Of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling–which might better be understood as “22 questions and exercises that improve your storytelling odds” I get the biggest kick out of #20:
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
Just for fun, I’d like to subject one of the movies I watched this weekend to this exercise, just to see if there are ways to make it better. Our patient: the 1981 pile of Satanic flotsam known as Omen III: The Final Conflict.
The A.V. Club, and just about everyone else, is quite right in saying that The Final Conflict is a screaming bore of a horror movie that descends into terminal silliness with the first line after the opening credits sequence. It’ll need to be stripped down to its core and rebuilt to make it work. So let’s start with the first decision a writer has to make: point of view.
The original script of TFC starts us off following the movie’s McGuffins, those seven magic daggers that are, supposedly, the only things that can kill Damien, but it quickly settles into a team of rivals arrangement, in which we spend half the movie following the seven brothers for these seven knives (sorry, couldn’t resist), and the other half following Damien as he schemes to bump off these stabby priests along with Jesus 2.0. (Oh, later on the film spins off into another point of view, that of the journalist who first boinks Damien and then stabs him.)
Can a team of rivals P.O.V. work? Sure. It’s used all the time, particularly for thriller plots. However, most of the time, the emphasis is slanted one way or the other. In the case of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, we spend most of our time with Ethan Hunt’s team, and very little with the villains. The Silence of the Lambs is similar. Hannibal Lecter makes a huge impression, but he does it with only a few minutes of screen time. The bulk of the film belongs to Clarice Starling and her allies as they work to track down Buffalo Bill. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gives us a generous helping of Khan, but most of the screen time still belongs to Kirk and company.
So, we can keep team of rivals, though we don’t have to, while placing heavier emphasis either on Damien’s group or Father What-his-name’s. Emphasizing the leader of the seven monks could be interesting. We could see how he assembles his team, give each member special skills we can exploit, and watch them set up the plan to get Damien, Mission: Impossible style. It could even be kind of fun to imagine that the Catholic Church has some kind of force trained to deal with the emergence of the Antichrist. (It would certainly be more interesting than watching the seven bungling idiots of the actual movie botch assassination attempt after assassination attempt.)
Or, we could follow Damien and really get into what he’s trying to do. In the actual movie, so many of his conspiratorial activities happen off-screen, and seem to have little to do with him working his mojo. It would have been fun to see him do more puppet-mastering of world events, killing off rivals, and justifying the whole thing to himself. (Surely, after all this time, Satan could have come up with a more compelling ideology than the “Paradise of Pain”.) And hey, wouldn’t it be interesting if Damien were actually a pretty decent world leader, and that the reality is God just made Old Nick look bad because His boys wrote the Bible? Harlan Ellison covered that territory in his short story “The Deathbird” and it might be a fun and illuminating twist. In such a case, the padres with the knives could come off as jerks, or at least as more ambiguous figures.
So much for P.O.V. Let’s look at characters:
Whoever we pick as our lead has to be more complex than the stick figures The Final Conflict gave us. If it’s Damien, we need some self-doubt, or at least some indication that he’s resolved because he really thinks he’s doing something worthwhile. As it is, the film does a bit of chattering about evil, but never really explains what it is or why anyone would find it an attractive thing to base a life on. If our protagonist is Father Whats-his-name, why is he the one to lead the effort to bump off the Antichrist, and why does he choose to involve these priests instead of mob killers or Navy Seals (those guys would have the smarts not to show Damien the dagger when twenty yards away from him, or at all, really)? And why does it have to be an old man? Why can’t it be a young Nun? Sister Mary Catherine, Damien Slayer, chosen by destiny and trained since childhood to save humanity from the Evil One.
Who knows, either Damien could be tempted by her or she by him. Maybe Sister Mary Catherine’s never really confronted her dark side, or maybe Damien sees in her all the things he’s denied himself as he’s sleepwalked toward his destiny. Maybe both of them decide that maybe this whole destiny thing is ridiculous and try to step out of their assigned roles, bringing fate vs. free will into the conversation. It could be cool…
Notice, I’ve dispensed with the Kate Reynolds journalist character, mainly because her whole purpose in the movie is to figure out what the audience found out two movies ago, that Damien is the Antichrist. Boring. I’ve also dispensed with Damien’s assistant, Harvey Dean, because aside from giving Damien someone to explain things to (and later, someone to kill), he has no clear role and does little to advance the plot.
These are just some ways we could take The Final Conflict, one of the most aggressively lame horror movies of the last thirty-three years, and make it generate excitement and interest. Leave a comment if you can think of any more.