I’m beginning to think this Satan character holds a grudge, you know? He tries to take over the world with his kid Damien in The Omen (1976)? A bust. Teenage Damien takes another run at it in Damien Omen II (1978) and survives, but daddy is nowhere to be seen. Deadbeat. So here we are with The Final Conflict (1981), Damien grown up and preparing the throne for pa, but this time, God’s got his own present to deliver. “When does the Devil get a break?” and other burning questions are answered in this low-key yet overall effective finale. (If only temporary.)
Released by 20th Century Fox in North America in late March, The Final Conflict rolled out to the rest of the world shortly thereafter, and made its money back despite less than glowing reviews. And while some of the complaints are valid -- it doesn’t really have that ghoulish Omen vibe -- it’s well made, acted, and with a star-making turn from Sam Neill as Damien, it closes out the trilogy in a satisfactory enough way that I simply have to recommend it. Let’s just say the devil made me do it, okay?
Things are moving fast and lining up for both forces of Good and Evil, as they await the return of Jesus and his long-in-development Second Coming. A new constellation appears in the sky in the form of the Star of Bethlehem, so the holy rollers are ready, since they bought the Seven Daggers of Megiddo at auction; Damien and his assistant/satanic sidekick Harvey Dean are off to London to take over his earth dad’s old position as Ambassador to Great Britain. It would seem the previous ambassador was let go from the job rather abruptly, as these things tend to go in the Thornverse.
Once settled in London, Damien befriends Kate Reynolds, a successful TV broadcaster and single mom to 12-year-old boy Peter, who seems to be dealing with some abandonment issues of his own. While Damien tries to woo both Kate and Peter, the cabal of monks with the knives (is it a cabal? Chrysalis? Send a SASE to the above address with the answer) have descended on London in an attempt to snuff out Damien before he can kill the newborn Nazarene and pave the way for papa. Who will win in the Apocalypse Sweepstakes?
At this point, one would normally say the audience won, but The Final Conflict elicited more shoulder shrugs than rapture at the time, and its merits (or lack thereof) is still a topic of discussion.
It’s really as simple as this: people were very let down by the ending, expecting a special effects bonanza as Jesus and Satan duke it out. But it doesn’t go down that way, and frankly I’m glad; no attempt was made by director Graham Baker (Alien Nation) and screenwriter Andrew Birkin (The Name of the Rose) to ‘go big’, because it could never measure up to what people had conjured in their minds.
So instead, they go small. T.S. Eliot said, “the world will end not with a bang, but a whimper”, and that could be this film’s motto; it’s actually refreshing to see a horror film from 1981 that shows some restraint. But don’t worry, it’s just as far-fetched and reaching as any other installment; Biblical passages massaged and interpreted to fit the narrative is the norm around these parts and The Final Conflict carries on the proud tradition.
It also tampers the emphasis on ‘creative deaths’, a staple of the series thus far, and somewhat lacking in terms of surprises, although there are a few grisly moments along the way. It’s almost like the film is looking for a dignified way to end the series. Because that’s exactly what films about the Antichrist should be: subtle.
But even with their best efforts, The Final Conflict will not sit still for logic or leaps thereof, which is what I dig about it; the premise alone -- kill Damien before he kills the Nazarene -- is off-the-rafters nutty, but we just go along as if this is a normal idea for a movie. It most assuredly is not.
Apart from the muted theatrics, it’s a two-person show. And no, I don’t mean Damien and Kate; that whole subplot seems extraneous with everything going on, but it is necessary so that Damien can form a relationship with Peter. But he’s not the other person either; Peter is practically a cipher through the whole film, there to move the plot. No, the two people I’m referring to are Damien and Harvey Dean, played with an oily confidence by Don Gordon (The Exorcist III); they have the most scenes together, and Harvey is the most fleshed out of the other characters, with the exception of DeCarlo, the head holy guy played with earnest solemnity by Rossano Brazzi (The Barefoot Contessa). They can more than hold their own against the Son of Satan.
And that can’t be easy to do when your Antichrist is assayed by a young and hungry Sam Neill; he made arthouse horror the same year with Possession - this is by far the more restrained film, and Neill adjusts accordingly. It’s a great performance; very subtle and very much in keeping with the chilled air of Jonathan Scott-Taylor’s portrayal of teenage Damien.
There was one more Omen, a TV film called Omen IV: The Awakening (1991) that tried to continue with the prophecies and such, but people had moved on. (Too bad; it’s good, silly fun.) Oh well. Better to think of the saga complete with the obliteration of Damien at the end of The Final Conflict. Oops, did I give away the ending? Aren’t I the naughty little devil.
The Final Conflict is available on Blu-ray as part of The Omen Collection from Scream Factory.Next: Class of 1981: Celebrating 40 Years of Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE