Arnold Schwarzenegger and action films are inseparable, just like his heavy Austrian accent and muscles. His first taste of stardom came at the age of 20, when he won the Mr. Universe title, an annual worldwide bodybuilders’ competition held by the National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association (NABBA). He later was featured in the 1977 athletic docudrama about professional bodybuilding, Pumping Iron.
Famous for his bodybuilding prowess, Schwarzenegger embodies dedication and discipline. These qualities captured our attention and translated well into his subsequent action-adventure roles, like Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, and Predator. Schwarzenegger would dabble in action-comedy later, Kindergarten Cop, Last Action Hero, and True Lies to name a few. Stranger yet, he has scared up a couple horror films, End of Days and Maggie. The Austrian Oak has stretched his acting roots far and wide, but which horror film does he turn into a dead lift?
A Devil of a Time
Schwarzenegger’s father wanted his son to become a policeman like himself. His wish came true, but he was not careful for what he wished for. End of Days has Schwarzenegger as private security officer, Jericho Cane. He is a depressed alcoholic, struggling with his faith after his wife and daughter were assassinated. He is tasked with safely transporting a banker who, unbeknownst to him, gets possessed by Satan (Gabriel Byrne). Later, a priest tries to murder the hell-spawn, but fails and is arrested. The Lord of Darkness kills the priest and brands his skin with the phrase, “Christ in New York,” his next victim. Christine York (Robin Tunney) is discovered to be the mother of Satan’s child, the Antichrist. Jericho must protect her from satanists and corrupt men of the cloth to prevent the end of days.
A horror movie with the T-800 sounds like a suspenseful and supernatural win-win. The Gothic tone is prevalent; the biblical mysticism is esoteric, serviceable, but the acting is replaced by the action. Throughout the film, the jump cuts move faster than the eye digests the action. When the action can be seen, most notably during shootouts, they stall what will lead to more knee-jerk action spliced into split-second scenes. Characters’ names are too on the nose to be original or at least derivative as well. The priest who attempts to kill the banker is named Thomas Aquinas, for no other reason except for God’s sake. That is not to say religious names hold no significance. Jericho Cane is an amalgam that represents Schwarzenegger’s conflicts in the film. The first name is the city God helped the Israelites conquer on their way to the Promised Land. The second name belongs to one of the sons of Adam and Eve, who killed his brother Abel and was cursed by God.
End of Days presents Schwarzenegger in a distraught yet determined backseat throughout the film. Some interactions feel unnatural, even for a supernatural threat of damnation. Possession plays a part in the film and a particular pedestrian slaps Schwarzenegger around like he was a schoolboy receiving punishment. At one point, Schwarzenegger’s character calls the Devil a choirboy, the Saturday Night Live equivalent of girlie men. Beyond the unintentional humor, the dénouement leaves an impressive mark with heroic daring and a horrific sight.
A Father-Daughter Dance with Death
When your daughter becomes a woman, it is understandable why a father exhibits loving reservations. What happens when your daughter turns into a zombie instead? Abigail Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) plays Maggie Vogel, who disappears, leaving no trace but a voicemail to her father saying not to find her and that she loves him. Schwarzenegger plays her father Wade, a farmer who finds her at a hospital with a bite on her arm. Maggie has limited time before the effects of the Necroambulist virus takes over her body and turns her into an unconscious cannibal. Wade makes the magnanimous decision to care for his daughter’s last days before she turns and must be quarantined.
In the aftermath of this outbreak, there is no cure as populations and crops have been tainted by the virus. The science the movie follows is accurate and believable. The tension builds even though the endgame is inevitable. As the effects of the virus and the infected linger, putting society on its knees, moral ambiguity stands in its place. Themes of teenage angst and mental health are also felt as Maggie copes with the decomposition and numbness of her body. Seeing the stages of her transition, from corpus vigere (active or awake corpse) to mortus ambulare (walking dead), was gut-wrenching. It made for an engaging mix of biological and psychological horror; a slow burn, but still hot to the touch. Family ties run deep in this subtle zombie drama and will leave you feeling full and empty.
Horror or Schwarze-horror?
End of Days has a unique premise, floating between the likes of Constantine and The Da Vinci Code. Its theme of renewing one’s faith in the face of loss carries the film, but its clumsy action drops it with disorienting, quickfire camera shots. The redeeming scene that keeps End of Days dirigible is when Schwarzenegger is almost coerced into making a deal with the Devil, but he declines and gives him a forceful eviction letter. Similar to Jericho Cane’s loss of his family, Wade Vogel meets the reality that his farm and daughter are dying.
The family structure is stronger in Maggie than it is in End of Days. End of Days has action that is uneven with its horror, while Maggie takes a skin-crawling rise and fall with more realism. If you want a true horror film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, watch Maggie. If you want a Schwarze-horror film with a faster pace and darker vignettes, watch End of Days. Between the two, Maggie has more heart and meaning as that heart starts and stops pumping.