Damien episode 1 review: The Beast Rises

The Omen TV sequel series feat. Merlin's Bradley James gets off to a terrible start. That doesn't mean Omen fans won't love it regardless...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 The Beast Rises

Damien’s pilot episode is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to review. Usually an opinion should be clear by the end of an episode, aided by hurriedly scrawled notes taken during the viewing. And if I was going to base my review on those notes alone, then I would say that Damien is an awful television show. Objectively, that is the case. The dialogue is clunky and cliched, the characters are either bland or inconsistent and it’s shot in an alternately murky/shaky way that makes it a little unpleasant to watch. The actors do their best with weak material that gives no indication as to how this series will work going forward or whether there is any reason to invest in any of it. Damien is too glum to be fun, too silly to be taken seriously and apparently has no self-awareness whatsoever.

And yet I’m tempted to say I loved it.

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Television has been a fun place for fans of classic horror lately. Between Hannibal, Bates Motel, Ash Vs Evil Dead, now Damien and the forthcoming Exorcist and Friday The 13th shows, chances are if you like a particular old horror franchise you’ve either gotten a TV version or one is in the works. None of this is odd; reboots tend to sell, and a lot of those franchises had lain dormant for a while before being reworked for TV, but what is interesting about the minor yet ongoing trend of television horror reboots is how they all relate to their source material. Hannibal, short of one or two references, forges its own path and in the process created arguably the definitive adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter mythos. The flawed yet engaging Bates Motel maintains the iconography and visual style of Psycho but updates the story for the present day and reframes the twisted relationship between Norman Bates and his mother as a deeply affecting Greek tragedy that for the most part, works. Ash Vs Evil Dead is a direct continuation of the original films that effortlessly captures their appeal and shows almost every other belated sequel how it’s done.

Damien is an odd beast. The series uses footage from the 1976 original The Omen as flashbacks and happily references its characters and events, yet apparently a film that was very of its time now took place in 1990, as Damien is set in the present day, twenty five years later. Furthermore the film ignores the sequels, 1978’s underrated Damien: Omen II and 1981’s messy but fun The Final Conflict, instead depicting a timeline where Damien grew up to be a war photographer with a social conscience and no memory of his childhood. We know this because in the opening minutes another character says to Damien “you have no memory of your childhood”.

This, by the way, is the kind of dialogue that the show employs. Characters say more or less what they think or what the plot needs them to without any hint of nuance or subtlety. Additionally their opinions on certain things seem to change depending on what Damien needs to hear at any time. Damien’s friend/ex-girlfriend Kelly is very quick to take to the idea that Damien is the Antichrist and even seems to be pushing it on him the first time they discuss it, then, when people start dying around him, she tells Damien “this has nothing to do with you”, as if she’d never suggested that the “crazy coincidences” that surround Damien (none of which we’ve seen save for his unremembered childhood) were Satan-related. For the record, she did suggest exactly that in the immediately preceding scene with nothing occurring in between to change her mind.  

For the most part, the show seems to have forgotten what made the films so good. While they could drag, the original Omen Trilogy managed to merge inventive and imaginative gore with a feeling of portentous weight and doom that probably had a lot to do with the constant Bible quoting and iconic Jerry Goldsmith score, but hey, it worked, and even as a fiercely atheistic teenager the Omen films became firm favourites for how unsettling and effective they were in their depiction of the kind of evil that you can never really beat or understand.

But I did say for the most part. I also gave the game away by admitting that I am a huge fan of this franchise, and so I was probably never going to be able to bring myself to hate Damien. And so, when the theme song came booming in at the end and the creepy old woman who kick-started Damien’s awakening by quoting his own suicidal nanny at him suddenly appeared in the background of all his old photos, that long-forgotten terror hit me like a freight train and suddenly I had goosebumps. And as the music built and the creepy imagery started coming thick and fast, I shuffled to the edge of my seat. Then Damien revealed the 666 birthmark on his head and I actually punched the air. Suddenly, despite myself, every fair criticism I had became moot.

Look, I don’t know if Damien can sustain that kind of effectiveness going forward. I would tend to doubt it; it was a moment of fan service-y horror that hit home because the rest of the episode had been so drab and it felt like a welcome surprise. But it got my inner Omen fan excited and really, that was all I ever wanted from this show. So maybe the verdict in the end is a simple one; if you’re a fan of The Omen, check this out. If not, there are better shows to waste your time on.

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Is a TV series about the Antichrist doomed to fail? I don’t think so. Damien’s central concept, that the Antichrist learns his identity and wants nothing less than to fulfil his destiny, is a pretty good one. A common trope in a lot of hero’s journey stories is the saviour trying to reject his destiny; most of the time that’s just to make the character feel more grounded and likeable, but what if that destiny was to be the absolute evil incarnate, the figure who will bring about the apocalypse? How does an otherwise normal guy deal with that? It’s a pretty great idea, I just don’t think it’s one that, on the basis of this episode, this show is capable of exploring in an interesting or dynamic way. That said, I could be proven wrong. I hope I am. I’ll certainly be watching.