Welcome to Second Chances, a recurring feature which gives widely underloved and notoriously maligned genre works another opportunity to impress and redeem themselves with a reviewer who initially found them severely lacking. Maybe these follow-up looks will result in a kinder re-evaluation…or maybe not. Will dull misfires shine brighter after years of distance and nostalgia? Will initially infuriating films somehow reveal their hidden genius?
For this inaugural outing of Second Chances, your writer will tackle a recent television series that suffered the indignities of both bad reviews and an early cancellation, and has yet to foster a considerable cult following or garner critical reappraisal in the wake of its untimely demise…until now.
First Impressions: On paper, it must have seemed like a marvelous idea. In attempting to follow up their surprise hit “Bates Motel” (which was at the time winding down toward its conclusion with its penultimate season), A&E secured the rights to air another television series based on a beloved horror property – not a Hitchcock redux this time around, but a modern updating of the classic 70s chiller The Omen, an intense horror thriller which concerned a father realizing that his adopted son may in fact be the Antichrist. Titled “Damien” after its demonic lead, the show would follow the now-adult antihero as he was reluctantly drawn toward his inevitable fate to become the biblical Beast of Revelation.
Glen Mazzara, who oversaw what were arguably the best seasons of “The Walking Dead”, would act as showrunner, while the bulk of the first season episodes were to be helmed by a variety of impressive directors. Couple all this with a solid cast of relative unknowns in the leads, backed by genre veterans Barbara (The Entity, Insidious) Hershey and Scott (The Exorcist III, “The Walking Dead”) Wilson in supporting roles, and the potential for another hit seemed sky high. With a strong marketing campaign that highlighted the series’ ties to the well-known property that begat it, “Damien” was poised to take the baton from Norman Bates and run on for season after season, such was its likely success.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. The first episode debuted to so-so ratings and unkind reviews, and it would only get worse from there – signaling an early fate for a show that would never recover. Ratings limped along throughout the first season, even as a small, dedicated fanbase rallied around the show. Ultimately, Mazzara and Co.’s master plan for “Damien” would go unfulfilled – after a limited ten episode first season, the show was unceremoniously cancelled, leaving “Bates Motel” to finish out its run as the network’s sole horror program yet again.
For this viewer, it was an entirely understandable fate for the short-lived series. Its first sin, in this writer’s eyes, was playing on the public’s nostalgia for the original film (even down to running clips from it as flashbacks within the show), all while applying some dodgy Texas Chainsaw 3D math to the hero’s age. You see, the show was set in the present day with a thirty-year old Damien Thorn in the lead, while the film was firmly set in the mid-70s with a five year old Damien raising hell with his Satan-y shenanigans. It’s this kind of insult to audience intelligence that can lead to groans, eye-rolls, and forty-year old Alexandra Daddarios.
That one sin might have been forgivable, even for creating such a jarring viewing experience, were it not for the other obvious flaws on display. The pacing would drag from time to time, plot points that might have been genuinely surprising were telegraphed and bungled (I’m thinking of the shrug of a revelation regarding the true nature of Scott Wilson’s character, for example), and the story was just plain damned dull at times, lacking the thrills and shocks of the original film, its first two sequels, and even the 2006 remake. Regardless of its potential, the show only kept me on board for its first five episodes before I gave up and moved on to other viewing.
Second Chance: Having not seen the original film nor remake in some time (and, for some reason, having avoided the sequels entirely throughout the years), I recently took it upon myself to revisit the entire Omen franchise in full. While I’d previously found that first film to be a fun enough little thriller, my series rewatch opened my eyes to a horror gem that evoked the gothic allure of Hammer horror while telling a then-modern tale of terror that embraced the burgeoning Satanic panic brought forth by such contemporaries as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. The first two sequels proved to be solid viewing as well, furthering the tale of Damien’s rise to power with the expected paranoia and jaw-dropping setpieces while refusing to act as outright retreads of their progenitor. The fourth and final film in the original series, Omen IV: The Awakening, proved to be a fairly tiresome and budget-restricted affair (it was an early-90s made-for-TV film), but wasn’t entirely without its charms. And the remake, long-derided by fans but initially enjoyed by me, still managed to be a fun enough watch for this viewer.
While I’d intended to keep my Omen re-education restricted to the films, my completist nature won out and I eventually found myself ordering the damned show’s made-on-demand DVD boxed set from Amazon (before discovering shortly after that the entire series is available in HD from iTunes for a mere five bucks…*sigh*). It was with no small amount of trepidation that I started up the pilot episode again, fearing that I’d be wasting a good ten hours of my life on a show I’d already attempted to finish once and failed. Nevertheless…
Imagine my surprise then, to find that the pilot held up far better than I’d remembered, introducing a protagonist and supporting characters who were genuinely intriguing additions to the long-running franchise, occupying a tale that attacked the Omen mythos in an entirely unexpected way – by recasting the series’ villain as its hero and following his inevitable descent into hell as the show progressed. That premiere episode, helmed by Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur, is a slick and atmospheric piece of work, setting the tone for all the following episodes to come. Credit is also due to EP Mazzara’s script, which finds a way to tackle The Omen series in a smart and surprising way.
The continuity concerning Damien’s age still rankles, but the show could hardly be blamed for this any more than the original film’s first two well-regarded follow-ups, both of which retconned Damien’s birth year to accommodate the ages of preteen Damien and thirty-year old Sam Neill Damien in The Omen II and The Final Conflict, respectively. Filling the Antichrist’s shoes for this go-round is Mads Mikkelsen/Jensen Ackles lovechild Bradley James (“iZombie”, “Merlin”), who portrays a character who has all but forgotten his traumatic childhood and hellish destiny, and is forced to watched his life crumble and erode as he is slowly drawn toward his oncoming fate. James’ performance manages to garner sympathy, all while providing devilish flashes of the Beast we know he’s destined to become.
The rest of the cast is filled with a solid cadre of thesps, including Megalyn E.K. as Simone, Damien’s friend love interest; Omid Abtahi as Amani, Damien’s longtime friend; David Meunier as Detective Shay, the cop who suspects Damien of the murders which continually occur in his presence; and eventual Wynonna Earp lead Melanie Scrofano as Veronica, a Satanic lackey who becomes Amani’s love interest in an attempt to manipulate Damien. Thrown into this mix are the aforementioned Hershey and Wilson as Ann Rutledge and John Lyons, two powerful foes who each want to see Damien fulfill his destiny, for entirely different reasons. Their acidic banter and bickering provide many moments of wonderfully dark drama and humor throughout the show.
Aiding the performances are the many impressive directors who stepped in to helm an episode throughout its run. Among them were Ernest (Demon Knight, Bones) Dickerson, Bronwen (Stander, “Breaking Bad”) Hughes, Mikael (“Salem’s Lot”, Big Driver) Salomon, and Jennifer (Boxing Helena, Surveillance) Lynch. Add a slick production design and handsome photography, and you have a technically impressive series to back up the writers’ room in bringing an accomplished vision to the screen.
As the series progresses, it becomes apparent that it was made for the purpose of uninterrupted binge viewing, as my previous problems with the show’s pacing were resolved with the absence of the five minute ad blocks that encumbered each episode at the end of every act break. Viewed straight through with no interruptions, most of the episodes reveal the show to be an engrossing slow-burn of a thriller. Yet, the series still isn’t entirely without its flaws, as some episodes still drag from time to time, and the show even grinds to a halt mid-run when it gives us an episode that’s revealed to be one long dream sequence that does little to further the story or provide any real surprises (that big twist is telegraphed from its very opening moment). And yes, some of the big reveals in the series are still presented with a bit of a shrug from time to time.
And yet, when viewed as one big, ten hour reboot/sequel to The Omen, the series manages to be engaging viewing, full of more horror and heart than I would have expected from its basic setup. It may not be a home run, or even the best sequel to the original film, yet it still acquits itself as a solid piece of horror entertainment worthy of reappraisal. If you found yourself disliking the show during its original run or even neglecting to give it a chance in the first place, maybe check it out sometime soon and report back here with your findings. You may be surprised at how much you’ll enjoy it this time around.
Final Verdict: Rather than retreading the formula from the original film franchise, “Damien” breaks new ground in the franchise by upending expectations and casting the would-be Antichrist as a seemingly decent man caught up in forces he doesn’t understand, even as his friends suffer and die around him. While it failed to impress the first time around, this writer found himself enjoying the show on a second viewing, and would ultimately recommend it to fans of the Omen franchise, films about the Antichrist or Satanic cults, or fellow horror nerds simply seeking out a fun series to give a look.