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 * * * *

Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein Look Back at Making ‘Near Dark’

It was a huge shock to learn Bill Paxton just passed away at the age of 61 due to complications following heart surgery. He was an actor who was always working and never seemed to be lacking for jobs in front of or behind the camera. His sudden passing sent shock waves through Hollywood and movie fans everywhere, and we are all mourning the actor who was unforgettable in “Aliens,” “Apollo 13,” and the HBO series “Big Love.” The following article is one I wrote after I attended a screening of vampire movie he was gleefully fantastic in, “Near Dark.”

near-dark-movie-poster

Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein stopped by New Beverly Cinema on Thursday, May 6, 2010, to introduce a screening of “Near Dark.” The cult classic was a vampire western horror hybrid made back in 1987 by Kathryn Bigelow, and it was being shown as a double feature with her Oscar-winning triumph, “The Hurt Locker.” It was not a sold-out screening, but this ended up making it all the more intimate for those who showed up. Paxton looked especially happy to be there as he was astonished there was actually a print of this movie still in existence.

When Paxton and Goldstein made “Near Dark,” they were just coming off of James Cameron’s “Aliens.” Paxton played Hudson, the soldier who thought he was so bad ass, and later turned into perhaps the single most annoying coward in cinematic history. Goldstein played Private Jenette Vasquez, one of the fiercest soldiers you could ever hope to meet and who, unlike Hudson, remained just as fierce when things got worse. Bigelow, who would later marry and divorce Cameron, called him to ask if it was okay to use some of his “Aliens” actors for “Near Dark.” Clearly, he said yes, so Paxton and Goldstein, along with Lance Henriksen, got parts in Bigelow’s movie. Paxton even said in one scene from “Near Dark,” the man who ends up sticking his hand out the car and giving him the finger was Cameron himself.

Having gone through what Paxton described as the “baptism of fire” with Cameron on “Aliens,” he, Goldstein and Henriksen formed a strong family unit as a result which made the making of “Near Dark” feel like a homecoming. When someone asked what the difference was in directing styles between Cameron and Bigelow, Paxton said bluntly, “No one else is like Cameron.”

 As for Bigelow, Paxton described her as the prettiest director he has ever worked with. According to him, she absolutely loves actors and encouraged them to come up with stuff for their characters throughout the shoot. Goldstein went on to talk about how the actors did an improvisation on how they would block out the sun in the car while driving around town in broad daylight. They came up with the idea of putting aluminum foil on the windows which blocked out the rays that would have immediately broiled their fragile skin and reflected them away so they could live on to do what they did best, suck the blood out of clueless human beings. The way Paxton saw it, most of “Near Dark” was improvised, and he said it was great to work with a director who was so excited to work with actors.

In regards to Henriksen, Paxton described him as “a guy you could never really read.” Back then, Henriksen had these intense finger nails which he had to cut off as Paxton described it, and Paxton even went on to talk about the time he and Henriksen were driving down the highway and got pulled over by the police. As the police officer was getting out of his patrol car, Paxton said Henriksen looked at him and said, “Should we take this guy out?”

Actually, that led to Paxton telling a story which Henriksen just loves to tell about “Near Dark.” During the times they were shooting at night, Paxton, who was made up in his gory vampire makeup as though half his face was chopped off, kept going up to people driving through town, telling them he had just been in a horrible car accident. This little prank always ended with Henriksen saying, “If you think he looks bad, you should see the other guy!”

Paxton said he saw “Near Dark” as a “Bonnie & Clyde” vampire movie. Tangerine Dream composed the movie’s score which is fantastic, and the movie is filled with other memorable musical selections. There was a great cover of “Fever” by The Cramps which was used in the pivotal bar scene where everything gets turned into a bloodbath. But Paxton said his favorite piece of music used was “Naughty, Naughty” by John Parr as it really sets the scene for when the vampires end up depriving a saloon in the middle of nowhere of its customers and employees. Apparently, Bigelow ended up paying for the rights to the song out of her own pocket.

One audience member asked Paxton and Goldstein if they had any Tim Thomerson stories to tell us. Thomerson played Caleb’s father in “Near Dark,” but he is best known for portraying Jack Deth in “Trancers” and its numerous sequels. Both actors said they had many great stories about Thomerson to tell us but basically summed him up as a great guy to hang out with who did so many great impersonations, his best being of John Wayne forcing himself on Walter Brennan.

In regards to character, Paxton saw his character of Severen as a Billy the Kid kind of vampire, wild and reckless in how he conducted business. He also said “Near Dark” owes a great debt to Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles which includes the books “Interview with A Vampire” and “Queen of The Damned.” To get into character, Paxton said he read Rice’s books throughout the shoot.

Goldstein said she saw her character of Diamondback as someone out of the Depression era or “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” someone who got by and survived any which way she could. She was perfectly cast in the role as very few actresses back then were allowed to play tough female characters who didn’t need a man to defend them at all.

Another audience member told Paxton he was a big fan of “Frailty,” his directorial debut from a few years back, and wanted to know if he was planning to direct again. Looking back on “Frailty,” Paxton said he had a great experience making it and would love to direct again if he can ever get out of “this damn show” he’s on (you may have heard of it – “Big Love” on HBO). Currently, he is looking over a few projects he is interested in helming and hopes to work behind the camera again really soon.

It was great to see Paxton and Goldstein come out and speak with the fans. Surprisingly, a large portion of the audience had never seen “Near Dark” before, so neither of them wanted to keep the audience waiting too long to see it on the big screen. “Near Dark” may not have been a big hit when first released, but it has more than earned its cult following especially in light of Bigelow’s deserved Oscar win, something which was a long time coming.

Actually, my favorite moment of the evening happened as Paxton and Goldstein were on their way out of the theater when an audience member brought up the subject of another HBO show, to which Bill replied, “Fuck ‘True Blood!’ We were doing this 20 years ago!”

This remark left us all in utter hysterics.

RIP Bill Paxton.