Explosive Action Meets Religious Horror in the Giant Demonic Fireball that is End of Days

1999 was a weird year. Plenty of people believed that Y2K was a thing that would kill us all, and there was a fascinating spate of gritty, strangely lit films that either used sci-fi to tell us Reality Is A Lie (Existenz, Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix) or horror to tell us that Ghosts And/Or The Devil Are Real (Sixth Sense, Stigmata, Omega Code, Dogma, End of Days).

Of these, End of Days was the only film that attempted to merge my two favorite subgenres: bombastic ‘80s action thrillers, and religious horror. Some might say it tried too many things, but I say, if you’re going to fly, aim straight for the sun.

End of Days begins like a typical religious horror film: deep within the Vatican, worried priests note that a comet fulfills an end-times prophecy. Meanwhile in Manhattan, a placid nurse whisks a newborn away to a secret hospital wing. [NB: Hang on. Before we get started, I just want to make it clear that while I’m willing to accept a shadowy Vatican conspiracy, there is no way a 1970s-era New York City hospital wouldn’t notice that extra, unused wing. There would be a half a dozen bleeding Warriors extras in that wing at all times. OK, on with the review.]

Anyway, Udo Kier feeds the child rattlesnake blood while chanting in diabolical Latin—and weirdly, the baby seems fine with the blood? I spent some time working in a daycare, where my job was basically trying to get kids to eat, and I find the child’s enthusiasm for blood a little unrealistic. But then! Just as you’re getting used to a standard religious horror extravaganza, we’re suddenly knee-deep in the squalid life of one JERICHO CANE.

JERICHO CANE, a 1980s action movie cop currently struggling through the ’90s, is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He once had a beautiful wife and a loving daughter. But they’re both dead, which we know because occasionally JERICHO CANE stares poignantly at a broken music box. We know that this has left JERICHO CANE an emotional wreck because we’re introduced to him as he’s pressing a Glock to his forehead. Luckily Kevin Pollak shows up to pick him up for his job as a private security specialist before he pulls the trigger. Otherwise we wouldn’t get to see his breakfast shake: deli coffee, half a bottle of Pepto Bismol, a splash of bourbon, two cartons of leftover Chinese food, and, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, a slice of pizza that he peels off the floor.

Pollak, to his credit, winces as Arnold drinks this.

As you might imagine, This film has several plots! None of them make any sense, but here goes: Jericho Cane has to protect his rich client, played by Gabirel Byrne. Said client is possessed (seemingly at random?) by Satan Himself. Then Jericho has to protect the girl we met as a blood-drinking baby, who is now destined to be Satan’s wife, and is played by a woefully underused Robin Tunney. In the one tiny mercy the film grants us, there is no romance plot between Jericho and Ms. Tunney. In a third plot, the Vatican totally has a prophecy on tap about the Devil kickstarting the end of days, and then dicks around not preventing said End of Days for twenty entire years, then sends assassins out to try to kill either the Devil (who isn’t killable) or the girl (who has no idea what’s going on).

Actually no one has any idea what’s going on for most of the film, which leads to Jericho repeatedly running up to random Catholic priests and asking the greatest question in all of cinematic history:

Do you know a priest named Thomas Aquinas?

If you study religion, or Medieval history, or any level of Western philosophy, or even watch Jeopardy occasionally, this question becomes funnier each time he asks it. Cause, yeah. Yeah we know a priest name Thomas Aquinas. It’s this guy:

Carlo Crivelli, St. Thomas Aquinas, 1476, via The Yorck Project (2002)

And he’s one of the most famous thinkers in Catholicism, and the fact that no one calls Jericho on this makes me laugh so hard I have to stop the movie.

Since this film has no idea what it is, it crams every cliché from both of its genres into every scene. Jericho tries to dick-slap the Devil the same way he would any generic action film scumbag, which leads to Arnold Schwarzenegger screaming, at the Devil, “YOU ARE A FUCKING CHOIR BOY COMPARED TO ME!”

I can’t tell you how many time my friends and I rewound the tape to hear that line. I can’t tell you how many times we have screamed it at each other in the years since we first saw this film. I’m pretty sure I’ll be hearing that line as I die, and I will not be mad about that.

The film also gives us a lovely snapshot of pre-9/11 filmmaking, as in the scenes where Jericho goes to NYPD headquarter (which for some reason looks as grand and spacious as Grand Central Terminal?) and Jericho, an ex-cop, remember, is able to walk into the armory and pack his belt with a half dozen rockets, and tuck Glocks in both sleeves, shoulder a rocket launcher, and walk out the door.

They don’t even make him sign a rental form.

When End of Days chooses to be a throwback to ‘80s action movies we get: assassination attempts on FDR Drive; Jericho hanging by a cable from a helicopter and, as the helicopter swoops over Manhattan, Jericho tries to pluck a fleeing perp right off the sidewalk; an inexplicably furious Black police chief (this time it’s a woman! The fabulous C.C.H. Pounder!); giant fiery explosions roughly every ten minutes; a young woman in a tiny silk bathrobe fighting off attackers; AND the inevitable scene where a small army of armed goons burst into Jericho’s home and slaughter his wife and child—because he testified against a bad guy and then wasn’t there to protect them.

When it chooses instead to be religious horror we get: multiple scenes of Vatican hit men trying to assassinate a young woman so she can’t become Satan’s bride, thus saving her soul from damnation; Gabriel Byrne making extremely reasonable offers to mortal men; Gabriel Byrne seducing every woman he meets; Gabriel Byrne sleeping with a mother and daughter simultaneously (Which, ICK, MOVIE, WHAT THE HELL); seemingly human Satanic nurses who turn out to have literal claws(???); Udo Kier’s razor-sharp cheekbones; priests saying “We must have faith” about literally everything; and Rod Steiger kickin’ some heathen ass.

Kevin Pollak at least seems to know the film is ridiculous, and uses eyebrow quirks and forehead-furrowing as a kind of Morse code to communicate a secret message to the audience. The secret message is “Please understand that this film is a comedy, and don’t judge me. Everyone has to eat.” Even with that Pollak somehow manages both of the two dramatically affecting moments in the film.

All of this is fine. (Except the mother/daughter thing, what the hell, movie.) It’s when the two films attempt to Voltron themselves into a single, larger film that it all goes literally and figuratively to hell.

I’ll give you an example. The Devil is the Devil, with plenty of evil-yet-seductive powers. But then you stick him in an action movie, and you have the Devil slinking into a restaurant, groping a woman right in front of her husband—and she seems pretty into it?—but then as he leaves the restaurant, the entire building explodes.

Why? How? And why isn’t New York City on instantaneous terrorist lockdown?

This is the literal devil. He doesn’t need to do this kind of shit, he can just drop a tiny suggestion of murder in someone’s mind and the whole restaurant would slaughter each other while he laughed. But End of Days has to tick off some requisite action movie boxes.

In a similar act of cinematic Mad Libs, End of Days takes the time honored plot point where a cop’s family is murdered to punish the cop for busting a crime ring, and turns it into The Last Temptation of Jericho Cane. The Devil comes to visit Jericho and shows him the life he could have, with his wife and child restored to him, happily celebrating Christmas. When Jericho resists the illusion the Devil replays what really happened: the daughter sadly asks her mom why Daddy’s never home, the mom assures her daughter that Daddy loves both of them, he’s just really busy, and then black-clad thugs burst into the apartment and mow both of them down while Jericho screams in anguish.

And why? Why were they killed?

The Devil taunts him by reminding him: “You had to be an honest cop. You had to testify!”

“I wasn’t here!” Jericho sobs. “I should have been here!”

So the Devil, who has all the tortures of hell at his disposal, resorts to taunting Jericho like a henchman in a Shane Black script, and our hero doesn’t have the spiritual fortitude to defend himself from even this level of demonic attack.

And of course the biggest problem/greatest strength is that faced with chanting Satanists, occult tattoos, creepy priests, and church basements full of conspiracy theorists all using high-tech computer equipment to avert the apocalypse, Jericho’s solution to every single problem is to wave a gun at it. He waves a gun at the undead. He waves a gun at Robin Tunney before he realizes that she’s the real victim here. He waves a gun at Kevin Pollak, and he waves a gun at the hallucination of the goons who murdered his family. He waves a gun at Satan. He waves a gun at Rod Steiger, apparently not knowing that Rod Steiger could bend the gun in half.

The most telling moment for me, comes when Rod Steiger tells Jericho that the world will end in 1999 because if you flip the nines upside down they’re sixes (again, not making this up) and also, that Satan will consummate his relationship with Robin Tunney midnight. Tunney seems displeased, but rather than dealing with her feelings, Jericho draws on all the wealth of action movie quippery and replies: “Is that Eastern Standard Time?”—but Steiger does not have a comeback. If this was a full religious horror film Steiger would simply glower him into submission. If it was a full action movie he’d have an equally snarky comeback. But here it seems like the action hero isn’t taking the horror plot seriously enough, and the horror icon is just confused about why they’re all here.

Did I mention the army of dead people yet? Satan resurrects a bunch of people who die throughout the film and sends them after Jericho in a shuffling horde. Also, Jericho gets crucified on the side of a building!

Obviously the film culminates in a Catholic church, on New Years Eve, the whole place ablaze with candles and leftover Christmas poinsettias. Jericho positively vibrates with lapsed Catholicism—as though interacting with the literal Devil might not make you put your grudge against God aside until after you defeated the forces of evil—because the film suddenly decides that the only thing that will save the world is if Jericho regains the faith he never mentioned having in the first place.

But you know what he does have? A rocket launcher. And he comes charging into the church and finds the Devil laying poor underused Robin Tunney on the altar, an Anti-Christ gleaming in his eyes.

And then they have the requisite huge, multi-part battle, with Robin Tunney hiding behind pillars, occasionally being possessed and walking back toward the Devil against her will, bullets flying everywhere, more possessed people beating the doors of the church in, and then finally Jericho shoots the Devil with a rocket launcher and he turns into a skeleton dragon???

But just as it looks like action clichés will win the day, Jericho catches up with the writers’ intentions and realizes he can only defeat Satan with FAITH! so suddenly the camera whips us through rapid-fire close-ups—Jericho! Jesus! Jericho!! Jesus!! And it looks like evil’s gonna win this time, but then the filmmakers pull out the biggest gun. Not a rocket launcher, but a scene that blatantly rips off the climax of the all-time religious horror classic, The Exorcist.

Except they make it even more bad-ass. How about if, instead of a distraught priest inviting the devil into his soul and then committing suicide, thus possibly damning himself, all to save a tortured child, we have a jacked former cop ripple his jaw muscles in stoic grief, glare at a crucifix for a second, and then impale himself on a fucking sword?

Oh gosh this movie makes me so happy.

I should say, in all fairness, that Gabriel Byrne is fantastic as the Devil. He’s oily and dead-eyed and occasionally pisses out black oil and then lights it on fire to kill people, and he almost makes me wish this movie had just committed to being horror.

But then we’d lose that helicopter chase, and at least a couple of explosions, and I’m not willing to give them up. End of Days puts every gorgeous cliche it can find into a blender, peels a slice of stale action off the floor, and hits pulse—and all of you deserve it in your lives.

Leah Schnelbach hope that when the end comes, it comes not with a bang, but with a GIANT DEMONIC FIREBALL. Come talk about floor-pizza with her on Twitter!

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