus returns, as if to taunt him, as Jerry Goldsmith's choral score shifts from creepy to Jesus-y.
It's a pretty weak ending to a pretty weak movie that bore no resemblance to the horrors created by my young mind. What do you do when the demons of youth turn out to be pussycats?
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? Under 10 percent. The slaughter-of-the-British-babies scene works as unintended comedy. But otherwise, it's a lot of Sam Neill glowering while foreboding music plays. Apocalypse not.