It’s the End of Days As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

How a really terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger movie influenced my spirituality and art.

Previously I discussed the television series Millennium, a brilliant show that made a huge impression on me as a Setian teenager back in the 1990s. There was another apocalyptic-themed horror romp from that era which made a huge impression on me too, but it was not nearly so remarkable. In fact, it’s really a terrible production most any way you look at it. But in those crazy days just before January 1, 2000, when lots of people were kinda worried the world might actually fall apart on New Year’s Eve, there was one theatrical film that dared to exploit all that juicy endtime paranoia. And shitty as it was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the influence it has had on me.

That’s right, I’m talking about the one and only End of Days (1999), that magnificent shit show in which Arnold Schwarzenegger squares off against Satan himself, who’s prowling the streets of New York City in Gabriel Byrne’s body. Oh gods, where do I even START with this fucker?

Okay, so the story begins with a bunch of clergymen at the Vatican freaking out about a comet and some prophecy about a “satanic” child being born somewhere. Then, in New York City, Udo Kier kills a snake and baptizes a newborn baby girl with its blood. The girl just happens to be born with a birthmark that resembles some kind of glyph. Then, confusingly, we fast forward to December 1999, when a semi-invisible creature rises up from the sewers of NYC to possess some random business dude (Gabriel Byrne) so it can grab some poor lady by her bosom, then blow up a restaurant. Then we meet Jericho (Arnold Schwarzenegger), some kind of private security guy whose family was murdered and who is just one stone’s throw away from killing himself. Jericho is hired to protect the dude who’s possessed by Satan, which comes in handy when a crazy Catholic priest with no tongue tries to assassinate the guy.

Jericho does his job, but he doesn’t like the way things add up. So he decides to investigate the priest, which somehow leads him to track down Christine (Robin Tunney), the woman who was born and baptized at the beginning of the movie by Satanists. This is convenient too, because it turns out Satan is searching for her. Apparently, Christine was bred to be his bride at the End of Days. If the devil succeeds in raping Christine at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will somehow allow him to take over the world and burn the whole thing down to a crisp. This is all explained to us by another Catholic priest (played by Rod Steiger) who leads an underground movement to find Christine and keep her safe. But at the same time, a rival sect within the Church has sent an army of assassins to kill Christine before Satan can get to her. Any way you slice it, Arnold—er, I mean Jericho—feels compelled to get Christine the hell away from everyone. The whole thing leads to a midnight black mass in the sewers, a subway chase scene, and then a final confrontation in some random church. Satan possesses Jericho at the last minute before midnight, and all seems lost; but Jericho resists the devil’s will to rape Christine and commits suicide instead, thereby saving the poor lady and canceling the apocalypse.

(Are you keeping up with all of this? Fascinating how much plot they managed to cram into this movie, especially considering how shallow and empty the film actually is!)

End of Days clearly wasn’t made by dogmatic Christians; otherwise the writers would have adapted the book of Revelation much more faithfully (pun intended). It is the pinnacle of absurdity when Rod Steiger rants about how Jericho should “read the Bible” to understand what’s going on, given the absence of any real biblical content in this story. The fact that Steiger comes across as angry and scolding while he does this is definitely a turn-off, too. The film presents itself as trying to “scare audiences back into church,” but it doesn’t care enough to get any of its own bullshit right! Instead of actually adapting the book of Revelation or anything like that, this is basically just a Terminator movie that swaps the supernatural for science fiction.

Consider this film’s version of the devil, for instance. Other cinematic adversaries of the time were quite a bit more interesting, such as Al Pacino’s take on Lucifer in The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Denzel Washington’s face-off against Azazel in Fallen (1998). Gabriel Byrne’s devil, however, is little more than a two-dimensional slasher movie villain who stalks and slashes people. This is quite a shame too, because Byrne is a magnificent actor and could have really owned this role if he had been allowed to do so. As it is, he just stands there, says a few cliches, and gets shot at. I suspect the director, Peter Hyams, is the real reason why Byrne’s performance in End of Days seems so forgettable. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Setian and I actually know the complex history of where “the devil” came from; but I personally prefer my satanic horror movies to be a little more innovative, thought-provoking, and weird. (Just wait for my NEXT sermon, in which I will give a most excellent example of what I mean!)

The magnificent Gabriel Byrne playing one of history’s most forgettable devils.

I also have two very serious objections to the plot. First, I don’t appreciate the fact that this entire story hinges on the threat of Christine being raped. And yes, I’m aware that she says, “I’m scared I might WANT to sleep with him” at some point; but I don’t care. Being hypnotized into having sex with someone STILL COUNTS AS RAPE. (In fact, there are other lady characters in the film who are raped in this manner.) And since there is no mention of the devil actually raping anybody in the book of Revelation, a decision was clearly made to capitalize on Satanic Panic hysteria here. I not only find this distasteful; I find it disgusting. They could have just as easily written it so that Satan has to eat a ham sandwich on New Year’s Eve to start the apocalypse (which would have been much more entertaining, actually!)

My second objection relates to the main character, Jericho. Let’s be honest here: Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t exactly the greatest actor who ever lived. But his acting ability isn’t a problem for me; I enjoy him in many of his films just for his charisma. No, the problem here is that Jericho is written as a suicidal person who eventually HAS to take his own life (and at the Christian god’s behest, in fact). He has no character arc to speak of; he never grows or learns anything, he just stays exactly the same all the way through. So when Jericho has to kill himself at the end, it’s not like he says, “But wait, I’m not suicidal anymore!” or anything like that. No, far be it from End of Days to offer us any sort of character development. It’s more like Jericho has been waiting to kill himself this whole time, and now he can finally get it over with. The message I take from this is incredibly ugly, toxic, and mean-spirited. It feels like End of Days is saying, “Suicidal feelings are GOOD because they make men MANLY, and they make us better suited to serve God’s will!” And that is not a message I can ever agree with.

Dude, I fuckin’ LOVE this music.

By now, you must be wondering how on earth End of Days could have influenced my spirituality or my art so much, given that I am so hyper-critical of this film. Well, the answer lies partly in my criticisms, which I will explain further in just a moment; but it also partly lies in the soundtrack. And no, I am not referring to the compilation album with the Rob Zombie and Guns N’ Roses songs. I’m talking about the instrumental movie score by John Debney, which features a lovely fusion of choral, orchestral, and electronic music. As soon as I heard this stuff while watching the film at the theater, I knew I had to purchase it on CD. I fucking hated End of Days as a movie, but the Debney score continues to be one of my all-time favorite records, even today. I listened to it every day for a while in high school, and it inspired me to try and come up with my own crazy apocalypse movie. I tried writing this as a script or a novel for years, but I could never quite hammer out the details in a way that satisfied me. All I knew was that I wanted it to be a Setian take on Armageddon, rather than a Christian (or quasi-Christian) one. And now, twenty full years later, I have finally actualized this dark dream in a form that others can enjoy: the album, His Nocturnal Majesty (2020).

But while I despised End of Days upon my initial viewing, something about the movie kept making me want to re-watch it over the years. I still think it is an egregiously stupid movie, and I would never recommend it to anyone. But at least now I can appreciate the film for a few reasons. I do rather enjoy the action sequences; Byrne’s devil is boring, but it is fun to watch Schwarzenegger launch grenades at the bastard. (I really enjoy the subway sequence in particular, for some reason.) I also enjoy the fact that whenever I watch End of Days, it takes me back to December 1999. I remember being skeptical of the Y2K bug and all that stuff; but there was still a tiny little part of my brain that wondered, “What if the world really does end tonight?” on New Year’s Eve that year. End of Days is not really a “religious” movie at all, for it has nothing of any real spiritual value to offer. It is instead an A-list, big budget exploitation movie. The real point was to exploit all that apocalyptic fear everyone was feeling, and to show us as much gore and sleaze in the process as possible. While I would much prefer the story to have been written without any rape or romanticization of suicide, I do have to admire the filmmakers for being so damn eager to deconstruct Christian apocalypticism in this manner.

One thing I absolutely adore about End of Days, however, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attitude toward Satan throughout the entire movie. I mean, he actually tells the devil “YOU’RE A FUCKING CHOIR BOY COMPARED TO ME!” at one point. And cheesy as it might sound, I love it! I think it perfectly exemplifies what Set probably thinks and feels whenever He locks eyes with Apep

“Fuckin’ CHOIR BOY!”
1+

Same Shit, Different Millennium

How my favorite TV show—a 1990s police procedural with apocalyptic overtones—influenced my walk with Set.

 

Millennium is one of my favorite TV shows ever made. It was created by Chris Carter, who also created The X-Files, and certain characters have appeared in both shows. But Millennium is no mere “X–Files spin-off”; it features a completely different cast of characters dealing with entirely different problems. While Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully track down weird monsters and alien conspiracies, retired FBI profiler Frank Black (played by genre favorite, Lance Henriksen) gets sucked back out of retirement to track down some of the most evil human beings imaginable. This is because Frank has a preternatural knack at seeing into the mind of every rapist, serial killer, or terrorist he targets his attention on. He can read about a murder in the paper and start getting random flashes of whatever the perpetrator is thinking and feeling. Much of this is due to Frank just being really good at his former job; yet he also clearly has “the second sight,” even catching glimpses of ghosts, angels, and demons from time to time. And as much as he wants to stay home with his wife and daughter and pretend “the bad men” aren’t really out there, Frank just can’t help himself; he’s driven to track down every evil thing he can pick up on his psychic radar, no matter what.

Lance Henriksen as “Frank Black” in Millennium (1996-1999)

Frank is approached by a private investigation firm called the Millennium Group, which consists of various ex-law enforcement personnel who’ve drawn some terrifying conclusions from all the horrific cases they’ve worked. For them, evil isn’t just a human ethical failing; it’s a real supernatural force that actively seeks to destroy our world (and which gets closer to achieving this goal every day). Every single rape or murder that happens is really a part of this gigantic plot, whether the human perpetrators fully understand what they’re doing or not. The Millennium Group also worries that the world might actually end in the year 2000, or perhaps not too long afterwards. Even though many members are deeply religious Christians who look forward to an eventual Second Coming, they nevertheless believe we can’t just sit back and “hope for a happy ending.” If something isn’t done about the state of things right fucking now, there may not be any human civilization left for Jesus to save when he comes back. So the Group uses a wide variety of resources to apprehend the human monsters that live among us, trying to save the world one case at a time. These resources include everything from all the best forensic science units to vast libraries of astrological, theological, and magical texts. And the Millennium Group is especially interested in Frank Black since he’s not only a total wizard at criminal profiling, but apparently an actual seer or oracle of sorts as well.

Terry O’Quinn as “Peter Watts,” a prominent Millennium Group member.

This show was inspired by many of the apocalyptic fears that ran rampant toward the end of the 1990s. (Does anyone else remember the Y2K scare?). This leads some people to think its subject matter is no longer relevant today. Let me just say, I beg to fucking differ. If there is one horrible truth that Millennium taps into, it’s the fact that people will always have apocalyptic fears that drive them to do terrible things. Even more terrifying, certain people actually want the world to end and will do everything they can to ensure that it does. This is every bit as true today in 2020 as it was back in 1996, and I would go so far as to say that Millennium is actually far more frightening and disturbing now than it was back then. I always found it much scarier than The X-Files because it was willing to take so many more risks. This is a show in which literally anyone can die at any time, and the fact that it lasted for three seasons (in the era of more popular shows like Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is nothing short of amazing.

In the very first episode, Frank picks up his newspaper and learns that a local stripper has been horribly butchered. He then starts having visions of how (and, more importantly, why) this happened. That’s when Frank realizes he can’t just stay home and be with his family; he has to go back to work. (And the look that crosses Lance Henriksen’s face at that pivotal moment always makes me tear up and cry a little). So he approaches some old pals in the Seattle PD and offers to help them investigate the case. They eventually catch the killer, who thinks he’s the Messiah and is “passing judgment” on people by doing things to them that would have made Josef Mengele proud. But not before we see two of the most disturbing things that were ever shown on TV in the 1990s. First, Frank’s gift allows us to see just how Mr. Serial Killer sees the world, and it might as well be called “Hellraiser in the Park.” Then we get a scene where Frank and the cops uncover a man who’s been buried alive…and whose bodily orifices have all been stitched shut. They don’t just refer to this stuff off-camera, either; they fucking show it to us, clear as you please. That might not seem too impressive in today’s post-CSI world of gory police procedurals; but this was in 1996, and nothing like that had ever been seen on prime-time network TV before. Not even Law & Order or NYPD Blue went that far at the time, and this was all in the very first episode of Millennium, to boot! It scared me to death when it first aired back in October 1996, and it still gives me the shivers today.

This still ranks as one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in any TV drama.

The three seasons of Millennium are drastically different from each other, as well. Apart from Frank Black’s psychic gift, there is almost nothing of the supernatural to be seen in the first season at all; the show is mostly just a police procedural at first, with our heroes chasing a different serial killer or terrorist each week. But as the season progresses, more explicitly supernatural things begin to happen. I will never forget the episode, “Lamentations,” in which Frank and the Millennium Group realize the killer they’re chasing is really a shapeshifting demon. The episode “Maranatha” is also terrific, featuring a Russian dignitary and mob boss who might actually be the Antichrist. These episodes were so brilliantly written, they completely caught audiences off guard at the time. Here we were, thinking this was just a police procedural with entirely human antagonists to be defeated; and then all of a sudden Chris Carter changes the rules on us and turns things up to 11. I remember being scared shitless by the scene in “Lamentations” when “Lucy Butler” walks down the staircase, showing us her real face between lightning strikes.

The formidable Lucy Butler in another of Millennium‘s freakiest moments.

The second season of Millennium is my personal favorite; we get into some really crazy stuff here. Frank’s psychic powers become much stronger, he becomes more involved in the Millennium Group’s internal affairs, and he meets a lady named Lara Means (played by Kristen Cloke) who can see angels. (Whenever she sees the angels, it means something real fucked up is about to happen.) Frank also learns the Millennium Group consists of different factions that are bitterly opposed to each other, and that some high-level members are every bit as evil as all the serial killers and terrorists they help to catch. This leads to some truly remarkable stuff, including a civil war within the Millennium Group, a battle against Nazis for the Cross of the Crucifixion, and even the outbreak of a deadly supervirus! In some ways, Millennium Season Two almost feels like a totally different show; but the changes all worked, and every Millennium fan I know considers this era of the series to have been the very best. 

Another of Millennium‘s most disturbing scenes, from the Season 2 Finale (“The Time Is Now”).

Unfortunately things did not turn out quite so well for Millennium Season Three. I remember waiting patiently through the entire summer of 1998 to see how Frank and his daughter Jordan (played by Brittany Tiplady) were going to escape a plague-infested Seattle. But when Season 3 begins, Frank and Jordan are suddenly living in Virginia with Jordan’s grandparents. We are told the outbreak in Seattle “wasn’t actually as bad as it seemed,” and nobody but Frank even seems to remember that it happened. Meanwhile, Frank teams up with FBI Special Agent Emma Hollis (played by Klea Scott) to try and bring down the Millennium Group, which has become completely evil. Peter Watts (played by Terry O’Quinn), who was Frank’s sidekick in Seasons One and Two, is now re-cast as Frank’s arch-nemesis. None of this has anything to do with where Millennium appeared to be going in Season 2, and it alienated most of the fan base pretty badly. Plus, most of the stories in Season 3 make no fucking sense at all; they are more like rejected X-Files episodes that are just weird for weirdness’ sake. It took me several years to finally watch the entire season all the way through, and I have zero interest in ever trying to doing so again. It felt like Chris Carter lost his marbles and decided to just give all of us Millennium fans the finger.

To add insult to injury, Carter included Frank Black as a guest character in an episode of X-Files after Millennium was canceled in 1999. In this episode (rather creatively titled “Millennium”), Frank is living in a psych ward when Mulder and Scully come to ask him some questions about the Millennium Group. This leads to a so-called “final confrontation” between Frank and the Group at a cabin in the woods, where the last remaining Group members have been turned into zombies. I for one do not know what the fuck Chris Carter was thinking when he wrote all of this. During Millennium‘s three-year run, viewers learned the Group is up to all kinds of crazy shit, including biological warfare. But according to The X-Files, the Millennium Group is really just a handful of zombies locked up in a basement. What the FUCK? To say that Millennium fans were disappointed by this is an understatement. 

Frank Black and Fox Mulder watching football in “Millennium” (X-Files, Season 7).

In Egyptian cosmology, our universe is sustained and held together by Ma’at, which is both a principle and a goddess. As a principle, it essentially represents helping others to help yourself, both in this life and in Duat (the Otherworld). The ancient Egyptians believed Ma’at is always endangered by the forces of isfet, which are led by the Chaos Serpent. Should Ma’at ever be completely dismantled, the entire cosmos would cease to exist. The “apocalypse” was not a “future” event that had yet to occur, but an ever-present threat that could happen at any possible moment. And the Egyptians believed it was really everyone’s responsibility to help prevent this from happening. The key to upholding Ma’at and fighting isfet was to be a good neighbor and citizen, treating others as you yourself wished to be treated. In this way, every human ethical decision has some part to play in the never-ending war between the Netjeru and Apep, no matter how small or insignificant such decisions might seem.

Even the powers of isfet need a coffee break. (From Season 2, “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me.”)

Millennium really speaks to me on this level. Though it is mostly inspired by Christian themes, the idea of the Millennium Group trying to save the world one case at a time struck me as being more of a Kemetic concept. It was especially meaningful to me that Season 2 aired during my freshman year of high school, which was my very first year of walking with Set. My first weekend Sabbats were spent watching Millennium with Big Red and wondering how I could grow up to become just like Frank Black. I even considered studying to become a criminal profiler myself at one point, if you can believe it. (But then I came to my senses and remembered I struggle with depression enough as it is; so investigating murders and such is probably the last thing I should be doing). If there is any particular character from popular culture who has shaped my concept of “What it means to be a Setian,” it is most definitely Frank Black, who taught me that even the smallest acts of human kindness can be major victories for Ma’at!

2+