Damien: Omen II Review

The Omen, and please note that I’m talking about the original and not the dire remake, was a very well made film which had, for this viewer, one flaw – it took itself terribly seriously. No such reservations are possible about Damien: Omen II which is a very, very silly film indeed and very diverting if you’re in the right mood. As a horror film, it’s dead in the water if you’re looking for genuine chills or the kind of theological suggestion which made The Omen so sinister. But if you want a Friday the 13th prototype in which a load of dull-witted characters are killed by the forces of darkness, then step right this way.

The film takes place a number of years after the original. Damien is now a teenager living with his Uncle Richard (Holden) and Aunt Ann (Grant) in the United States. Well groomed – if you can forgive the severest side parting this side of Sparks - and exceptionally intelligent, Damien is clearly destined for great things. Of course, you and I know that he is really the Antichrist but the only other characters in the film who are aware of this are archaeologist Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern) and his sidekick Michael (Ian Hendry), and they have been dispatched in Israel via a convenient cave-in. Gradually, of course, his true identity begins to be discovered but everyone who finds out too much, or who simply seems to stand in the way of his eventual world domination, meets with a flamboyant death.

First to go is boring old Aunt Marion (Sidney) but her rampant overacting sadly meets with nothing more than a heart attack induced by the sight of a bird. Following this, the death scenes become more amusingly baroque – death by drowning under the ice, crow attack, death by poisonous gas and, best of all for anyone who saw this as a youngster, bisection by lift cable. These scenes are the film’s raison d’etre and, as such, Damien: Omen II can surely be considered one of the first American slasher movies. The staging of the killings varies from adequate to excellent, with the death under the ice really standing out – partly due to its halfway credible nature and partly because it’s a dangerous stunt in any case. I’ve always found the crow attack rather nasty too and while Elizabeth Shepherd’s acting isn’t what you’d call subtle, subtlety is perhaps not required when you’ve got a stunt raven attached to your head.

The problem with the film comes when you consider the bits between the death scenes. The original director was Mike Hodges – director of the great Get Carter - but he was replaced after concerns about how long he was taking to set up shots. His replacement was Don Taylor, best known for his work in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and while Taylor was probably more efficient, his direction isn’t what you’d call inspired. The scenes in the film directed by Hodges have a style which is absent elsewhere, notably the stunning shot when Damien first appears, walking through a haze of fire. Don Taylor can’t get away from the episodic nature of the screenplay and just plods through it with individual scenes having little character. In particular, he can’t seem to build up a great deal of tension and we don’t care about either the crucial central relationship between Richard and Ann or the various characters who are set-up to be knocked down. This is not, incidentally, the fault of the excellent cast. William Holden is particularly authoritative even though it’s obvious that he hasn’t been well.

Yet even while the film isn’t very good, it’s a lot of fun. The death scenes are, as I’ve stated above, elaborate and well staged and Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful music score does the job of building suspense which the director seems to have forgotten. Jonathan Scott Taylor is fine as Damien, matching well with both Harvey Stephens and Sam Neill and he has good scenes with stalwarts such as Robert Foxworth and Lance Henriksen. It all roars along at a headlong pace, with an interesting murder around the corner every fifteen minutes or so, and how can you resist a movie which has the nerve to cast Lee Grant as the Whore of Babylon?

The Disc

Damien: Omen II is given a 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation. It’s not exactly a bad transfer but it’s definitely lacking in character. The film looks strangely flat and without much visual excitement. This may be characteristic of the original photography but the slightly murky colours and excessively grainy appearance certainly don’t help. The 2.0 soundtrack is, on the other hand, more than acceptable with Jerry Goldsmith’s score coming over particularly well.

There are three extra features. The first is a commentary with Harvey Bernhard which is slow and frustrating. He clearly has a lot of interesting inside information but most of it stays inside and he reveals tantalising snippets which aren’t followed up. More on the sacking of Mike Hodges would have been appreciated, for example. Secondly, we get a brief featurette about the making of the film which goes into little detail and is filled up with clips. Finally, there’s a short documentary in which the director of The Omen remake, John Moore, talks to some kids from film school. Given his hopeless misdirection of that film, there’s an irony somewhere.

The film has optional English subtitles as do, refreshingly, all the special features. Kudos to Fox for this.

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