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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Last Days (originally published 11/99)

If I didn't know better, I'd say we must be approaching the end of the century, or maybe even the end of the millenium. The signs are all there: apocalyptic doomsayers coming out of the woodwork; pundits soberly assessing the last hundred years; and, perhaps most telling of all, a spate of eschatological movies based, however loosely, on the biblical prophecy of a final confrontation between good and evil. The most recent of these is "End of Days," but it won't be the last.

Not surprisingly, there are very few really old movies on this topic. Since it's the kind of subject matter that comes up at the end of a century, and since moviemakers didn't really learn how to tell stories until after the turn of the last century, this is the first such period in which cinematic storytelling is a going concern. The first stirrings of apocalyptic stories on the screen can be seen in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). From an eschatological point of view, of course, it only deals with Act One, since it ends with the birth of Satan's child. If you want to see how subsequent filmmakers picked up the thread as the century drew to a close, look for these titles on home video - while there's still time.

"The Omen" (1976). This was the film that kicked off the cycle that is now reaching its culmination, and it may still be the best of the lot. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick star as Robert and Katherine Thorn, whose son, Damien, turns out to be the Antichrist. The story is continued in two sequels, "Damien - Omen II" (1978) and "The Final Conflict" (1981). Regrettably, the sequels do not live up to the quality of the original, but the trilogy still makes for worthwhile viewing.

"Prince of Darkness" (1987). This picture marked director John Carpenter's return to low budget filmmaking after a couple of bigger budget projects. Unhappy with studio interference, he hoped to regain creative control by working with a limited budget, as he had done so successfully with "Halloween" (1978). The story is about a mysterious cylinder that has been kept locked away by a brotherhood of priests for 2,000 years. It contains the physical manifestation through which Satan will make his fateful reappearance. Carpenter, who also wrote the screenplay, ambitiously attempts to weave together religious mysticism and modern physics to explain the nature of the apocalyptic evil that is poised to be let loose on the world.

"The Seventh Sign" (1988). This early starring vehicle for Demi Moore raises an interesting question: if you saw the signs of the biblical apocalypse beginning to unfold, and if the fellow renting your spare room seemed to be causing it somehow, what, if anything, would you do about it? Moore plays Abby Quinn, an expectant mother who takes in a boarder (Jurgen Prochnow) who goes by the name of David. International news reports are full of ominous portents: massive fish kills, rivers running red with blood, and even a desert town buried by a freak ice storm. Somehow, David is connected to these events. He has a number of mysterious ancient documents in his possession, and every time he breaks the seal on one, another catastrophe occurs.

"The Rapture" (1991). In some ways, this is the most disturbing apocalyptic film of all. Written and directed by Michael Tolkin, it tells the story of a woman, played by Mimi Rogers, who tries to ease the boredom that fills her life by indulging in casual sex. Then, one day, she experiences a profound religious conversion. Convinced that the Rapture, one of the prophesied events signaling the return of Jesus Christ, is at hand, she goes to the desert to await the apocalypse. Tolkin then does something remarkable. He shows us the apocalypse, just as the Book of Revelations describes it. And by literalizing the imagery of Revelations, Tolkin asks us to confront some disquieting questions about the implications of that imagery.

Personally, I don't think that the impending turn of the millenium is going to bring with it a biblical apocalypse. I'm guessing that the only imminent apocalyptic event we need to concern ourselves with is the millenium computer bug. And despite the assertions by certain scurrilous individuals that Bill Gates is the Antichrist, I'm confident that we'll all survive that crisis to begin another millenium of movie-watching safe and sound.

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