Archive for June 1978

Damien: Omen II

June 9, 1978

Seemingly full of board meetings and brooding talk of destiny, Damien: Omen II would appear to be the quintessential Carter-era supernatural-horror film. It plumbs the same idiotic religious dread as its 1976 predecessor, with a higher and even more gratuitous body count, though its subtext and thematic elements make it of more than passing interest.

Seven years later, young Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is living with adoptive uncle William Holden and aunt Lee Grant, as well as his cousin (Lucas Donat) from Holden’s previous marriage. Holden, the brother of Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn, is some sort of corporate honcho (though the first film ended with the promise that the son of Satan would soon be pedaling his tricycle around the White House). There’s a great deal of talk — probably more than necessary — about the corporation’s goals and its highly specious plan to feed developing nations. (I got a fine laugh out of the line about “using toxic chemicals to feed the hungry.”)

Damien attends military school (“and lots of funerals,” quipped Michael J. Weldon in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia review), where he meets Lance Henriksen as a shadowy sergeant who encourages Damien to embrace who he is. So does Robert Foxworth as a higher-up in Holden’s company. Where the original gave Damien a female protector in the form of Billie Whitelaw, Omen II furnishes soft-spoken father figures who act for all the world like earnest pederasts. For a while, the movie gainfully plays Damien’s coming-of-age as a metaphor for the hell of puberty — strange new feelings, etc.

As shot by ace cinematographer Bill Butler, and directed by Don Taylor (who took over from Mike Hodges), Omen II has more going on cinematically than its parent film; the compositions make more varied and imaginative use of the wide screen. And the plot is a sly inversion of the old Joseph Campbell template of the boy hero realizing the extent of his powers (the film sometimes plays like a dark mirror image of Harry Potter). Like his opposite number, Damien is conflicted between his human side and his immortal parentage.

However, the film vacillates between being a political/personal drama — the making of the prince of darkness — and being a litany of catastrophes. Too often, characters are introduced and then loudly killed off within a span of minutes. In the first film, Damien’s beast minion was a black dog; here it’s a crow, which proactively pecks out the eyes of a nosy reporter but otherwise just shows up whenever another “accident” needs to happen. The crow shows up a lot. In the most flamboyantly grisly number, a pre-Designing Women Meshach Taylor shows us what his intestines look like — possibly as much of a watermark for major-studio gore as The Omen‘s decapitation was.

It could’ve been more interesting, more intellectually engaging; the whole series could’ve. Franchise producer Harvey Bernhard might’ve framed the saga as a dark commentary on religion and power. Instead it’s just squalid pulp. Fun as such, I suppose, but horror fans deserve better.2

The Last Waltz

June 2, 1978

What is it about the Band? They sounded contemporary yet ancient — not really rock, not really country or blues or bluegrass, yet somehow all these things at once. Their songs were concise yet epic, steeped in bitter American history, though four-fifths of the Band were Canadian. They were a contradiction, and Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz catches all their aspects — including being a great live band performing live for the last time.

The first thing I noticed is that The Last Waltz sort of plays as Scorsese’s unofficial Robert De Niro/Harvey Keitel team-up: does anyone else see the De Niro of Mean Streets in the quirky Rick Danko, or the younger Keitel in the anguished guitar grimaces of Robbie Robertson? Scorsese himself is heard and sometimes seen interviewing various Band members, looking more or less the same he did in his troubling Taxi Driver cameo. This was intense, coke-fueled ’70s Scorsese, not the avuncular old wizard we know today, and Scorsese never smiles; he takes the musicians’ often rambling answers very, very seriously. At times, Scorsese plays up the artifice of the interviews, leaving in a few shots that call attention to the very act of filming; at one point, Robertson asks Scorsese to ask a question again so he can re-answer from the top, and Scorsese leaves that in, too.

All of this gives the sense that the dissolution of the Band as a touring group is of unspeakable national import and must be recorded for posterity. The guest list certainly suggests a one-time-only event. Old confederate Ronnie Hawkins ambles on, ready for a party. An obviously coked-up Neil Young, as unstable and scruffy as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, grins madly and works his jaw all the way through “Helpless.” I don’t know whether the air-punching, high-kicking Van Morrison is stoned or drunk, but my money’s on drunk. Neil Diamond stands far apart from everyone on stage, seeming drastically out of place (Robertson wanted him there, nobody else did). Joni Mitchell adds some sorely-needed estrogen to an otherwise masculine bacchanal (though Emmylou Harris also turns up in one of two studio-filmed segments that, while beautifully shot, seem out of sync with the live footage). Clapton pops in and shreds; Muddy Waters burns down the house. Finally Bob Dylan deigns to descend from the heavens and grace us peons with his presence, though, as per his stipulation, only two of the five songs he performed were filmed.

With an army of great cinematographers (Michael Chapman, László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, among others) at his command, Scorsese keeps the camerawork steady, never resorting to lookit-me whip-pans or flashy editing. The music was infamously overdubbed, and Robertson’s singing is seen but not heard (his mike was turned off); the result is The Perfect Concert, obviously fussed-over to make it as iconic and definitive as possible. Of the Band members, the one who pops out the most is ol’ Levon Helm, the group’s sole genuine American, a son of Arkansas who howls out Robertson’s odes to Americana so soulfully you’d swear the songs had been around forever. That voice seems to issue from the gnarled tree branches of southern swamps. (Helm also gives the least of himself to the camera during the interview segments — he wasn’t into the idea of the film at all.)

The Last Waltz is celebratory yet eligiac, sodden with the passing of an era. It was 1976, and the twin horns of punk and disco were about to impale arena rock for a while. The Band was huge, but also seemed more like musicians’ musicians; they had their own sound, which seemed to die along with the ’70s (though the Band later went on without Robertson). Scorsese, himself at a personal and career crossroads at the time, caught the exhaustion and elation of the performance. Everyone onstage has been at it for so many years the music feels instinctual — it’s Scorsese the then-young master paying tribute to older masters. Mostly, everyone is playing to and for their stagemates, not to or for the big-ticket audience members — or us. We’re crashing an epic party.

It’s a real end-of-the-’70s document, an ideal dovetailing of image and sound to evoke a mood and a moment. It’s as personal and obsessive a Scorsese film as any other from the period, somehow expressing a fast-lane urban sensibility even during those long slow takes of rural-roots anthems. The filmmaking is superbly controlled yet spontaneously alive. The Last Waltz transcends its origins as a “concert film” and becomes something larger and more mysterious, a playground of the gods, a requiem for a certain kind of performance event, a true last waltz in which the lastness is less important than the waltz.