Forty years ago, an excellent movie came out called The Omen, written by David Seltzer (who also wrote a novel based on the script, which wasn’t quite so excellent). In it Gregory Peck played an American diplomat, Robert Thorn, whose wife was desperate for a child; after his own son was apparently a stillbirth, he agreed to “adopt” an orphan child. But this wasn’t an ordinary child: this was the child of a jackal, and the son of Satan. Many religious figures tried to bring this to Thorn’s attention; they perished in various unfortunate ways. Eventually – after a number of other deaths – Robert Thorn, now ambassador to the UK, accepted the truth, dragging his screaming son into a church and was shot as he tried to use a holy dagger to kill Damien. Damien had been protected his whole life, by both human and canine forces… and at the end of that film, it seemed that he would go ahead to fulfil his destiny.
That was the starting point for a number of different sequels. (If you thought The Terminator was complicated, this one has even more mutually contradictory versions.) A second movie, Damien: Omen II, came out in 1978. Damien entered puberty and discovered the truth about his identity; his uncle, his cousin and a number of others died along the way. (The movie came out in 1978, and Damien was now 14, which meant that he was born in 1964, rather than the 1971 of the original) A third film (subtitled The Final Conflict) arrived four years later, but our, er, hero was now in his 30s. And he was apparently killed. The Final Conflict had some serious issues, ignoring a lot of the continuity set up in the first two films – let alone Damien’s age – so two further novels followed in the mid-1980s (Omen IV and Omen V) which carried on the “kill off anyone who gets too close” tradition of the movies, and, eventually, they too knocked off Damien. Properly. Using all the daggers from Megiddo. RIP Damien Thorn, 1950-2000. (Or was it 2001 in the end?)
Two other versions appeared in the years following – there was a made for TV movie in 1991 (Omen IV: The Awakening), which gave us a resurrected Damien in female form; and there was a rather pointless remake of the original in 2006 (possibly greenlit purely because someone looked at the 666 motif that runs through the series, and thought that putting a film out on 6th June 2006 was too good an opportunity to miss.) These can comfortably be forgotten – although to be fair, the Marco Beltrami score to the latter is a decent reinterpretation of the idea.
That leads us to the new Damien, A&E’s show. Which is a sequel to the original film – as witnessed by the fact that flashbacks are of footage from said movie. Damien Thorn, orphaned age 5, is now 30 (as opposed to the 45 he should really be!) and has had none of the awakenings of his demonic self that occurred in other variants of the series. This is a masterstroke, because it ties the new show purely into the best of its predecessors, and avoids any of the accretions that occurred over the years (although the references to Bugenhagen’s death are nicely ambiguous – that was actually depicted at the start of the second film). Erstwhile King Arthur Bradley James adopts an American accent and plays the new Damien, plagued by some memories of his childhood, and pushing people away because of the legacy he somehow feels, even if he doesn’t know exactly what it is he’s frightened of. The first episode kicks off with him making demands of a statue of a crucified Christ, then goes back a few days to show how he’s gone from a confident photojournalist to the figure we meet in the church.
And showrunner and devisor Glen Mazzara has come up with a great idea to explain why nothing’s really happened between The Omen and now – in the same way that Christ was a mortal man until he was baptised by John in the river Jordan, so Damien (the Anti-Christ) doesn’t become himself until he receives a different sort of baptism in the ruins of Damascus. Once he does, the floodgates of his memory start to open, and we get flashbacks to Gregory Peck and co. back in the day – including the attempt on Damien’s life referred to earlier. Composer Bear McCreary gradually includes musical themes from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, and as events start to get darker, so the Ave Satanis theme becomes more prevalent.
It’s not just the music that harkens back to the movie. Damien was protected by large dogs… and they (or their doggy descendants at least) have returned to deal with anyone who gets in the way, such as religious scholar Bugenhagen’s assistant who is offed in a very well-shot sequence. The “accidents” that kill those in Damien’s way are also back – after a nice shout-out to David Warner’s doomed photographer in the first film, we start to see doors open by themselves, slurry run where it shouldn’t and other such “happenstances”. True, nowadays you’re likely to think more of the Final Destination movies than The Omen when you see this, but it’s the 1976 movie in which this was done at its best. (British viewers will note that a similar trope is being used, albeit nowhere near as effectively, in the current Sky 1 series Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.)
Watching these scenes made me realise just how well Mazzara and his team have understood what made The Omen work so well – and why the formula has been revisited so many times and not always recaptured that essence. James’ Damien is credible as the older version of Harvey Stephens in the first film, and while this episode for obvious reasons has to hit some of the same benchmarks as the second movie in terms of Damien’s awakening, they’re done in a way that is appropriate for the older Damien – and set up other mysteries along the way. James is suitably haunted by what he’s learning – but, as we’ve seen in other roles, he can portray the inner steel of a character, even when the character himself doesn’t realise what he’s doing.
Whether such a faithful recapitulation of the tropes of the series will find an audience forty years after the original is hard to tell, but for those of us who have enjoyed the development of Damien Thorn over the years, this opener is a great start to the series, and I look forward to seeing how the momentum can be maintained across a season.
Verdict: The Omen finally comes to television in a well-produced homage to the original that has the potential (and the luxury of time) to develop Damien Thorn into a credible character. 8/10