When did the devil stop being scary? I don’t think enough people saw the satanically awful comedies Little Nicky and Bedazzled to blame them for ruining the Prince of Darkness’ rep. I am also hesitant to say that as a society we’re less religious and more cynical, so spiritual horror movies don’t work any more—the surprise success of last year’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose proves audiences are game for this kind of material. Thirty years ago, The Omen came out when Satan was the box office king (it arrived on the heels of the definitive devil movie, The Exorcist, and the popular [but I think, overrated] Rosemary’s Baby). The Omen, while not in the same ballpark as those other films, wasn’t bad—and it boasted an original concept in building a horror film around the birth of the antichrist. After thirty years, given the recent horror boom and that catchy 6/6/06 release date, a remake of The Omen must have looked good on paper.
The story follows the Thorne family—Robert (played here by Liev Schreiber), a politician on the rise; Kate (Julia Stiles) his wife; and of course Damien (newcomer Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), the toddler from Hell. During the opening credits, the film vaguely states that it was “Written by David Seltzer,” which turns out to be more telling upon further inspection. Seltzer, a writer and director for more than three decades, wrote the screenplay for the original Omen and the new version barely differs from the original in story, structure, and even dialogue. There are a few nods to contemporary culture (cell phones, digital pictures, some flashes of 9/11 and tsunami images of questionable artistic taste), but mostly it seems like director John Moore (whose last film was also a remake, the 2004 bomb Flight of the Phoenix) just dusted off the original script and re-filmed it. Apparently, the filmmakers missed the lesson learned from Gus Van Sant’s odious shot-for-shot Psycho remake: films are all about context. You can’t recreate something from a different period without making some adjustments for changes in cultures and ideologies.
The Omen also suffers from a crucial structural weakness that was present in the original, but is more problematic here: the audience knows everything and the lead characters don’t. There is never any doubt for a second that Damien is the antichrist, so we have to wait for two hours while his parents finally catch on. This makes the characters seem dumb, and building an entire movie on them, let alone generating any suspense, is extremely difficult. As a result, the actors have a lot stacked against them from the very beginning. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the key players here are horribly miscast. Schreiber is a good actor who excels at playing creepy, dangerous guys, but playing the nice, uptight Thorne gives him nothing to do. I couldn’t decide which was the bigger problem for him: his son being the antichrist or the serious lack of fiber in his diet. In any case, he fares slightly better than costar Stiles (who oddly gets top billing, despite that fact that her part is arguably a supporting role). Stiles is a steely, cerebral actress, who can be quite good (see her good work in the indie gem, The Business of Strangers) but emoting is not her strong suit. She’s too young for her part and her stiff, wooden delivery recalls her affected performance in Mona Lisa Smile. As Damien’s Nanny, Mrs. Baylock, Mia Farrow is nothing short of dreadful. Her character is supposed to be sinister, but she comes off as a sweet older lady (who apparently is reading her lines for the very first time). When she and Schreiber trade fisticuffs near the end, there were uncomfortable laughs: it was ridiculous, but also who wants to watch an old lady get the crap beaten out of her? In addition, young Fitzpatrick is more sulky than scary as Damien.
Ultimately, that may the biggest drawback of The Omen: there isn’t anything remotely frightening about it. People die grisly deaths (in almost the same manner as their 1976 counterparts), but there’s something antiseptic and ordinary about these demises. The film is so stodgy and dragged out, that we have time to contemplate all the logical loopholes, inconsistencies and lack of character development. Even if you haven’t seen the original, I don’t think The Omen will scare you—especially since what few, cheap “Gotcha” scares there are have all been spoiled by the trailer. That may be the best way to experience The Omen: bold cinematography, dramatic music, almost no dialogue, and the whole thing lasts less than two minutes.
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