A&E’s Damien, the rebooted sequel to Richard Donner’s The Omen, is not a perfect show. Its first season is flawed (like most first seasons these days), but there’s something the show is getting so incredibly right that it deserve attention: it’s treating horror as a genre for adults. In an age where the campy ridiculousness of American Horror Story is touted as a high watermark for the genre, Damien is attempting to tell a story full of intrigue, genuine inner conflict, and moral complexity. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s one that used to be more commonplace in mainstream horror entertainment.
The 1970s were a golden age for horror. Just look at some of the movies that came out in that era: The Exorcist, Jaws, Alien, Dawn of the Dead, Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. These were films that didn’t dumb themselves down for a wide audience or go for easy scares. They are well-crafted films regardless of their attachment to the horror genre. And in the middle of the decade, there was The Omen.
Instead of telling the tale of the Antichrist with apocalyptic pomp and circumstance, The Omen took its Biblical source material and crafted something that felt chillingly plausible. The story of U.S. ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) discovering a conspiracy involving his young son Damien (a cherubic Harvey Stephens) doesn’t chug along like some Roger Corman drive-in cheapie. There is a precision to how the mystery unfolds that requires an adult’s level of patience and comprehension. There’s also a great deal of time devoted to building up Robert and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) as fully formed characters instead of simply relegating them to eventual victims. Though the film would be remembered for its elaborate accidental deaths — providing enormous inspiration for the Final Destination series decades later — it’s this attention to plot and character that made The Omen withstand the test of time and become a classic.
The series delved more into its fantastical elements in the sequel (there are killer crows in this one!), but still managed to ground the film with what may be the best dramatic drive of the entire story: a teenage Damien finally discovers who he is and has to decide whether or not to accept his role as the Antichrist. Jonathan Scott-Taylor does wonders as Damien, giving a solid performance that would be difficult for any young actor. While the elaborate deaths are still present and more elaborate than ever, it’s this character drama that gives the film the same weight and class as the original.
By the third film (given the bizarrely unsuspecting title of The Final Conflict, but later re-branded as Omen III), the series evolved into something that’s nearly devoid of outright horror. Damien has grown up (and is now played by Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill, who is a delight) and is close to fulfilling his dark destiny. Unfortunately, an astrological event signals the rebirth of the Messiah and Damien must “liquidate the Nazarene” before Damien’s power permanently wanes. It’s dark and challenging stuff, including a montage of Damien’s followers murdering infants without a shred of remorse. By today’s standards, The Final Conflict might feel stodgy and quaint with its world politics and methodical plotting, but it shows that horror films didn’t always have to play to the date night crowd.
Which brings us to Damien. The television show has decided to only acknowledge the first film — though some retconning was necessary to update the timeline of events — and cast Damien as a thirty year-old war photographer who is only now learning of his heritage and purpose. The first scene of the series has Damien bursting into a church and confronting a statue of a crucified Jesus, demanding to know what he wants from Damien. It’s this unfathomable personal turmoil that allows Damien the opportunity to rise above other contemporary horror television shows and continue the legacy that its forebears cemented. Sure, it’s fun to see what kind of gruesome deaths we’ll get week after week, but it’s the struggle and the sincere approach to the material that matters more. If Damien can focus on that, then it will be more than worthy of its namesake.