The Eighteenth Angel (1997)

The opening of The Eighteenth Angel introduces an ancient Etruscan order of monks, including the monk in charge, Father Simeon (Maximilian Schell). This by way of a montage of decaying gothic castles, candlelit ceremonies, and a dusty tome of prophecies written in calligraphic English script, all under the soundtrack of Gregorian chants. This would be a standard horror movie setup, as the ancient religious order (a.k.a. the death cult) will soon intrude on today’s secular order.

According to bad-Italian-accented Father Simeon, the monks, following their 500-year-old calendar, are counting down to the day when Satan will return to Earth. This could be kind of scary, especially for viewers in the pre-millennial days when this film was made. But wait.

Their diabolical plot thickens. Satan is coming back to earth in the form of a child. The monks are conducting genetic experiments on children’s bodies — shades of Frankenstein! But this presents no clash between science and religion, for, as Father Simeon explains to the genetic scientist they’ve conscripted to perform the experiments, the goal represents “the ultimate marriage between Science and Satan.” They need 18 children (because 6+6+6 = 18), to fulfill the prophecy, and they already have 17. Who will be the 18th?

Cut to Washington, DC, where brilliant genetic scientist Norah Stanton (Wendy Crewson) is coincidentally worrying about the ethics of her own work, specifically, whether genetic engineering might be a form of “playing God.” Conveniently, she will be interviewing Father Simeon in DC to discuss his controversial experiments. Her husband Hugh (Christopher McDonald) lovingly reminds her she shouldn’t work too late tonight because it is his birthday. Norah suspects she might be late and, in the interest of time, decides to drag Lucy (Rachael Leigh Cook), their 13-year-old daughter, along for the interview.

Bad move. Father Simeon is instantly taken with the dewy-faced Lucy. She, in turn, blushes as he slowly shakes her hand and compliments her for looking like… an angel. And with that, the film’s innocence-versus-evil course is set. The underlying anxiety, however, is that the child is perhaps not so innocent as she appears, that she is “different,” and in touch with “mysteries” that adults have long since learned to tune out.

Now the plot (written by David Seltzer, who wrote The Omen [1976]) begins in earnest. Lucy’s protective mother is summarily ejected from the film (after a session listening to “whispering tongues,” she throws herself off a church tower) and Hugh is left to deal with the crisis more or less on his own. First sign of his inability to do so: Lucy and he fight over a sudden chance for her to model in… Italy.

Though Hugh doesn’t want her to model, his brother Todd (Stanley Tucci) sees her ambition differently: “She stands out in a crowd and she knows it. Why shouldn’t she get paid for it?” Hugh decides to follow Todd’s advice and takes Lucy to Italy, only to have his worst fears (and beyond) confirmed: the monks want to use those pretty genes to create Satan.

Used to being dominated by the women around him, Hugh must now make a stand, to protect what’s left of his family and Lucy’s virginity. (In one scene, he frets while Lucy, clad only in a nightgown, goes horseback riding with the Italian stable boy, who is plotting to bring her to the monks.) Dad will do what he can to restore order to their lives, even if that means he spends the last hour of the film, sweaty-faced and pale, chasing Lucy and the monks.

Much of the film’s logic is impenetrable, as when Father Simeon explains that, because God created such an imperfect world, the Monks have chosen Lucifer as their new god (begging the obvious question: how would Satan’s world be any less imperfect)? And some of the plotting is laughable: Hugh and Lucy’s sympathetic host at the villa, Maria Elena (Enrica Maria Modugno), is murdered by snarling genetically engineered cats.

Still, The Eighteenth Angel presses on, doggedly following horror movie conventions (dark shadows, creaky floors, etc.), even imitating scenes verbatim from other (far better) horror flicks, as when Lucy, wearing a white nightgown, levitates above her hospital bed, just like Linda Blair does in The Exorcist. Such repetitions make the film marginally entertaining and mindlessly predictable.