In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

The Final Conflict (1981)

The original 1981 poster art for The Final Conflict

The Final Conflict (1981) is more often called Omen III: The Final Conflict these days, but that’s not what it was called when it was first released. It is indeed the second sequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 masterpiece, The Omen; but it wouldn’t be re-christened Omen III until it was re-released on DVD in time for Halloween 2000. If you watch the film itself (and if you look at all the posters and the original VHS covers from the 1980s), it’s simply called The Final Conflict. I’ve always preferred to identify this film by that original title (just as I prefer to call the first Star Wars film by its original two-word title, rather than the retroactive Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). So there will be none of that Omen III nonsense in this review. You might also think it’s strange that I’ve chosen to review a sequel to The Omen without reviewing the original film first (or its first sequel, Damien: Omen II). While I do enjoy the original Omen trilogy in its entirety, The Final Conflict is the one chapter of this trilogy that’s made the largest impression on me.

For those of you who’ve never seen The Omen, it’s about a powerful U.S. politician named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who learns that his child has died while his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) was giving birth. A Catholic priest convinces Thorn to adopt an orphan who was born at the same time at the same hospital. Robert agrees, and the Thorns leave with their newborn baby boy (with Katherine none the wiser). But as little Damien gets bigger, weird shit starts to happen. One of his nannies hangs herself in front of his entire birthday party; a new, creepy nanny shows up to take the old one’s place; a crazy priest stalks and harasses Robert; a big black dog starts hanging around the Thorn household; a photographer (David Warner) captures prophetic photos of people’s deaths; and poor Katherine becomes terrified of Damien. All of which leads Robert to visit Rome, a monastery in Subiaco, and an archaeological dig in the valley of Megiddo, where he learns that Damien is the son of Satan. Furthermore, the little monster can only be killed by stabbing him with these mystical artifacts known as the Seven Daggers of Meggido.

Naturally, Robert only succeeds in getting himself killed during his attempt at preventing the apocalypse (spoilers!), and Damien is then adopted by his uncle Richard (William Holden) in Damien: Omen II (1978). Now an adolescent, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) remembers nothing of what happened to him or his parents in the first film. He’s also best friends with his cousin Mark, who’s more like a brother to him. Damien and Mark both attend military school, where their drill sergeant (Lance Henriksen) starts teaching Damien about his true identity. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter tries to convince Uncle Richard of the truth, and this leads to a bunch of over-the-top gorefests that are clearly designed to top the legendary decapitation scene in the preceding movie. Eventually, Damien grows into his destined role and wipes out all that remains of his family tree so that he can be the sole inheritor of the Thorn family fortune.

The Omen is a horror film that’s absolutely perfect from start to finish, and which is every bit as scary as people say it is. The script wastes no time getting down to business, and the performances are all Oscar-worthy. However, it’s also my least favorite film in the trilogy, for while it is indeed a film about the Great Beast, he’s only a peripheral character in the story; he says and does very little, and he has no character arc to speak of. Granted, this is exactly what makes the film so scary; Damien remains completely alien to both his parents and the audience right to the very end, and it’s always easier to be frightened of something when it’s part of the unknown. But I find Damien: Omen II much more interesting, because it’s the first film ever made that actually puts us inside the Beast’s head. When Damien starts to realize he’s the Beast, he’s just as horrified as everyone else is; but the most powerful moment is when cousin Mark gets wise and confronts Damien about his true identity. Mark threatens to tell everyone, and Damien begs him not to; but when it becomes clear that Mark doesn’t care about his safety anymore, Damien does the only thing he can do. He uses his powers to give Mark a brain aneurysm, the kid drops dead, and then Damien screams the most convincing scream of despair I’ve ever heard from any character in any movie ever. I’m telling you, that scene always makes me weep a little whenever I see it, because that Jonathan Scott-Taylor kid really sells it. Damien: Omen II is extremely derivative of the first movie, but it deserves credit for one thing at least: the Damien character is very smartly written.

A baby-faced Sam Neill as “Damien Thorn”

Well now that we’re done with the previews, let’s get to the main attraction. In The Final Conflict, Damien Thorn (Sam Neill, ladies and gentlemen, SAM FUCKING NEILL) is now an adult in his thirties. He’s the owner of Thorn Industries, a multi-billion dollar company that has revolutionized the food industry, and which is on the verge of solving the world hunger crisis forever. Damien is also the U.S. President’s first choice for Ambassador to Great Britain (after the current guy gets possessed by a black dog and blows his brains out in front of a press conference, that is). You see, Damien’s hot for Great Britain because he has this entirely fictitious apocryphal text called the Book of Hebron, which prophesizes that Jesus will be reincarnated in Jolly Old England any day now. (Maybe they didn’t have the budget to do a Second Coming?) After he sets up shop across the pond, Damien falls for a news reporter named Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow); then these Catholic monks at a monastery in Subiaco, Italy find the Seven Daggers of Meggido and decide they’re going to stomp Damien themselves. This leads to a series of hilariously terrible assassination attempts that will give you a radically different impression of the Catholic Church than what you’ll get from watching, say, The Da Vinci Code (2006). Meanwhile, Jesus is born again somewhere (did you see what I just did there?), but nobody knows where. Lucky for him, Damien knows the birth coincided with a weird astronomical convergence that occurred a few nights ago, so he sends his worshipers out to murder every male baby that was born within that time frame. Then Kate Reynolds finds out what the rest of us already know (i.e., that Damien is the Great Beast, and that her son Peter has become one of his goons), and the Final Conflict truly begins.

Oh my fucking GOD, this movie is awesome! It has everything I could possibly want: a fine British vixen, some murderous monks, a couple of fake prophecies, a bunch of infanticide, and an entire secret police force made up of militant Satanists! It doesn’t get much better than that…except that it does! The number one attraction in this film, and the most important reason for anyone to see it, is Sam Neill; he’s literally the greatest Great Beast I’ve ever seen in any film ever! Forget about Michael York, Nick Mancuso, Gordon Currie, or anyone else who’s ever played the Beast in those movies they show on the Trinity Broadcast Network; Sam Neill’s performance here is the standard. Rather than playing Damien like some two-dimensional cartoon villain, he plays him like he’s the goddamn hero! In fact, he brings so much charisma to the role that he succeeds in making Damien extremely likeable, even when he’s ordering hundreds of newborns to their deaths! Everyone I know who’s ever seen The Final Conflict ends up rooting for Damien somehow (even though they know they’re not supposed to), and they can’t help but feel disappointed with the ending. (More on that in a minute.) The only other performance that’s comparable to this is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). If there truly is a Great Beast, and if he ever does try to take over the world, we’d all better pray that he isn’t just like Sam Neill in this movie; if he is, we’re all going to want him to take over the world.

Lisa Harrow as “Kate Reynolds”

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. There’s one scene where Damien and Kate are walking through a park in England, and one of the monks from Subiaco is preaching about the Second Coming and all that jazz. As they walk by, Damien notices that the monk is staring right at him, and he becomes visibly agitated. He immediately realizes that this guy is here to kill him, and that there are probably other assassins in the area. So Damien starts surveying the area like a hawk – all without breathing a word of his concerns to Kate – and he actually looks kind of worried. Is he worried for himself, or is he worried about Kate possibly getting hurt if there’s an ambush? Then there’s another scene where Damien’s going to work right after the Christ child has been born. He’s been up all night because he could sense the birth happening, and Kate catches him at the elevator, asking if it’s okay for her to try interviewing him again. (Her last attempt was foiled by another would-be assassin.) Damien smiles and agrees, and she leaves; then he gets in the elevator, sighs, and slumps his shoulders. I’d like to remind you that this character is supposed to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch with a vast array of supernatural powers; and yet Neill sneaks in all of these brief human touches – a look of genuine concern, a tired sigh – and actually makes us care about the bastard…

I really hate to blow the ending of this film for anyone who hasn’t seen it (and who actually cares), but trust me; you probably want to know about the ending before you see it. For some reason, I got it into my head that this movie was going to end with a big showdown between Damien and Jesus; surely, that would be the “Final Conflict” everyone was expecting, right? I knew things wouldn’t end well for the Beast, but I figured there would at least be some kind of special effects extravaganza. No such luck; the movie ends with Damien being led into a trap by Kate and the last surviving monk, and she stabs him in the back with one of those nifty Meggido daggers. Then Damien limps away, has a vision of Jesus, says, “Nazarene, you have won nothing!” and promptly dies. Cue music, roll credits. When I first saw this, I was pissed. The film had done an excellent job of keeping me at the edge of my seat for the first 90 minutes or so; but it starts running out of steam real fast during the final 20, and that ending just didn’t seem fair. They went through all that hard work of building up this magnificent character and this huge final battle he’s going to have, and what do they give us? Sam Neill getting stabbed in the back (literally) by the woman he loves. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? I totally wanted to see Damien and Jesus go “Hell in a Cell” on that shit!

But you know what? I’ve watched The Final Conflict countless times since that initial viewing in 1999, and I think I’ve figured out what they were really going for with that ending. Let’s consider that this film was not made by evangelical Christians with a religious axe to grind, who surely would have insisted on keeping things as close to their scriptures as possible. Let’s also consider the fact that none of the avowed Christian men in this movie can stop Damien; hell, not even Jesus Christ Himself can stop him! The only character who actually poses a real, substantial threat to the Great Beast is (1) a woman, (2) a skeptic, (3) a feminist, and (4) a single mother. In other words, she is precisely the sort of person whom conservative Christianity has always sought to disempower. The real “Final Conflict” here is not between Christ and Satan at all; it’s between religious violence (perpetuated both by both Christians and Satanists) and a secularist who just wants the violence to stop. Note that while Kate scoffs at Christianity at various points in the film, she nevertheless respects its right to exist; and while she eventually sends Damien back to hell, it’s clear she would much rather work things out and share a life with him somehow. Furthermore, Kate is the only character in the film who commits an act of violence for purely personal reasons. The monks want to kill Damien simply because he’s the Beast, and Damien wants to kill the Christ child simply because he’s Jesus; both sides are motivated by ideological rather than personal concerns. When Kate stabs Damien, though, it’s because he’s just murdered her son, who’s the only loved one she has left by that point. (Actually, Peter is accidentally killed by the last surviving monk when Damien uses the boy as a human shield; the child is literally caught between the agendas of two religious fanatics.) With all of this in mind, I now think this climax is far more daring than I originally thought.

“What’s that over there?” “It’s a Pagan movie reviewer! Run!!”

To prove that it wasn’t just a matter of writing oneself into a corner, the film is littered with hints of how it will end. In one scene, one of Damien’s “Disciples of the Watch” advises him to stay away from Kate. “I decide who’s dangerous and who isn’t!” Damien shouts angrily, betraying the fact that he feels insecure about her himself. Later, Kate falls into a river and almost drowns at Damien’s house; he hesitates before rescuing her (as if he senses that he shouldn’t), but his concern for her overpowers him. As Kate dries herself by the fire back in the house, she tells Damien that she feels like a moth who’s flown too close to the flame; she knows it’s extremely dangerous for her to be so close to him, but she can’t stay away. Damien’s response to her in this scene is perhaps the most beautifully-delivered line in the entire film: “Yes…but who is the moth, and who is the flame?” Finally, when Kate stabs Damien at the end with the Megiddo blade, he smiles to himself ever so subtly, as if he’s always known that she would be his undoing. Clearly, Kate Reynolds was meant to be the savior of humanity in this film from its very conception. And in casting her as such, The Final Conflict offers its audience a most unexpected soteriology.

“[Damien] is the human son of Satan, fully committed to his Father. But just as Mary Magdalene represented temptation to Jesus, so Kate represents temptation to Damien. She arouses human feelings within him that could so easily lead him astray from his insidious mission, his inglorious destiny.”

– Sam Neill in an 1981 interview upon the film’s release

The devil is a liar! Go with the Goddess, boy!

Some might view this film as an argument against all religion in general; I certainly can’t fault them for seeing it that way. But as a Pagan and a polytheist, I also can’t help but see it a little differently. It seems important to me that the hero is a woman – an independent, powerful and successful woman at that. She isn’t owned or controlled by Damien, Jesus, or any of the other males in the film. She does come awful close to losing herself in Damien, especially when she spends a dark night of the soul in his mansion. But she rises again from that proverbial pit, stronger than before, and equipped with the power to send her lover back to the Underworld. And when push comes to shove, she becomes a wrathful lioness, ready to destroy. Is any of this starting to sound familiar yet? By Gods, it should; for Kate Reynolds basically undergoes the Descent of Ishtar when all is said and done. For her, Damien is like a really nasty corruption of Tammuz, a version that’s gone utterly insane. For Duat’s sake, all of his power and wealth are tied to the food industry, just as Tammuz is the God of food and vegetation! From where I’m sitting at least, it’s possible to read The Final Conflict as a story about three different Powers colliding with each other, not just two. Two male Powers are fucking the human race over by waging an increasingly futile holy war with each other; but then, unnoticed, the Goddess sneaks in and chooses a powerful witch to show us another way. Naturally, the filmmakers try to give Jesus all the credit at the very last minute by slapping a Bible quote on the screen just before the end titles roll; but as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t the Lion of Judah who snuffs the Great Beast here. It’s the Lion of Babylon!

Granted, The Final Conflict does suffer from a few flaws that prevent it from matching The Omen in its perfection. While it mostly succeeds at being a self-contained film that viewers can understand and enjoy without seeing the first two movies, it does fall into the “Let’s Just Copy the First One” trap in certain ways. For example, why are we still wasting time with lone individuals getting slaughtered in isolated places? Why isn’t Damien the President already when the film begins, sending troops to invade the Middle East and start World War III? They missed an opportunity to enlarge both the scale and the stakes of the story here, and by restricting all the action to Great Britain, they don’t really do justice to the premise. The closest they get to doing so is with the baby-killing conspiracy sequence, which admittedly is one of the single most chilling things I’ve ever seen in any horror film. The murders themselves are never shown onscreen, but are only suggested through quick cuts, sound effects, musical cues, and horrified reactions from the actors. This is a perfect example of how the power of suggestion can leave a much deeper impression on the mind than actually seeing a screen full of gore. It also helps keep the violence as tasteful as possible (which is no small feat, considering the subject matter) while also making it more disturbing to sit through. If you think all those silly jump scares in The Conjuring (2013) are scary, try watching the scene where one of Damien’s disciples – a priest in the Anglican Church, no less – gives one of the newborn babies his own version of a “baptismal rite.” It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

I might also mention that this film contains one of the greatest music scores of all time. It’s composed by Jerry Goldsmith, whom you might recognize as the composer for the first two Omen films, as well as Alien (1979), Gremlins (1984), The Mummy (1999), Planet of the Apes (1968), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). By and far, The Final Conflict boasts some of his very best work ever. Rather than simply recycle the same themes he composed for the earlier movies, Goldsmith helps to establish The Final Conflict as its own unique story by giving it a completely original set of themes. Just listen to this:

As you can probably imagine, this soundtrack is played quite often at LV-426 Sabbath meetings.

While the original Omen movie is technically the best of the lot, I enjoy The Final Conflict most. Sam Neill should have gotten an Oscar for this role, and the rest of the cast proves that they’re more than capable of supporting him (especially Lisa Harrow). The script could have used some extra work, but the direction is quite excellent, the photography is simply beautiful, and the music will burn itself into your brain permanently. Most of all, The Final Conflict gives me a shit ton of awesome things to think about! Yeah, I know I’m a weirdo; but this movie really does give me a strong Ishtar vibe. There’s much more to that than I’ve said here, but I’m afraid explaining it will require writing several more paragraphs. I’ll save that for another day.

Some really cool promotional art for the film on Blu-Ray

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One response to “The Final Conflict (1981)

  1. Hop March 2, 2017 at 1:35 am

    This is awesome, man. I instantly became a fan of TFC when I was a kid because I was a huge Goldsmith fan and also a fan of the excellent photography. But I like you’re take on this, parts of which I hadn’t considered before, particularly: “The only character who actually poses a real, substantial threat to the Great Beast is (1) a woman, (2) a skeptic, (3) a feminist, and (4) a single mother. In other words, she is precisely the sort of person whom conservative Christianity has always sought to disempower.” Love it.

    Like

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