- Year: 1978
- Director: Don Taylor
- Starring: William Holden, Lee Grant, Jonathan Scott-Taylor
Today, we’ll be taking a look at a sequel to one of the most successful horror films of all time, 1976’s The Omen.
Richard Donner’s The Omen is a film that could have easily not worked, but with a tight script by David Seltzer, a haunting score by Jerry Goldsmith, and incredible performances by Gregory Peck, David Warner and Lee Remick, it works wonderfully. The story slowly builds upon itself, with every death having both a natural and a supernatural explanation. It’s not until the very end of the film that we know for sure that Damien Thorn is in fact the son of the Devil. By the closing scene, all of the important characters except Damien are dead, and Damien is clearly an unstoppable force of evil.
David Seltzer had no desire to write a sequel, but the studio sure wanted one. The sequel begins in the city of Megiddo, just days after Robert Thorn traveled there to learn about his son’s true origins.
We see Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), the man who gave Robert the daggers… I’m sorry, I need a minute. Carl Bugenhagen?
Surely someone on set realized Carl Bugenhagen sounds like a joke name in a Monty Python sketch. Honestly, it’s one of the only issues I have with the first Omen film. I understand that they wanted a name that you remember easily, because Thorn needs to recall it at a climactic moment, but Bugenhagen? As if it wasn’t silly enough, they say it over and over in Omen II, often multiple times in the same scene. It’s like someone paid them $5,000 every time someone said Bugenhagen without laughing.
Anyway, our film starts with Carl Bugenhagen…
We’ll call him Carl B. Our film starts with Carl B. driving through Megiddo. Even though he only had a goatee in the first film, he now has a wild Santa Claus beard, disregarding the fact that this takes place just a week later. He tells an archaeologist friend Michael (Ian Hendry) that he has just read that Robert Thorn has died but Damien has lived. Carl B. wants Michael to take the knives to Robert’s brother Richard, now Damien’s legal guardian. Carl B. and Michael go to see Yigael’s Wall, painted by an artist who claimed to see the face of the Antichrist. As they see that Damien’s face is the one on the wall, Carl B. and Michael get enclosed and are killed by being buried in sand… very slowly.
This death sort of sets the tone for how ridiculous a lot of the deaths in Omen II are. Seeing them get closed in is effective, but once sand starts falling, it’s silly. Carl B. is shouting curses at Damien as he ever so slowly gets covered with more sand.
We then smash to seven years later in Chicago, where Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has moved in with businessman Richard Thorn (William Holden), brother of Robert Thorn from the first film. Holden had turned down the role of Robert in the first film, so he was quick to join the cast of Omen II.
It would have been easy to basically make Richard Thorn a near-identical character to his brother, but the film does a decent job of making him different but still entirely believable as a brother to Gregory Peck’s character. Both Thorns are good men, but while Robert is a bit more uptight and stiff, Richard is much more laid-back and casual. We see him immediately as a caring step-father, treating both his own son Mark (Lucas Donat) and Damien the same, which would be great parenting if Damien wasn’t the Antichrist and all.
Richard is having his Aunt Exposition… err Marion (Sylvia Sydney) over for dinner. Seriously, though, the only purpose of her character is to explain everything to the audience. Marion wants the two boys to go to separate schools, which causes Richard’s wife Ann (Lee Grant) to tell her to stop meddling in her children’s affairs. Aunt Marion responds with this gem, “Neither boy is yours. May I remind you that Mark is Richard’s son by his first wife and Damien is his brother’s son?” This is the kind of dialogue writing that I just hate. It’s clearly just shoehorned in to catch the audience up to speed. Who talks like that?
Aunt Marion goes up to her room where she sees a black crow, and when Jerry Goldsmith’s music starts, we know it’s over for her. While perhaps a crow is not as harrowing as the large black dogs from the original film, I give the film credit for trying to be different.
Her death isn’t really over-the-top, just a heart attack, but the mystery of the deaths from the first film is gone. We know that these deaths are being caused by supernatural events, so there’s nothing left to question. Also, Aunt Marion is just a character introduced to be killed, like so many others in this film. The original film had a high death count, but you felt all of them. There was a dramatic buildup to the priest dying, and in spite of his evil acts in the past, it was a sad moment when the steeple impaled him. When Keith Jennings (David Warner) was decapitated, we lost a character we had grown to love. Omen II simply adds character after character just to have more people to bump off.
There are just so many characters in this thing. In addition to the Thorn family, we have Richard’s associates Bill (Lew Ayres), David (Alan Arbus), and Paul (Robert Foxworth), his friend and employee Dr. Charles Warren (Nicholas Pryor), and British reporter Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shephard), who was a friend of Keith Jennings. None of these really have any character, but exist either to be killed in ridiculously over-the-top ways, or in the case of Paul, help Damien in his rise to power.
Some of the deaths in The Omen are a little bit silly today, like a priest being impaled by a steeple or Jennings being decapitated by a sheet of glass on the back of a truck, but the deaths in Omen II are comical. Joan Hart’s car breaks down on an abandoned street, a crow appears which proceeds to peck her eyes out. Since she cannot see, she stumbles onto the road where she is hit by an oncoming truck.
Again, this is not a character we care about at all, and she is clearly just in the movie to be killed. That is such cheap writing. The most egregious death is that of a doctor played by Meshach Taylor. Damien and some classmates visit Richard’s factory, and a freak accident hurts everyone except Damien. The doctor runs some more tests on Damien and realizes he has jackal’s blood. We’ve seen the first movie and know his mother was a jackal. What is the point of this scene? Oh yeah, it’s just for another ridiculous death. The doctor gets into an elevator which soon begins taking control. Alright, I guess an elevator going out of control is a creepy enough idea (just look at Charade), but that’s not what kills him. When the elevator finally stops, the cable falls and electrocutes him while cutting him in half.
If that was the only thing at play in Damien: Omen II, it would be just another forgettable horror sequel. Thankfully, we also get the continuing story of Damien, you know the guy in the title? Damien: Omen II should have just been his story, because Jonathan Scott-Taylor is pitch perfect. This is among the best performances from a child actor I have ever seen, if not the very best.
At military academy, Damien Thorn realizes he has some supernatural powers, including telekinesis and incredible knowledge. There’s a great scene where his history teacher asks him increasingly obscure history questions, and he immediately fires back with the answers. This is interrupted by Damien’s new troop leader Daniel Neff (Lance Henriksen), who tells him to read Revelation 13 and learn about his true identity. When Damien does this and sees the 666 birthmark, he runs out to a pier and screams at God, asking why. It’s an amazing scene, and it is entirely at odds with the kill scenes.
This movie feels like it is at war with itself, a perpetual game of tug-of-war between an original continuation of Damien’s story and a studio-enforced gore fest.
The Damien story reaches its conclusion in easily the film’s greatest scene. Mark walks outside after he overhears his father discussing that Damien may be the Antichrist, and Damien confronts him about it. He offers Mark an equal position with him in his future empire, but Mark refuses. He pleads with him, but when Mark again refuses, he is pained as he forces a brain embolism on his cousin who is more like his brother.
Scott-Taylor’s performance in this scene shows the torment Damien has to experience as he completes his transformation into pure evil. He doesn’t want to kill Mark, but he knows he has no other option if he wants to accept his destiny. Just watch his face display everything throughout the scene.
This should have been the climax of the film, but nope, we need to rehash the “Father realizes his son is the Antichrist” story again, even though there are no surprises when Richard sees Damien’s face on Yigael’s wall. Richard fights with Ann over the daggers, but she stabs him with them, revealing herself to be a disciple of Satan all along because why not, and then Damien sets her on fire and walks away. The end.
Damien: Omen II is such a mixed bag, a mixed bag where half of the candy is Reese’s Cups and the other half is chalk. It just constantly cuts back and forth between scenes, some of them interesting and some of them entirely pointless. There are various things set up early in the movie that just stop being a thing shortly after. There is a crow present in two early death scenes, but unlike the black dog, we never see it again. Some scenes seem to be setting up a theme of destruction of Americana, like showing Richard and Ann taking a sleigh ride or this shot…
The camera holds on this for a while, which looks like it could be a Rockwell painting, but the irony is that it comes right after Bill drowns in the ice. If the director really was going for this kind of theme, why didn’t we get more of it? It’s just so jumbled.
Let’s check out the final score.
Story (15/30 Points)
It’s a complete half-and-half for me. I’m all-in for Damien’s coming of age story, but the rest is just a boring rehash of the first Omen.
Returning Characters (14/15 Points)
Well there are just two of them. Jonathan Scott-Taylor’s performance is terrifying and bone-chilling, putting Damien exactly where he should be at this age. It’s an Oscar-caliber performance buried in a non-Oscar film. Bugenhagen also returns…
…and the less said about that, the better.
New Characters (6/15 Points)
William Holden is a great actor, and while his early scenes are promising, they don’t add up to much by the end. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t get much characterization outside of the first act. Lee Grant is fine as Ann Thorn, but the twist of her being on Damien’s side feels like it was added somewhere in the middle of the third act. Lance Henriksen makes the most of his time as Damien’s mentor, but the rest of the characters are just a line of victims who get axed off.
Experience (16/25 Points)
Jerry Goldsmith doesn’t just recycle the same music from the original, but instead mixes it up with a less grand, but still creepy score that really works. The low male voices are really creepy, as if it’s the Devil himself singing. That said, some of the death scenes are really overdone, and the direction often sets up imagery it doesn’t follow through with.
Originality (8/15 Points)
Omen II is a mix of an entirely fresh story and one that rips-off the original shamelessly. It’s a movie at war with itself, and boy does it show.
FINAL SCORE: 59%
SO IS IT BETTER?
Well no, The Omen is one of my favorite horrors of all time. Omen II could have been a worthy follow-up, and it some ways it is. I don’t think I have ever see another movie that is simultaneously great and terrible, but it genuinely is. Perhaps it’s ultimately a failure as a film… I guess, but I wholeheartedly recommend it for the performance of Jonathan Scott-Taylor alone.