No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Damien – Omen II’

Damien Omen II poster

Now here’s a sequel which I have avoided watching for far too long. Richard Donner’s “The Omen” was a classic horror movie that dealt with the antichrist coming back to the land of the living in the form of a young boy named Damien. When Damien stared right into the camera at “The Omen’s” conclusion, it was the perfect climax as evil was not vanquished like it is in most movies, and we were left unnerved as nothing could stop him it seemed. As a result, the thought of doing a sequel seemed pointless as there was no way you could top the last scene.

But we all know that things didn’t stop there, and in 1978 we got “Damien: Omen II” which had us catching up with Damien seven years after the events of the original. Like many sequels, it pales in comparison to the original, but it still has its moments which kept me gripped to my seat even though its conclusion was never in doubt.

Damien Thorn (played here by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) has since been adopted by his powerful uncle Richard Thorn (William Holden) and his wife Ann (Lee Grant), and he is one of the top students at a military academy. Whereas Harvey Spencer Stephens, who played Damien in the original “Omen,” portrayed the antichrist as being pretty well aware of who he was in the large scheme of things, Scott-Taylor portrays him as a pre-pubescent boy who has yet to discover the deadly powers he possesses and of what he is destined to do. Still, he does gives off great Kubrickian glares throughout which lets us know he is not one to be messed with.

In some ways “Damien: Omen II” feels like a missed opportunity as the story could have been a beautifully twisted take on the typical coming-of-age movie where we go on a journey with a young character struggling through adolescence to where he finally becomes comfortable with who he is. When Damien finds out he is indeed the Antichrist and runs out of the school in sheer panic, this seemed promising because it felt like the filmmakers were not out to make him the typical one-dimensional villain. However, it didn’t take him long to accept his newfound identity, and soon after he’s like, “Okay that’s cool, I’m an evil mofo. I can live with that.”

It would have been more interesting if Damien would have struggled with this more throughout the movie to where his transition to accepting his true identity would be all the more understandable and terrifying. It could have been like when Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side in those “Star Wars” prequels, but with better dialogue.

Still, “Damien: Omen II” does have a lot of good things about it, and horror fans will definitely get a huge kick out of the merciless killings displayed in gory detail for their benefit. One lady gets attacked by crows and has her eyes torn out, one guy gets smashed between two train cars, one guy falls into the icy water during a hockey game and is carried away by the current, and a doctor becomes the victim of an elevator accident which outdoes David Warner’s decapitation in the first “Omen.” Watching these killings gives the viewer quite the visceral punch, and if this is what you’re looking for here, you won’t be disappointed.

William Holden is well cast as Richard Thorn, the wealthy industrialist who looks to have all the power in the world. It’s interesting to note Holden turned down the role Gregory Peck had in “The Omen” because he didn’t want to do a movie about the devil, so he must have been kicking himself silly when it came out and was a huge hit. Well, Holden makes up for the missed opportunity by playing a man who thinks he has control over everything but soon finds this couldn’t be further from the truth. He is also paired with the great Lee Grant who plays his wife Ann, someone whose overprotectiveness of Damien becomes very clear as the movie goes on.

It’s also great to see actors like Lance Henriksen, who is great in everything he appears in, as Damien’s commanding officer Sergeant Neff. Like any good leader, Neff knows how to bring out the best in his soldiers, but what he brings out of Damien is something we can’t agree is his best (not that it matters to either of them). “Damien: Omen II” also marked the film debut of the late Meshach Taylor who plays the character with the most memorable and vicious death sequence this sequel has to offer. While it might sound like I’m giving something away, trust me when I say that you will see his demise coming from a mile away. You just won’t be able to guess how he will die.

Of course, this is the kind of horror movie where most of the characters act idiotically. Those who learn that Damien is the Antichrist either get killed off quickly or come across as raving lunatics the main characters are quick to dismiss. Then again, it’s hard to present your evidence to anyone in a rational manner when you’re dealing with something so evil. It’s not like you can just go up to someone and say, “Uh dude? Your son is the devil and you may want to consider killing him. Just saying.”

“Damien: Omen II” was directed by Don Taylor as Donner was busy making “Superman.” Taylor started out in show business as an actor and gave memorable performances in “Stalag 17,” the original “Father of the Bride” and “The Naked City.” As time went on he transitioned to directing and helmed movies such as “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Tom Sawyer.” He had a tough act to follow as “The Omen” was a benchmark in the horror genre, but for the most part he fares well in putting together a sequel which fares better than others of its ilk. There are some good jump scares, some wonderfully gory deaths, and he keeps us watching as Damien throttles through adolescence with a confidence you can’t help but be unsettled by.

But after all these years, it’s safe to say the biggest star of “The Omen” franchise is the late Jerry Goldsmith. He won an Oscar for his score to the first film, and his score for “Damien: Omen II” proves to be every bit as unforgettable as what came before. The chorus of voices singing “Ave Satani” keeps you on edge as his music makes you fully aware something really bad is about to happen. There are few other film scores out there which can you fill you with such dread as this one does.

It’s astonishing I waited so ridiculously long to watch “Damien: Omen II” after having been so enthralled with “The Omen” when I first saw it, but I guess I didn’t want to spoil the experience. But its first sequel proves to be better than many give it credit for, and it eventually proved to be the only good sequel in a franchise which got too big for its own good. “Omen III: The Final Conflict” proved to be anticlimactic despite it starring Sam Neill, “Omen IV: The Awakening” was inescapably awful, “The Omen” remake in 2006 reminded us why shot-for-shot remakes are largely unnecessary, and the A&E television series “Damien” did not fare well critically. At the same time, the ongoing mission to make “The Omen” relevant in this day and age reminds me of what John Carpenter once said in regards to “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Evil never dies.”

On top of that, the “Omen” movies remind me of the lyrics from my favorite Iron Maiden song:

“Woe to you, oh earth and sea

For the Devil sends the beast with wrath

Because he knows the time is short

Let him who hath understanding

Reckon the number of the beast

For it is a human number

Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

* * * out of * * * *

‘mother!’ Provides Audiences with a Vicious Roller Coaster Ride into Madness

mother! movie poster

After watching Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, a special behind the scenes featurette was shown where the filmmaker explained how he wanted to make a movie which would generate different reactions from its audience to where various interpretations could be formed over what they witnessed. Aronofsky has succeeded in doing exactly that as “mother!” does not have him spelling anything out for anyone, perhaps not even for the cast either. Maybe he does have an explanation for all the craziness which ensues in this, one of the freakiest psychological thrillers in some time, but he’s not about to let on what it is, and I am perfectly fine with that as to explain anything about the plot would dilute its power instantly.

The experience of seeing “mother!” was a lot like watching Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” as both movies feature a married couple who are nameless and staying in a secluded country home in the woods. Like “Antichrist,” “mother!” has polarized critics and audiences as many are desperate to discover what its director was attempting to accomplish here. The best advice I can give you is to approach Aronofsky’s film by leaving any and expectations you have for it at the door. It has been advertised as an homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the only thing it has in common with Polanski’s classic is it’s also not a movie for new or expectant parents.

We meet Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) on a beautiful and sunny morning as she wakes up in the home she shares with Him (Javier Bardem), a well-regarded poet who is currently suffering from a frustrating bout of writer’s block. The two of them lead a peaceful existence in a home which has been lovingly restored after suffering much damage, but this existence is soon interrupted by an unexpected visitor (played by Ed Harris), an orthopedic surgeon who Him welcomes into their home even though Mother is perturbed that he would welcome a complete stranger in ever so easily.

Things become even more complicated when the unexpected visitor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) comes by and becomes infatuated with knowing more about Mother and why she and her husband have no children of their own. Granted, this makes Lawrence’s character’s name of Mother hypocritical as she is not a mother at the movie’s start, but many surprises are in store for the characters and the audience as “mother!” takes a number of twists and turns you cannot see coming.

Revealing more about what happens would be detrimental as “mother!” is best viewed with little knowledge about it. Indeed, promoting this movie must have been a nightmare for Paramount Pictures as you can only say so much about it before you spoil everything. Then again, can you spoil this movie for others? Aronofsky has made something here which cannot be easily explained, but while this will baffle and infuriate many who sit through, it should enthrall those who are in the mood for something cinematically adventurous and a movie which forces you to think about what you just saw.

What I can tell you is things reach a frenzied fever pitch as “mother!” barrels towards a climax which comes close to equaling the frenzy of Ellen Burstyn being terrorized by her refrigerator in “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky has said he applied “dream-logic” to “mother!,” and it certainly helps to know this going in as events keeping going by at a rapid pace to where you can’t help but feel like you are in a nightmare or a dream you are desperate to control, but can’t. It’s like being a car when the brakes have failed you, and the emergency brake ultimately doesn’t work either. You just keep getting thrust into a hellish realm as Lawrence and Bardem become trapped in their once peaceful home as the woods it is located in offers no escape. In fact, it all reminded me of what Charlotte Gainsbourg said in “Antichrist” at one point, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Well, Satan looks to be having even more fun here.

There are said to be a lot of biblical allegories to be discovered here, but the only one I could see was the reference to Cain and Abel as two brothers fight one another bitterly over an inheritance which benefits one more than the other. I am already very eager to see “mother!” as seeing it once is not enough to uncover all which Aronofsky wants us to discover. Now that I have experience this motion picture on an emotionally visceral level, I want to experience in a different way even though Aronofsky has warned us not to analyze “mother!” too deeply.

Jennifer Lawrence remains as luminous an actress as ever, and she looks to be put through the emotional wringer here as her character descends into a realm of inescapable madness. It turns out she even got so into character on set to where she was constantly hyperventilating and even cracked a rib, so there’s no doubt about dedication to playing a role. At this point, I am convinced Lawrence can play any role given to her, and she has this ageless quality to her appearance which matches her up perfectly with actors who are several years older.

Lawrence also shares a number of almost gleefully unsettling scenes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress we don’t see near enough of these days. As these two circle each other like cats ready to hiss at one another while guarding their precious territory, we are reminded of how brilliant Pfeiffer can be when given material which piques her interest.

As for Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, these are two actors you can never ever go wrong with, and they infuse “mother!” with a passion for acting they have never lost sight of since the start of their careers. Bardem, in particular, gives his character a loving presence as well as an ominous one. The latter is especially the case in a scene where he stares down Lawrence, and it’s a stare which lasts for what feels like an eternity and brings back memories of his Oscar-winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” I kept waiting for him to explode as Bardem sits like a wild animal waiting to strike, and I was desperate for Lawrence not to let her guard down while in front of him.

Aronofsky continues to employ many of his regular colleagues to great effect like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but what’s surprising is this movie’s lack of a music score. Instead of employing his longtime composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky instead hired Johann Johannsson to come up with ominous musical themes. However, upon viewing an edit of “mother!,” they both agreed this movie didn’t need a score. It says a lot about “mother!” that it needs no music score to aid in the movie’s mission to generate almost unbearable tension. Few other filmmakers could get away with such a feat, but the intense sound design which, when viewed in the right theater, surrounds you to where you feel every bit as trapped as Lawrence is. As her predicament becomes more and more of a sonic assault, we feel her character’s agitation all too much.

In retrospect, I was tickled to death at the reactions the audience I saw “mother!” had. Several people laughed either out of derision or just plain nervousness as things went from a state of peacefulness to complete Armageddon, and others complained how this scene or another contained the only elements which made the least amount of sense to them. As I walked out of the theater, others said they couldn’t understand why people were laughing at certain moments. Many of my movie friends have said this movie is likely to end up on the lists of both the best and the worst films of 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. You will either love this motion picture, or you will hate it with a passion.

As for myself, I loved the visceral roller coaster ride “mother!” took me on. I never caught myself laughing much at what went on as I was completely gripped in Aronofsky’s vise as he continued to tighten the grip he had on me, and I was thrilled at the levels of “Requiem for a Dream” intensity he was able to generate with this one. Many will say he is simply out to torture his audience, but why can’t we have a torturous cinematic experience every once in a while, or at least one which is torturous in a good way? I show no hesitation in calling “mother!” one of the best movies I have seen so far in 2017 as it provided me with something incredibly unique in a time where the cinematic landscape is overfilled with superheroes.

Yes, the market research firm CinemaScore has given “mother!” an average grade of an F, a rare grade for movie to get from them. Then again, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Richard Kelly’s “The Box” also received the same grade, and those movies are much better than their reputations suggest. And keep in mind, this is the same firm which gave an A+ to Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely patriotic but poorly made, not to mention boring, documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” so there’s no accounting for taste.

Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun taking in an audience’s reaction to a motion picture since “The Human Centipede 2.” Of course, “mother!” is much, much better than that one. When the exclamation mark appears a couple of seconds after the title does and then sticks around once the title disappears, you should know you are in for something completely different.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Antichrist’ Shakes You Like Few Movies Can

Antichrist movie poster

This review was written in 2009.

It’s been over a week now since I saw the latest cinematic provocation from Danish film director Lars Von Trier. What I witnessed in “Antichrist” is still on my mind, and it took me a long time to process all I saw. I found myself talking to complete strangers about it as we each tried to interpret the movie on our own terms. Some found it too long which had me wondering if they ever saw Von Trier’s “Dogville” which was three hours long (“Antichrist” is only 109 minutes). Some just didn’t get the story. Either way you look at it, “Antichrist” is to 2009 what Michael Haneke’s remake of “Funny Games” was to 2008; an immensely polarizing film people will have passionate disagreements on. I found it to be a completely mesmerizing experience which had me transfixed throughout its entire length.

“Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in performances which don’t deserve Oscars as much as they do Purple Hearts. They play a married couple who are referred to as He and She, and the movie opens with them making love while their baby boy plays in his room. There is even a hardcore insertion added to the sex scene which may seem inappropriate to some, but it adds a raw carnality to a moment which makes it all the more immediate. Their lovemaking becomes equated with death as their son goes up to an open window, fascinated with the falling snowflakes, and ends up plummeting to his death. From there, “Antichrist” follows them as they cope with their son’s tragic death, but things get even worse. And just when you think they have hit rock bottom, things getting even worse than that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

It really helps to go into “Antichrist” with no expectations and an open mind because it will not be anything you predict it will be. So much attention has been paid to the unnervingly graphic moments to where you think Von Trier is trying to court fans of “Saw” and “Hostel.” But anyone expecting this will walk out of this movie horribly disappointed. “Antichrist” does not exist merely to shock viewers with copious amounts of blood and gore. Instead, Von Trier seeks to challenge the things you believe in, and he dares you to look beyond the darkness of our own human natures to get a glimpse of what he implies.

An ominous hum runs throughout this movie in the same way it runs through many of David Lynch’s films (“Lost Highway” and “Blue Velvet” among others). Dafoe’s character is a therapist, and his conflict of interest is clear from the start as he questions how his wife’s psychiatrist is treating her. The wife disagrees, telling him he shouldn’t get involved, but his love for her overrules everything else, including common sense. Almost immediately, he makes her flush her medication down the toilet, causing her a frightening amount of emotional upheaval. He then takes his wife to a cabin in the woods, which is ironically called “Eden” (it’s anything but). She finds this is the place which scares her the most, and he decides it will be the perfect place to try exposure therapy. By facing her greatest fears, he feels this will get her past the tragic loss of their son.

You would think Dafoe’s character has his wife’s best interests at heart, but the exposure therapy only exacerbates her grief and despair. We later discover her hold on reality is tenuous at best when He finds She has been working on a thesis regarding gynocide, which itself is a take on the word gendercide; referring to the systematic killings of a specific sex, in this case, women. He comes to see She has embraced the witchcraft of women and that they are seen as evil beings, something he quickly tries to disprove to her. But having made her emotional state even worse than it already is, He sees her grief has made her justify the punishment She inflicts on herself as She lets herself believe it is her fault their son died.

Von Trier has long been accused of rampant misogyny in his films, and yes, he does seem to put his actresses through an emotional wringer most of the time. But while “Antichrist” deals with misogynistic themes, it is not a misogynistic movie. I’m sure many will make a good that it is, but the film could also be interpreted as empowering in some respects. “Antichrist” does call into question how the female sex is viewed as nurturing and caring while the male sex is seen as stronger. But for the last half of the movie, even though She has gone completely mad, She seems to have all the power and proves to be anything but weak and helpless.

All of this led me to a big question when I walked out of the movie theater in my emotionally shaken state; who is the antichrist of the story? Many may see it as the Gainsbourg character in how She embraces the sexist teachings which She has been studying, and of how the stick figure in the movie’s title seems to look like a woman. But I felt this illustration was not gender specific in its design, so this makes it subject to interpretation. Neither character is of sound mind throughout the movie, and both deal with their soul-sucking grief in very unhealthy ways.

Nature itself is a huge character in this movie, and the majority of the action takes place there. The house which sits upon “Eden” is much like the one we have seen from the “Evil Dead” movies so you can see in advance how bad things will happen there. Maybe nature is the antichrist of because out there, the laws we live under don’t exist in the same way, and there is no order to be found in anything. “Antichrist” almost ends up being like “Deliverance” but without the demented hillbillies. No one is put in cages. This all leads to the moment where Dafoe encounters the fox who takes the time from disemboweling itself to utter the words which define the film, “Chaos reigns!”

This scene apparently led to much laughter in the audience at Cannes when “Antichrist” was shown there, but it is the most truthful and frightening of moments in the entire film. Whether or not you believe Gainsbourg’s character when She says “nature is Satan’s church,” it is clear the relationship between these two, let alone their state of minds, are descending into total chaos. Many movies show how nature can force us to discover the animalistic parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather not know about, and “Antichrist” is no exception.

I took some time to look at the definition of the word antichrist and what it really meant. According to Christianity, the antichrist is one who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ while resembling him in a deceptive manner. Clearly, someone of sin, he or she opposes against anything that is worshiped, claiming divine authority. Most notably, this person also works all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs. With this in mind, I can’t help but think Dafoe’s character is the antichrist of this movie, for he has taken his wife’s well-being into his hands thinking his experience trumps that of a younger doctor. He rails against all which is medically sound, and he subjects his wife to unnecessary torment despite his intent to help her. If he really thinks exposure therapy is the way to handle things, I wonder how it worked with his other patients who were not family related.

Much of what we see in “Antichrist” is open to interpretation. Von Trier has not gone out of his way to try and justify what he has shown us. There is a story at work here, but its meanings will be different for those who dare to see it. Watching this movie reminded me of when I was a student at UC Irvine and saw a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” It was a play which focused on a meeting between a male professor and one of his female students whom he gave a bad grade to. At the end of it, no one could decide who was more at fault. It frustrated many because the play seemed to be devoid of a straight answer, but this was the point. One made the play so great was how thought provoking it was. It made you think about what you just saw, and it expanded how you saw certain things and maybe gave you a deeper understanding of the world around you more than ever before.

“Antichrist” gave me this same kind of experience, and I can’t remember the last time I had one like it. Most movies today don’t challenge you out of fear of offending too many paying customers they depend on, so as emotionally draining as this film is, it still feels s like a victory something this artful actually got made. It is meant to shake you, and that it did to me. Many will hate the film, but for those filmgoers who are far more adventurous in what they watch, I think there is much they can appreciate.

Is there anything audiences can come to agreement on with “Antichrist”? Well, one thing’s sure; you cannot deny the astonishing beauty of the cinematography on display. The director of photography is Anthony Dod Mantle, the same cinematographer who shot “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening prologue stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of film I have ever seen. The juxtaposition of He and She making love while their son ends up falling from his bedroom window is as lovely as it is horrifically tragic. Mantle also gives us some incredible dreamlike shots which capture the beauty of nature while hinting at the inescapable darkness lingering beneath the surface. I somehow doubt that I will see more beautiful imagery in any other movie I see for the rest of 2009.

What else can we agree on about “Antichrist”? Ah yes, the performances! Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg rise up to the unthinkable challenges Von Trier lays at their feet. What they both do here almost seems criminal were they not such willing participants. Both actors are known for taking big risks, so this makes them well suited to take on material so emotionally naked.

Gainsbourg won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and she clearly deserved it. Ironically enough, she also appeared in a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and she played the title character in the 1996 version of “Jane Eyre.” Her opening intro from “The Cement Garden” was used in one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs, “What It Feels Like for A Girl.” Throughout her career, she has disappeared into her characters with an abandon you don’t find in many other actors. Her performance in “Antichrist” shows her at the peak of her powers, but I’m sure there is greater work we will see from her in the future.

But let us not leave out Dafoe who can add his role here to the many great ones he has played. His character is a witness to an unspeakable despair, and he does not hide the fact his character deals with this despair in ways which are selfish more than anything else. Dafoe’s career has spanned several decades, and it includes controversial movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Dafoe’s mission and intent as an actor has never been to simply get under your skin, but to explore the darker parts of humanity so we can better understand them. He is unhindered by the trappings of stardom and glamor, and he continues to take chances with movies like this one.

Von Trier may not be “the greatest director in the world” as he proclaims whenever given the opportunity, but he is certainly one of the best directors working today. Watching his movies, you can understand why there is actually a benefit to people booing his material. Were a film like this were not generating strong emotions such as booing, this film would have been a failure for him. Art, be it in film or in paintings, serves to challenge the things we believe in, and that is what Von Trier has done here.

“Antichrist” is a movie which takes its time in getting to where it’s going as opposed to going for a quick payoff like most movies do. If you can keep up with its slow pace, you will be in for a movie as mesmerizing as it is psychologically draining.  Many will it intensely, but I count myself as one of its defenders. For me, this is far and away one of the best movies of 2009. But like both sides, I will warn you this is not a movie for everybody. If you are easily offended or not in the mood for something deeply disturbing, then don’t see “Antichrist.”

* * * * out of * * * *