I must’ve been twelve or thirteen when I first saw Omen III: The Final Conflict. I watched it with my older brother (the same brother with whom I’d watched Kolchak: The Night Stalker when I was too young staying up too late on Friday nights) on a Sunday evening. We’d recently gotten cable TV, and my dad had sprung for subscriptions to both HBO and a local cable channel called Prism. I think it must have been a package deal to get both, because Dad wasn’t into movies very much. He liked baseball, and Prism broadcast all the Philadelphia Phillies games that the local TV stations didn’t or couldn’t due to blackouts.
We loved Prism, not least because, unlike HBO, it showed rated R movies during the day.
I can’t remember if I’d seen The Omen before watching Omen III. Probably not, but it didn’t matter at the time. The synopsis in the cable guide told us everything we needed to know: Adult Situations, Adult Language, Violence. (Horror, 108 mins.) I also can’t recall if my younger brother watched it with us or not. I hope not, because it had some pretty disturbing stuff for an adult, let alone a kid. Now that I’m the parent of a little boy, media management has become a concern.
The beginning of the film was brilliant: they wrote and filmed a commercial for Thorn Enterprises that Damien didn’t even like. He poked holes in it. It was a great way to show Damien’s intelligence, power, and amorality. The previous ambassador’s bizarre suicide was another great piece of moviemaking: how many people shoot themselves under the nose? I assume the effects guys measured the angle of the bullet to determine where it would go from the gun under the desk and said, “Well, it should go here.” Truly disgusting brain splatter. Very shocking.
Harvey Dean’s character had some depth. Rather than have him just ignorant of his boss’s true nature, he knows that Damien Thorn is the Antichrist. Consider the kind of person who knowingly works for the personification of evil. He’s conflicted about ordering the deaths of the potential Christ-child babies, but does it anyway. And when it comes time for him to pay the piper and have his own son killed, he refuses. It’s all too much for him. He wasn’t a sniggering caricature of an evil henchman, but a man who’d chosen the wrong side and paid for it with his life. And soul. There’s an unexpectedly poignant moment late in the film when his wife learns what he’s been doing and who his boss truly is. She confronts him, holding his own baby son, with a monstrous series of crimes. She’s broken and horrified and scared for her baby, and we feel for her.
There is still a part of the film that I can’t watch: the burned face of Dean’s baby when Damien uses the hell hound to implant horrible suggestions into Dean’s wife’s mind. It showed the true, unadulterated evil of Damien Thorn in a way the other scenes did not. His foiling of the monks’ plan to kill him was self-defense, but the baby-killing went way too far. The method of the baby’s death was no accident; Damien had quoted Genesis 22:2 when telling the shocked Harvey to kill his own son, saying, “Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you'[emphasis mine].”
The screaming monk swinging from the cable, swathed in burning plastic, was also disturbing. As a youngster, the sex scene seemed more brutal than in later viewings of the film. What was worse was that they killed the kid. They wrote that the monk, a good guy, should accidentally stab a child to death. Very brutal. The kid was doomed, an apostate of Hell, but still, how often do boys get murdered in movies?
Damien praying to his own father Lucifer and cursing Jesus Christ was an extraordinary soliloquy. It combined fury and loathing and even self-pity as he, the son of the Devil himself, describes the glory of suffering. This insight into true evil was riveting and imaginative, making you understand Damien, if not sympathize. Later, the juxtaposition of the monks’ exaltation at the star alignment heralding the rebirth of Christ with scenes of Damien in agony over the same event show us that in the end, Damien isn’t a man. He is a figure, a supernatural creature. A thing born of a jackal.
Note also that Damien only once or twice refers to Jesus Christ by His title: Christ. He speaks to and of Him often, but uses the term “Nazarene,” denying Him His kingship as the Messiah. In Damien’s mouth, Nazarene is a pejorative. It works.
As Jews, we knew that demonic and vampiric bad guys in the movies could be turned by crosses (Richard Benjamin showed how useless the Magen David was against vampires in Love at First Bite), but we didn’t feel left out. Judaism doesn’t have demons like Christianity, so things like the Antichrist and hell hounds were part of their mythology. We could be frightened by it in fictional representations, but at no point did any of us say, “Hey! That’s exclusionary! You’re not being inclusive!” It was a strength of the film that we were as caught up as much as any Gentile: after all, we’re talking about Armageddon here, and Jews will die at the end of the world, too. The weird crucifix in Damien’s secret chamber was disquieting because we knew it was meant to be profane, especially when we saw what he was doing with it. Thorn’s Herod-style killings of the babies born during the star alignment lacked any deeper meaning for us when we first saw it (I didn’t learn about Herod until later in life when I read the New Testament), but the end was cathartic. The good guys won, despite the terrible price. We could rejoice in the death of the Antichrist and the horrible Armageddon he represented with clear hearts.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how different the film is from today’s efforts. Even though the monks were bumbling and even foolish at times, they were the good guys. And they represented the return of Jesus Christ. No bones about it. No pedophile priests, no new chapters of the Bible revealed to show how evil the Catholic church is. Damien was the son of the Devil, and the priests, as incompetent as they were, fought to save the Christ child. The religious iconography was relevant and poignant, including the vision of Christ at the end. Even Jews could be moved.
The end was rushed, especially the last confrontation. It didn’t make sense. I’m not sure if some elements had been edited out for time constraints or if it was written that way in the beginning, but getting Damien to the place where he’d be killed should have been a lot more difficult than it was.
Despite its flaws, the 80’s hairstyles and terrible grating American accent Neill was obliged to adopt, The Final Conflict still holds up today. If you haven’t seen it in a while, give it a look.