Damien: Omen II Review
The FilmI've always wondered why nobody ever made a sequel to Rosemary's Baby. Not that I would actually want such a thing to be produced, but it strikes me as curious that, of the Big Three films about Satanism produced by the major studios in the late 1960s and the 70s, Roman Polanski's classic is the only one whose memory has remained unsullied by any subsequent intrusions. (I'm aware that there was in fact a TV movie in 1976 entitled Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby, but frankly I'm not convinced it counts.) Of course, one can, if one so wishes, argue at length as to the merits of Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Exorcist III and more recently Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, but, in the case of The Omen, such a task becomes much harder as the inevitable law of diminishing returns comes into play.
Produced in 1978, two years after Richard Donner's original film, Damien: Omen II takes up the story of Damien Thorn (now played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor), now a 12-year-old enrolled in an American military academy. Adopted by his uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) following the death of the Gregory Peck character at the end of the first film, Damien seems to be a well-adjusted young boy who looks as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, and life is grand until a variety of crazy types start ranting about how Very Bad Things will happen if Damien is allowed to go unchecked. Such individuals invariably meet a highly convoluted sticky end within minutes of their witterings, but, rather than actually paying heed to any of this, dopey old Richard opts instead to stick his head in the sand and pass it all off as sheer coincidence. It's only when the body count is approaching double figures (no, seriously) that he begins to wonder if there might be some truth in all of these prophecies and predictions...
Damien is by no stretch of the imagination a particularly good film. Your tolerance for it will, I suspect, depend greatly on how much time you have for slasher movies, in particular bad slasher movies. In a sense, it might even be possible to argue for this being the first no holds barred body count movie released by a major American studio: more so than any other entry in the series, it relies heavily on a series of increasingly outlandish set-pieces in which various people who come up against Damien are offed in ever more bizarre ways. It has to be said that some of these sequences are rather effective, with particular stand-outs including a woman being mauled by a crow and then hit by a freighter truck, and a bumpy ride in an elevator which actually succeeds in outdoing the first film's decapitation (revealing any more would give the game away). Admittedly, the gap between The Omen and the recent Final Destination films is growing increasingly narrow, but there's something rather entertaining about watching all of this carnage unfolding around the likes of William Holden and Lew Ayres, who look for all the world like they've somehow wandered on to the wrong film set.
Unfortunately, punctuating these all too brief set-pieces is scene after scene of turgid dialogue, none of which really does anything to engage the viewer in the characters and their various plights. The worst of these talky scenes are the ones focusing on Richard Thorn's company, Thorn Industries, which plod on and on and have seemingly no relation to the actual plot (their relevance does, admittedly, become clear in the second sequel, The Final Conflict). It all ultimately boils down to a bunch of heads yammering at each other for scene after unimaginative scene, and the bloated cast doesn't help, making it nigh on impossible to keep track of everyone, let alone care about them. The dialogue is absurd and often overwrought, the script taking itself far too seriously for a film of this nature ("I am the only living person who knows the truth!... Haven't you seen Yaegel's Wall? Damien Thorn is the Antichrist!" - it's almost parody). Similar accusations have admittedly been levied against the first film, but it's one thing to take yourself seriously when you've got competent actors and a good director on your side, and another entirely when the actors don't seem to know what the hell is going on and the director doesn't appear to give a damn. Watching Leo McKern babbling like a loony while sand is poured over his head is patently ridiculous, and no amount of lavish production design and rich Scope photography can do anything to change it.
William Holden and Lee Grant, meanwhile, struggle valiantly with the material they're given but can't help looking like a second-rate Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. That's not a dig at either actor, but neither is at their best here, and they adopt more or less the same roles as their predecessors in the first film, going through the motions but clearly not meaning a word of what they're saying. Holden had been seriously ill just prior to appearing in the film, a fact which is abundantly clear: he looks tired and fed up, and gives the impression that he really doesn't want to be there. Jonathan Scott-Taylor, meanwhile, stepping into Harvey Stephens' shoes in the role of Damien, is not particularly good, even taking into account the fact that child actors rarely are. He's wooden and delivers his lines rather clumsily, and doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of his character's motivation. That's not entirely unreasonable, given that it's a difficult role made even more difficult by the inconsistent writing. It's unclear precisely how much Damien actually knows about his identity, and he seems to lurch between dismay and acceptance on a scene by scene basis. The scene in which he discovers the "666" birthmark on his head (seriously, it took him twelve years to find it?) is just plain embarrassing. He looks and sounds more like he has been stricken by an attack of diarrhoea than someone who has just discovered himself to be the son of the Devil. ("Why? Why meeeeeeeeeee???")
None of this is helped by Don Taylor's workmanlike direction. The first Omen's script was hardly a masterpiece, but it might seem so in comparison with Damien's join-the-dots hackwork, and in any event Richard Donner's skilful direction and emphasis on mood helped elevate that film to the classic that many now consider it to be. Remove Donner and what you're ultimately left with is Damien, where the overall approach to the material is far cruder than that taken in its predecessor. Case in point: all the sudden unmotivated zooms towards crows (because we all know crows are evil) accompanied by jarring stingers on the soundtrack to compensate for the lack of any real mood. As is widely known, Taylor was brought in to replace the original director, Mike Hodges, who by all accounts was taking too long to shoot the material. It's a shame, because the Hodges-supervised material that remains in the film is considerably more artful than Taylor's scenes, the most striking being the introduction of Damien, where he is shown walking into frame with the fire of a pile of burning leaves placed between him and the camera. It's a bit obvious, perhaps, but at least it's a bit more interesting than the "point and shoot" ethos demonstrated elsewhere. One further element in the production's favour is Jerry Goldsmith's score. It's a rather strange anomaly that, as the films got progressively worse, the music actually seemed to get better. Here, Goldsmith throws in some interesting variations on his original Omen themes, including a slight electronic influence which gives the soundtrack a slightly different timbre than the other two entries in the trilogy. Clearly, Goldsmith wasn't content to phone it in, even if everyone else was.
Damien: Omen II ultimately feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. There was really no need to give The Omen a sequel in the first place, with the idea of turning it into a trilogy originating from the money-hungry head of the studio rather than there being any real artistic drive for it, but the notion of crafting a story around the Antichrist coming to terms with his identity is a good one (almost like The Last Temptation of Christ in reverse). Ultimately, of course, the concept was botched something rotten, but, if you're a fan of body count movies and are likely to be satisfied by a handful of decently-executed death scenes, then you might find something to like here.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Damien: Omen II looks significantly weaker on Blu-ray than the other two films in the trilogy. Like them, it features a 1080p, AVC encode on a dual layer BD50 disc, but detail is substantially lower. This is most pronounced in the opening sequence in the Middle East, where the image looks decidedly diffuse and almost defocused. After that, things do improve quite noticeably, but it never manages to attain the crispness of the other instalments. On the plus side, there is once again little in the way of digital manipulation, meaning that, even though the level of detail is less than stellar, it always looks like film rather than digital video. A handful of shots do suffer from an excessive amount of noise reduction, but they come and go virtually in the blink of an eye, and the rest of the film appears to be unaffected. (See 00:12:30, 01:17:50 and 01:33:00 for the worst offenders.)
Sound-wise, we get two mixes in English: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 affair and a 2.0 dual mono Dolby Digital track. According to IMDB, a 4-track stereo mix was created for the film, which is nowhere to be seen on this disc, but I suspect the 5.1 remix is a reasonably faithful recreation of how the film would originally have sounded in cinemas equipped for such audio tracks. Both are perfectly adequate sounding, although they won't win any awards. I ultimately found myself preferring the 5.1 track, as it affords the audio a slightly greater sense of depth without sounding overly artificial, but those who are concerned that this track has been manipulated or tweaked in some way will, I suspect, be happy with the mono variant.
Spanish and French mono dubs are also provided, along with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean. As usual with Fox releases, these cover the film itself only and not any of the extras.
The same two extras that were to be found on the previous standard definition release have been ported over:
- Audio commentary - This track features producer Harvey Bernhard (who also receives a story credit for this film), teamed up with DVD producer J.M. Kenny, who acts as an interviewer and prompter of sorts. Kenny tries valiantly to get Bernhard to open up and dish the dirt on the film, but the producer turns out to be rather crusty and, all too often, delivers answers that are either incredibly vague or seemingly unrelated to the questions. He also has an irritating habit of simply describing the on-screen action when asked to explain what is going on ("What's going on here?" "Well, these are the opening credits" - an absolute corker). One ultimately gets the impression that Bernhard is somewhat reluctant to be in the recording booth, and the track concludes with Kenny all but apologising for it being a chore to get through.
- Theatrical trailer - Presented in 1.33:1 standard definition, this trailer is similar to its predecessor for the first film in that it is bombastic and loaded with spoilers (it even features a clip of William Holden running through the names of several of Damien's victims - cheers!). It's actually rather entertaining, but wait 'til you've seen the film before watching it.
Damien: Omen II is not a very good film, and as such it's little wonder that the Blu-ray package assembled for it is a pale shadow of that of the original Omen. Still, it's a perfectly adequate disc and one that, once again, proves to constitute a substantial upgrade over its DVD counterpart. Whether or not that makes the film itself any better is, of course, open to debate...
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