The remake of The Omen got off on the wrong foot with me. Within the film’s first five minutes, we see footage from September 11, specifically one tower of the World Trade Center burning while a plane flies into the other tower. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe it’s right to use such graphic footage of a real (and still painfully recent) tragedy in what is, essentially, a silly, mainstream horror flick. You don’t expect to be confronted with those images when you walk into something like The Omen and, even though they’re used to indicate that there’s extreme evil in the world, they take you right out of the movie before you’ve even really gotten into it.
It took me a few minutes to put that aside and concentrate on the film itself. Liev Schreiber plays Robert Thorn, who becomes the American ambassador to Great Britain after his boss dies in a freak accident. His wife, Katherine (Julia Stiles), doesn’t know that their child was stillborn and, in a moment of desperation, he took a Roman priest up on the offer to take another baby whose mother died giving birth. Neither of them knows that the boy’s arrival on earth coincided with a sign of pending apocalypse. Put another way, he’s the son of Satan.
Strange things start happening whenever the boy, Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is around. His nanny hangs herself during a birthday party. A snarling rottweiler shows up unexpectedly at the house. Monkeys at the zoo go insane when Damien looks at them. This is saying nothing of the creepy nanny (Mia Farrow) who looks after – and often makes excuses for – the kid. Robert is soon approached by a priest named Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who warns him that the devil-boy will try to kill everyone in his path. This seems far-fetched, so Robert blows the guy off. Then a photographer (David Thewlis) arrives with some evidence that suggests the priest may be right.
I saw the 1976 version of The Omen many years ago. I didn’t think I remembered much about it until I started watching the remake. Then I was surprised by how much came back to me. Younger viewers who weren’t around for the original may find this new movie more exciting; anyone with a memory of the old Gregory Peck version will most likely feel a sensation of “been there, done that.” Director John Moore sticks very close to the original, and both versions were written by David Seltzer.
Some of the elements still work, such as the famous scene where Damien, in an effort to kill his mother, hits her with his scooter and knocks her over a second-floor railing. There is something about a murderous child that automatically sends a chill up and down your spine. The scene in the monkey cage is also kind of creepy, as is a dog attack later on. There are definitely a few here that captured my interest.
Most of the performances are good too. Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles are generally effective but seem a little too young for their roles. On the other hand, Farrow, Postlethwaite, and Thewlis all turn in extremely strong performances. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find acting this good in a horror movie.
A more significant casting problem comes with Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick. The kid is not scary at all. This is not an insult to the young actor; he’s a cute kid. Asking a six year-old to play the son of Satan is an acting challenge that few (if any) could effectively pull off. To do so, you’d need to find some preternaturally odd child, and they’re hard to come by. Because we don’t fear Damien, there’s little to emotionally involve us in the story. He just doesn’t seem all that evil, no matter how much the screenplay tries to convince us that he is. What we’re left with, then, is an assemblage of horror moments that seemed fresher in 1976 than they do today. (Let’s face it: The Omen has been ripped off a million different ways.)
I found myself looking at my watch, especially in the last 45 minutes. The movie is too long, and as Robert investigates a way to kill Damien, it also becomes strangely dull. This is surprising because the finale involves a man making plans to murder the little boy he has raised as a son. I can’t think of anything more inherently dramatic than that. The movie doesn’t exploit that idea very well, though. Robert never seems to fully be horrified about what he must do, so we’re never horrified either. Here’s the exact moment where The Omen needs to go for broke, yet the tone is so languorous that we never get the surge of terror that we ought to be feeling.
All in all, there were some things I liked about this remake, but too much of it doesn’t work. A funny thing…the ending to the story (which I won’t spoil) is anti-climactic in a way I hadn’t noticed before. There’s a neat subversion of our expectations at the end, yet there’s no catharsis to it, and it left me feeling empty. Perhaps the message is that we are powerless to ever truly eradicate evil. Or maybe they were just thinking sequels. The original Omen spawned two of them. Let’s hope the remake doesn’t follow suit.
( out of four)
The Omen is rated R for disturbing violent content, graphic images and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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