Whilst researching an esoteric Etruscan religious, Norah Stanton (Wendy Crewson) falls foul of a Satan-worshipping cult. Her rather suspicious “suicide” draws estranged husband Hugh Stanton (Christopher MacDonald) and their lovely teenage daughter Lucy (the ever-watchable Rachael Leigh Cook) to Italy, where the pair are embroiled in a devilish conspiracy orchestrated by cult leader Father Simeon (Maximilian Schell). The hooded cultists watch patiently as a mystical clock counts down to Satan’s arrival on Earth, where he will choose one among “eighteen angels” to serve as his human vessel. This prompts Hugh into a literal race against time to save Lucy’s soul.
Sporting a satanic conspiracy, eerily beautiful landscapes and shifty Italian character actors mumbling portentously in dark corridors, The Eighteenth Angel resembles those Italian rip-offs of The Omen (1976) that proliferated throughout the Seventies. Except this particular imitator is American and scripted by Omen author David Seltzer. Since his blockbuster hit, Seltzer has been milking the Antichrist angle for all it’s got, in sequels and paperback spin-offs, right up to the short-lived television series in 2006.
Between dabbling in devilry, Seltzer applied his hectoring, melodramatic style to the eco-horror Prophecy (1979) and supernatural romance Dragonfly (2002), with distinctly underwhelming results, and scripted the Mel Gibson/Goldie Hawn rom-com/action vehicle Bird on a Wire (1990) - which was satanic for a whole other reason. With The Eighteenth Angel, Seltzer trots out his familiar doom-laden scenario, with a streak of fatalism that may satiate horror fans, but proves theologically inconsistent and dramatically inert.
Devil movies are largely one-sided affairs, wherein clueless characters slowly realise the powers of darkness have stacked the odds against them and a nasty end is impossible to avoid. What started as a refreshing alternative to Hammer horror’s “happily ever after”, in films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), steadily congealed into a formula that became equally constrictive, to the point where Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking Satan’s butt in End of Days (1999) seemed like a promising idea. Except that movie stank.
What Seltzer forgets is that audiences flocked to The Omen, not for its biblical waffle but the novelty death scenes. Aside from an instance where one key character is strangled between the reins of two runaway horses, there is a dearth of that in this movie. Everybody and everything in The Eighteenth Angel is so po-faced and portentous, the resulting tragedy provokes not shivers of dread but an indifferent shrug. When Rachael Leigh Cook breaks the fourth wall and smiles knowingly at the audience, it’s more campy than scary - although frankly, kind of a turn on.