Because it is a continuation, not a reboot, the road to A&E's Damien series ostensibly began in 1976 with the release of the Richard Donner-directed horror film The Omen. The film, about a U.S. ambassador played by Gregory Peck who unwittingly adopts the Antichrist after losing his own son, struck a chord thanks to its unnerving, ever-present horror and tension that, although supernatural in nature, largely sidestepped the outlandish and planted its feet firmly (albeit creepily) in family drama. Still, the film's success largely came from its relatable sense of dread - its assembly of an apocalyptic scenario that has frightened and excited audiences time and again.
Thanks to its success, The Omen would bring about its own apocalypse of sorts, spawning three sequels that explored the life of Damien Thorn as he grew into his role as the Prince of Darkness. Like the follow-ups to Jaws, these films (and the 2006 remake of the original) are largely overlooked when the discussion turns to Donner's film and its impact on the horror genre. The tacit disregard for The Omen II – IV is actually good news for Glen Mazzara, who has brought Damien Thorn to television (in the vein of NBC's Hannibal and A&E's other classic horror adaptation Bates Motel) as the lead character in a series that aims to chart the course of the Antichrist, while also checking to see whether or not there is some humanity lurking deep within the Devil's spawn.
The series is a good fit for Mazzara, who worked with bleak antiheroes on FX's The Shield and more recently helped orchestrate another depiction of the world's end with AMC's The Walking Dead. But unlike grabbing the wheel of a zombie-fueled ratings phenomenon while it's careening down the cable television superhighway, Mazzara has the opportunity to back this new series out of the driveway and take it down the block before ramping up to freeway speeds. And according to the writer-producer, that's exactly how Damien plans to explore its depiction of a conflicted Antichrist.
In speaking with Screen Rant about the upcoming series, Mazzara said he was looking to find a way the audience could become "emotionally involved" with a character who is, by all intents and purposes, destined to bring about the end of days:
"[We] have a fully realized character who is emotionally complex and morally ambiguous. There's another version of this show in which he's fully evil and he's just killing anyone who gets close to him. Then you're just going to have a series of deaths. Just a series of gags, and I don't think the audience would be emotionally involved in that. That seems to be a very limited approach. I wanted to double down on the characters."
One of the ways Mazzara and his writers aim to do that is to take the series in a direction where Damien is a seen as a sympathetic figure early on, someone who has been shaped by loss at an early age and who then spends his formative years seeking connection and a sense of belonging with others and the world around him. As Mazzara points out, the tragedy of Damien's situation isn't just that he was orphaned at an early age or that he's struggled his whole life to find a place in the world, but that there's really only one place he truly belongs.
"I think Damien was a boy and is a man without a family. And I think that on some deep level he wants connection, he wants to have a sense of belonging. So, unfortunately for this character, the only place he belongs is in hell [laughs]. And that's not good for him or for anyone, but that need for human connection is really important to this character. That's part of the reason why he's a war photographer. He's trying to connect with people and he's bearing witness to their pain in a compassionate way. So that's definitely something that's at the heart of Damien Thorn."
In order to get to the heart of Damien Thorn (played by Merlin and iZombie actor Bradley James), the series makes frequent reference to the original film, utilizing it as the groundwork for the series' overarching narrative. Mazzara acknowledges how playing off The Omen brings its own unique set of benefits and challenges to the series. But what he discovered was that while the film's central plotline could make for an intriguing television series, the emotional underpinnings of family and tragedy could make it easier for the audience to connect with character with a dark future ahead of him.
"It is tricky to balance the adaptation and the need for a fresh story. If the show is too grounded in the past it just feels like a retelling of a movie that people may or may not have seen. If the story ignores the original film, then it feels like were just stealing the title or the character and not really paying homage to a classic horror film. So that was something that the directors and writers and I really spent a lot of time talking through and we tried to look at the type of filmmaking from that original film. We looked at some of the set pieces; we looked at some of the forces that are surrounding Damien. And ultimately, one of the things that struck me when I went back and watched it for the twentieth time was that the Omen is basically a family story. It's about this married couple that adopts this boy. So it has a lot of character and a lot of heart and I felt like that aspect would be key for a TV show. There was a lot of depth in that first film I felt would give us a good foundation. So there's not only the tone and the style of horror that we're taking from that film, but also the fact that there's an emotional core to it."
Still, Mazzara doesn't want all this talk of the series' emotional core to scare off those in search of some serious genre elements. As he puts it, Damien may find itself exploring or mixing various other genres, but, at the end of the day, it's going to be a horror series.
"I will say the show is horror. But it's also a psychological thriller and a character drama. I see it mostly as a character piece with horror. But it's not the kind of horror show that turns the horror on and off. It's always present. Damien is always the Antichrist; there's always an evil surrounding him. It feels like the evil has punctured this world because of him. You may have a show that has these character moments and then switches on the horror for a horror sequence and then you go back, but that's not the case here. It's definitely horror because you're dealing with a constant unseen evil. But at the same time, I hope we go beyond that and throw a lot of surprising material at the audience."
Damien will begin its 10-episode run on Monday, March 7 @10pm on A&E. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Ben Mark Holberg/A&E