As we approach the end of a somewhat doom-laden year, it feels quite pleasantly nostalgic to look back to the pre-millennial angst of the late 90’s, when apocalyptic events were merely a possibility. In the run up to the year 2000, the end of a thousand years on the calendar prompted a great deal of examination of the state of the world. Together with worries about the Y2K bug and the possible repercussions of new technology, it was an anxious few years, reflected in the films of the time.
Sci-fi thrillers like The Net (1995), Hackers (1995), and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) concerned themselves with the perils of the internet, a subgenre that reached its peak with the full-blown paranoia of The Matrix (1999). The horror genre expressed millennial fears by looking back instead, with a small cycle of films based around religious prophecies and the Book of Revelation. This particular book of the Bible has long been a rich source of inspiration for horror creators, its imagery of Satanic beasts, plagues, apocalyptic harbingers and signs and symbols of doom making it perfect for (somewhat loose) interpretation into horror fiction.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger action-horror End of Days (1999) takes its premise from a line in Revelation, which says that “when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed from his prison”. Set in the days leading up to the turn of the millennium, ex-NYPD officer Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger) finds himself in a race against time to stop a Satanic plot to help the Devil conceive a child in the final hour of the year, which will bring about the predicted End of Days. Satan (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects, 1995) has possessed the body of a banker, and is then targeted by priest Thomas Aquinas. Cane thwarts the attack and confronts Aquinas, who manages to warn him of the prophecy (an impressive feat, as we soon discover that his tongue is missing).
As he discovers more about the mystery, Cane tracks down a young woman named Christine York (Robin Tunney, The Craft, 1996) who was chosen at birth to be the mother of Satan‘s child and has been watched over by Satanists throughout her life, including her stepmother, Mabel (Miriam Margolyes). Unhappily for Christine, some Catholic priests are also after her, having decided that killing her is their best chance at preventing Armageddon. Although neither of them has much of an idea of what’s going on, they manage to enlist the help of the less-murderous Catholic priest Father Kovak (Rod Steiger), who takes Christine under his protection.
After a classic devilish attempt by Satan to tempt Cane over to the dark side and a few double-crossings by Cane‘s colleagues, the film culminates in an almighty, stained glass-shattering showdown in Kovak‘s church between Satan, Cane, Christine and the Vatican priests. After being briefly Satanically possessed himself, Cane finds the strength to sacrifice himself, this saving Christine and preventing the apocalypse.
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In terms of quality, End of Days is a fascinatingly mixed bag. The plot cracks along at a great pace, and the countdown element ratchets up the tension nicely – the date appearing on screen at the start of each day, emphasising the diminishing window of time left to stave off disaster. It is, however, fairly riddled with plot holes. Satan is weirdly reluctant to kill off Cane, despite having every motive and opportunity to do so and displaying quite the penchant for murdering humans, from his own followers to random skateboarders. It’s also never really explained why Cane‘s partner or his old NYPD colleagues turn to the dark side – it feels like there might have been a scene or two rounding this out that never made it to the final cut.
End of Days definitely shows its influences, and feels quite like a greatest hits compilation cobbled together from various elements of previous religious horror films. We have: the Devil-among-us premise from Fallen (1998); Satanists-next-door from Rosemary’s Baby (1968); a baby physically marked for the devil’s work a la The Omen (1976) and self-sacrifice whilst possessed as in The Exorcist (1973). While this obviously doesn’t make for the most original work, it does give the whole effort a sense of borrowed grandeur, as if it has raided a closet of designer clothing but doesn’t quite know how to put an outfit together.
Religious horrors tend to be on the more static side, with the spiritual battles being fought with ancient rites and incantations. But this is a Schwarzenegger film, so it’s jam-packed with high-octane action and fight sequences, some logical, some… less so. Cane is a tough ex-police private security contractor, so it makes sense that he’s a man of action first and foremost, and the Vatican assassination squad too could be realistically expected to be handy in a fight. Satan himself also gets in on the action set-pieces, setting off some impressive explosions. In one of the film’s more bizarre moments, Satan blows up Cane‘s partner’s car using a stream of gasoline. No need to visit the gas station though – this Satan just needs to urinate near the car, because apparently in this movie the devil doesn’t wear Prada, he pees gasoline.
In the world of End of Days, it seems that some Satanists have also been granted extraordinary physical prowess, as Mabel (suddenly sprouting claws that can gouge holes in door frames) is able to hold her own in a scrap with Cane. The logic (or lack of) here isn’t important though, because the fact remains that we are given the rare gift of a fist fight between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Miriam Margolyes, and you won’t get that anywhere else. In true Arnie style, Cane spends much of the film trying to machine-gun the devil, despite having seen first hand that bullets can’t harm him. To be fair to him, the repeated ballistic onslaught does start to have a slight affect on Satan‘s host body, and without Cane‘s commitment to firepower we wouldn’t get an iconic action hero scene of Arnie in a gun shop, tooling up to the max for the final confrontation.
The sense of impending doom is conveyed well throughout out the film. There is a gritty, urban aesthetic which is reminiscent of Seven (1995), especially in the scenes of Cane investigating the doomed priest Aquinas. The radio show voiceovers are pessimistic in tone, reporting that religious leaders are urging calm in anticipation of a spiritual crisis at the turn of the millennium. The excellent special effects contribute to the more heightened hellish imagery and themes – Christine suffers from strange visions, which Cane begins to witness as well. These include seeing a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape of writhing bodies in an apple, and a spectacular effect where a man who speaks to Christine on the subway seems to shatter to pieces when she touches him.
Another late 90’s religious horror, Stigmata (1999) works well as a companion piece to End of Days. Patricia Arquette (True Romance) stars as Frankie, a hairdresser who inexplicably starts to experience the religious phenomenon of stigmata – spontaneously-occurring wounds that mirror those received by Jesus at his crucifixion. Gabriel Byrne features in this film, too, (this time on the side of good) as Father Andrew Kiernan, a priest investigating supposed miracles who comes to Frankie‘s aid. Although not specifically about the millennium, Stigmata does have a sense of time running out: as Andrew tells Frankie, it’s likely that the stigmata will kill her unless they can find out what is causing them.
Frankie starts writing in ancient Aramaic, and this brings her to the attention of the church authorities, who want to stop these writings coming to light. Showing that it may be somewhat ahead of its time, the plot deals in the kind of religious intrigue later popularised by Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code. Although the action is somewhat repetitive, mainly involving Frankie gaining further stigmata, the two leads are excellent and Frankie‘s predicament is very affecting. Stigmata is also a wonderful time capsule of 90’s fashion and decor – Frankie‘s look involving frosted blue eyeshadow, puffa jacket and butterfly hair clips, while her apartment features a full complement of five inflatable armchairs (one of them lime green!).
“End of Days […] feels quite like a greatest hits compilation cobbled together from various elements of previous religious horror films. “
Any discussion of this era of religious-themed horror would be incomplete without a mention of the Prophecy series (1995 – 2005). Christopher Walken puts in an incredible performance in the first three films as the angel Gabriel, by turns menacing, charismatic and pitiful. One of a number of archangels meddling with humanity in order to settle their battles over the heavenly realms, Gabriel has a compelling character arc across the films. Initially completely dismissive of people as “talking monkeys”, he comes to appreciate humans’ worth (partly because they can drive, and he needs one as a chauffeur), and is eventually condemned to become mortal himself. While the Prophecy films can be a little overblown and rather involved in their own mythology, they are overall are much underrated. The first, especially, is worth a watch not only for Walken, but also for effective performances from Eric Stoltz and Virginia Madsen.
So, as we raise a glass and hope for a less apocalyptic 2021, it could be the perfect time to revisit the end of the last millennium, and distract ourselves from earthly anxieties with the epic, over-the-top, bombastic battles between heaven and hell that are the religious horror films of the late 90s.
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