“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666”
I borrowed this from friend Jo who you may notice, often puts his view of films as comments on this very blog, but I raided his collection as soon as he moved to London and amongst the films he had was this. A ‘classic’ horror film – so they say – that I felt I really should watch so that I know my horror films. Bear in mind this is four years after ‘The Exorcist’ and three years after Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, so horror films that involve families and demon-children/dead children seem to be a recurring theme in 70’s films. But, this seem to warrant many sequels – akin to ‘The Exorcist’ – and so, the orginal was worth the watch …
Switched at birth, Damien (Harvey Stephens) is child of Robert (Gregory Peck) and Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick). The Dad, Robert, switched the child as his actual child was a still born. It is 6th June 1966. 6am. The happy family move to England, whereby Robert Thorn is appointed US ambassador to England.
Damien turns five and the family nanny hangs herself in front of everyone and, at the same time, a rottweiler dog barks. Mrs Baylock – a new nanny arrives, and she is clearly a bit weird, while a Priest begins stalking Robert, confronting him on many occassions, warning him about Damien who, he believes, is the anti-christ. Not to mention that Satan himself has decided how Katherines current child, still in her womb, shall not be born.
Not long after telling him this, the priest falls from onto a church spire impaling himself, and, turns out, Katherine is preggers. It’s not long before ‘Damien’ strikes again and he pushes Katherine over a banister. Robert needs to find out more – especially when he sees photographs taken showing ghostly images of the cause-of-death, before the death of the nanny and the priest (E.g. the spire the priest fell onto). That seems unclear, read it again and it should make sense.
The photographer and Robert visit Italy, where Damien was initially adopted and the hospital has since burned down alongside all the birth records. Finding the head priest of the hospital, he is found very ill indeed – having been severely burned giving him only movement in his left hand. But alas, he uses a small piece of charcoal to point them in the direction of Damiens mother. At a graveyard they find that inside one grave is a jackal skeleton – seems he wasn’t born of a human and may actually be the antichrist, while in the other grave is the body of Robert and Katherines first child showing that it was not a stillborn but was, in fact, murdered at birth. Cue rottweiler dogs and, luckily, they escape. Robert calls the wife, Katherine, asking her to come to Italy but, before she gets a chance, she is thrown out of the hospital window by Mrs Baylock. Robert is devastated and the photographer and him travel to Israel to find an archaeologist who can stop the antichrist. Bugenhagen, the archaeologist, tells him that there is a way to stop him: by stabbing him with the seven daggers of Meggido. Easy.
Robert can’t kill a child though – thats crazy talk – and he throws the daggers to the side. The photographer on the other hand goes to grab them and is suddenyl decapitated by a pane of glass. Robert can kill a child and will. He gets the daggers and returns to England.
He finds Damien and – just in case – he checks his body and finds 666, just as Bugenhagen said, confirming the fact that he is the antichrist. Mrs Baylock trys to kill him but, luckily, he has a knife and kills her – taking Damien to a church. He pulls the first knife and – police break in and shoot him. Robert and Katherine are both dead and have a double funeral.
So Damien has new parents – no other than the President of the US of A. Credits.
What I reckon…
Its all a little messed up to be honest. I watched this a while ago and came away feeling non-plussed. I think the idea of an antichrist is clearly a great idea for a movie, while practically having an actor effective as the antichrist is something different. Probably why the film rests on Gregory Peck’s shoulders, and even Damien – the antichrist – needs a nanny to fight off the good guys.
Now, maybe its rooted in some fascinating back-story and history – akin to the history of Dracula and Frankenstein, but I have a funny feeling its not. I mean, 666. Yeah, we get it – the number of the devil. “Born on the the 6th of the 6th of 1966” at 6.06am. Just because you can’t do 6.66am. Or maybe you can. he is the antichrist.
As mentioned in the introduction – it wasn’t particularly new. Exorcist and Don’t Look Now was years before this, so you know it was a product of the new kids-as-evil craze that was sweeping through Hollywood so you have to ask yourself the question – what was so special about this one, because, honestly, I’m not too sure. Its a boy for one – alot of the pre-pubescent girls-who-are-possessed/evil often have some subtext of girls growing up and all that puberty stuff. Exorcist is a prime example, while this is a boy possessed since birth. The horrors are visual also – impaling on a church fence and the dogs, which are adds to the fear factor, but I felt it was all a bit horror-by-numbers and, alas, I am in an awkwards position because I don’t know exactly the context it was released within in ’76 as I was not born for another four years. maybe there is something about modern day outlook (London) versus traditional, religious outlook (Rome/Vatican). aith was beginning to be less important in society in the seventies, so these little digs at Catholocism might be a product of that – how technology (photography) is, bit-by-bit, making us ignore the real question of faith.
I can’t knock the score by Jerry Goldsmith – but it hardly beats The Exorcist now, does it? The little gander I have had of other materials claims that it got more credability because it is played as a Thriller (hmmm…) and that the sequence of the lady hanging herself, happy-as-larry (“this is all for you Damien”) is indeed, messed up and can’t be really topped by other horrors.
Nevertheless, I have a funny feeling that the franchise this spawned, combined with the notion of a ‘Damien/antichrist’ tag (To the point that Only Fools and Horses references it) used in pop culture has given us the impression that this film is important to the canon of cinema – or at the very least of horror, when in fact, it just happened to benefit from publicity it didn’t ask for.
Nice review, I think that the problem with a lot of these 70s horror films (starting with The Exorcist and ending with The Shining) is that they really knew how to shock, with films like this. People would have come away from the cinema thinking how controversial it was, and now, 30 years later, in the age of Hostel and Saw, they just don't have that power. This would struggle for a 15 certificate nowadays! And I think that removes a lot of the power of the film, it's impossible for us to see it in context really.
To reiterate the point, they made a remake of this a few years ago (released of 06/06/06 I remember going to the cinema that day to see it!) with David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite, but it was rubbish. Despite trying to modernise it, it still didn't work, and I just think that the basic stories of them with a devil child isn't shocking anymore, and deprived of that it just seems like a bit of a b-movie really.