It’s been a good 16 years since I last saw Richard Donner’s 1976 film The Omen. I found it then as I found it on its original release — unpersuasive, shakily conceived, cheesy and mostly notable for the sight of two major stars, Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, slumming in a more than usually preposterous horror flick. It was simply another entry in The Exorcist sweepstakes, and was mostly notable for moving the whole concept of 666 and the Antichrist from the realm of hot gospeller into pop culture.
It also established the “creative death” school of horror, where the whole raison d’etre of the movie lies in the various clever ways in which characters can be made to shuffle off their mortal coils. Now, it might seem to you that Satan ought to be capable of merely striking the victim dead, but, no. Instead a series of Rube Goldberg devices have to be brought into play to achieve this end. Presumably, this is to make it appear as if no occult force was involved. Does the devil need an alibi? (“You got nothin’ on me. I was in Peoria at a Fox News convention at the time, see?”)
The use of accidents can’t be an attempt not to draw attention. Beelzebub knows an aging, cancer-ridden, morphine-addled priest just dropping dead is considerably less conspicuous than one being impaled by an iron spear and cut to ribbons by a shattered stained-glass window. Therefore, it must simply be the old boy’s flair for the dramatic.
Such dramatic panache propelled the 1976 film and the same attempt is made with John Moore’s new version — hardly a surprise since this is virtually a scene-for-scene remake using the same David Seltzer screenplay with a few tweaks. It’s been retrofitted with references to (and news footage of) 9/11, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and the 2004 tsunami as evidence of the impending appearance of the Antichrist.
Setting aside the tastefulness of these, they merely serve as background to the whole Son of Satan folderol that makes up the bulk of the story about the fledgling diplomat Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) who ends up making the spectacularly unfortunate decision to adopt a baby offered by a shifty priest (Giovanni Lombardo do Radice, Gangs of New York) so wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) won’t know their own baby was stillborn. From there it’s simply one incident after another with the child, Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), becoming increasingly unsettling while Thorn’s diplomatic career becomes unaccountably successful.
No sooner does he become ambassador to Great Britain — in the process renting a house that redefines conspicuous consumption — than Damien’s nanny (Amy Huck, Eurotrip) decides to hang herself at the lad’s 10th birthday party, putting a damper on the event and absolutely ruining the punch. Then comes the parade of baleful priests, suspicious photographers, sinister nannies, menacing rottweilers and fractured fairy-tale theology. In short, it’s the same damned movie as the original all over again.
Part of the problem with this — apart from the sheer superfluousness of it — is that the whole Son o’ Satan shtick was popularized by the original, at which time it had the illusion of freshness. The intervening 30 years have taken a toll on that. By sticking to the original script, the new Omen has to pretend that the original never existed, nor did any of its direct or indirect follow-ups. It exists in a world where 666 has not become a horror fiction staple. The result is a good deal of plodding exposition to tell us what we already know. In the bargain, the characters in the remake seem a few gospels shy of the Bible. Instead of shocking revelations, tedium ensues — mixed with unintentional laughs.
In all honesty, the film is a good deal more stylish than the original. Director Moore stages some surprisingly strong scenes, has no shortage of striking images (even if they appear borrowed from Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick), and makes brilliant use of strong reds in the film’s color scheme. But the Xerox approach to the story causes it to add up to a huge “So what?” by the film’s end.
There is some fun to be had. Did you know that a minion of Satan could be foiled by a trap door? So much for omnipotence. The supporting cast is often amusingly ripe. Pete Postelwaite plays the crazed priest with great relish and an appalling stage-Irish accent — “Your son — de son of de devil, Mr. T’orn!” The great Michael Gambon has a go at the old Leo McKern role of the unhinged archaeologist who knows how to off Lucifer Junior, and likewise pulls out all the stops.
Best of all is the stunt casting of Mia Farrow — herself once the mother of Satanic spawn in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby — as the creepy nanny, Mrs. Baylock. Farrow’s own patented saccharine goodness is used to unsettling effect — and her comeuppance is alone worth the price of admission (I’m convinced Woody Allen devised this scene).
Judging by first-day attendance, we can look forward to a new Damien: Omen II — probably with Cameron Bright as the adolescent Damien. Now that is ominous indeed. Rated R for disturbing violent content, graphic images and some language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke