Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Omen

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 7, 2006

Directed by John Moore/written by David Seltzer/starring Julia Stiles, Live Schreiber, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Gambon/20th Century Fox

An ambassador and his wife begin to suspect that their son may be the Antichrist. Because (spoiler ahead) he is the Antichrist. What, you didn’t see the original?

That’s not a typo above – my WordPerfect program won’t let me type Mr. Schreiber’s first name correctly. I suppose I could have rearranged the letters as “Evil” in keeping with the movie’s theme, but that’s a little too cheesy, even for me.

Anyway…as I’m writing this, it is now officially 6/7/06, which means the world hasn’t come to an end. Whew. We made it! Seriously though, Fox came up with the clever (?) gimmick of releasing a remake of the 1976 “classic” The Omen on the ominous date of 6/6/06. In fact, from what I’ve heard, the remake was only made so that Fox could capitalize on that date. I guess there are worse reasons to make a movie, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

I was convinced that this blatantly obvious attempt to lure audiences to see a hack remake on a Tuesday would be laughed off by most of the population. Naturally, I overestimated people’s willingness to be suckered in (myself included) because when I saw the film on Tuesday afternoon, the place was packed. Somewhere, William Castle is laughing. This wasn’t your typical Tuesday afternoon crowd either – no blue-haired old ladies to be found here. These were mostly the kind of people you’d see at a My Chemical Romance concert, complete with spiky hair, black lipstick and concert T-shirts. Some of them even wore pentagrams and devil horns (I swear I’m not making this up). For a certain audience, seeing this movie on this particular day had somehow become an event. I think maybe it was partially an ironic joke on their part – “oooh, let’s tempt fate, wink wink” – but whatever the motivations, it worked, and that’s all that anyone will care about when the numbers come in. I imagine seeing an Omen movie would be a different experience on, say, 6/8 or 6/12, so really, how could you not want to go on that day?

The irony of all this, of course, is that The Omen (old and new) is a horror movie that the Church Lady could love, one that takes the Christian concept of “Satan” very, very literally. Where the best modern horror films question the conventional notion of a sane, rational universe in which people are basically good and “evil” is caused only by a malevolent outside force, this movie informs us that all the fairy tales we heard in Sunday

School are the literal truth, the end is nigh and you better get yourself to a Bible right quick. What sets this apart from the likes of Left Behind or The Omega Code, I’m really not sure. Wicked death scenes, maybe?

I have to admit, my ears pricked up a little bit when notorious horror-haters Ebert and Roeper gave the remake their prized “thumbs-up”. Surely they knew the buzz on this was toxic, and how could they give their approval to what amounts to yet another needless horror remake when they came down so hard on The Hills Have Eyes just a few months ago? Their rationale being that this remake was successfully “modernized” in their eyes, whereas apparently that one wasn’t. Having seen the film now, I have to wonder if they haven’t missed the whole point yet again.

If you’re going to “update” something for the modern era, you have to make it relevant to the world that the audience currently lives in, which Hills did extremely well. Omen, on the other hand, feels hopelessly dated even with a younger cast and supposedly up-to-date effects and editing. It’s kind of like hearing a talented young band play nothing but Styx and Kansas covers – what’s the point? No matter who’s singing the song, “Come Sail Away” is going to sound like fucking “Come Sail Away”, and no one needs that.

Part of the problem is that they used the original script by Seltzer (I assume they brought in somebody to throw in the necessary references to technological advances, such as e-mail and cell phones), which is about one step removed from doing the Gus van Sant shot-for-shot remake thing. Geez, why not save even more money and just re-release the original film? So naturally, the plot is pretty much exactly the same as the original, with nary a new twist to be found. Not only that, but even people who haven’t actually seen the original film are familiar with the basic concept – that Damien is the “devil’s child” and…well, what more do you really need to know here? So it’s kind of a losing proposition for the audience either way – if you’ve seen the original, you know exactly what’s going to happen, and the film is predictable. If you haven’t seen the original, well, the whole movie is about the parents discovering that Damien is the son of Satan, and you already know that going in, so it’s still predictable. I think the original carried some level of shock at the time, even for people who knew what the film was about going in. This time, everybody knows what the deal is. It ain’t exactly The Crying Game, folks.

Yes, director Moore does attempt to show relevance here in an early sequence that attributes recent disasters like 9/11, the Columbia Space Shuttle and the tsunami to “signs of the apocalypse”. This just comes off as laughably ridiculous (and probably offensive to some) and it’s never really developed as a theme in the rest of the movie. It’s just “look, all this bad shit is happening – now here comes Damien!” I guess all the other disasters that took place in the history of mankind were merely warm-up acts for ol’ Lucifer. Other than that, this is a movie that could take place pretty much any time in the last 40 or 50 years, and doesn’t seem to bear any particular meaning for our times. Unless there are actual devil children being born that I’m unaware of, there aren’t any striking parallels to any situation happening in 2006 (and how could there be, when the script was written 30 years ago). I suppose, if one were to stretch that far, one could look at it as an allegory on the perils of child rearing in the modern era. But since Damien doesn’t act like any other kid on the planet Earth, it’s hard to really make much of that theory.

That’s another thing that really hurts the film – the damn kid. It’s possible that this young actor is really talented, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he’s directed here. There isn’t a second’s doubt that his Damien is not just “a bad kid” but rotten to the core – he’s eeeevil with a capital E. He’s inordinately pale and scrawny, with a Moe Howard haircut and a constant scowl of derision. His parents should know something’s wrong with the little bastard just from looking at him – at the very least, he looks like he’s suffering from malnutrition. Are they supposed to be so busy they don’t notice that the kid never talks, for Christ’s sake? I don’t mean he’s shy either; I mean the kid’s 5 years old and doesn’t even speak to his own goddamn parents! Come on! I believe he says one single three-word line through the entire film. You just want the idiots to shake him and say, “talk, dammit, or I’ll throw you out the window!” I mean, this is 2006 – they should have put this kid in counseling or on medication long before they suspected him of having unsavory lineage. Get him to a damn doctor and run some tests on him. Seriously.

The rest of the cast is serviceable enough, even if Stiles and Schreiber seem pretty miscast as a couple – did no one consider that it might be bad for a politician to have a wife who could pass for jailbait? I’m not opposed to casting younger if the actors are right, but I just kept wondering what could possibly bring these two together in the first place (who knows, maybe he adopted her, too). Stiles is someone who, while certainly attractive, I’ve never really warmed up to on screen that much (could be because she’s made so many stink bombs – even I couldn’t be bothered to sit through Save the Last Dance or The Prince & Me). She’s not that bad here, although she still seems like she could be Schreiber’s teenage daughter rather than his wife. For his part, Schreiber goes through the motions adequately, though he often seems to be sleepwalking through the part (which is no doubt beneath him) rather than acting. I get that he’s supposed to be stoic and all, but you would expect some emotion from a guy going through what his character does. I’ve heard lots of criticism of his being cast to fill Gregory Peck’s shoes, the main point being that he’s nowhere near “statesmanlike” enough (who is?), but I think that’s kind of the point. Honestly, can you name one modern politician who possesses the sense of dignity and honor that Gregory Peck had? I certainly can’t. So that may have been deliberate, or it might just be a case of weird casting. I could go either way.

It’s kind of fun seeing old character-actor pros like Thewlis, Postlethwaite and Gambon in a movie like this, even if they mostly seem like they’re collecting a paycheck (I mean, why else would they do this?). The casting of Mia Farrow as nasty nanny Mrs. Baylock is certainly evocative – of the wrong movie. Maybe Rosemary changed her name and switched to the other side? When you’re doing a remake, which is going to be compared to another movie, it doesn’t help your case to constantly remind the audience of another, even better movie. Bad idea.

But in all honesty, I have trouble taking this kind of superstitious nonsense seriously in this day and age, and Moore and company don’t do themselves any favors. Parts of this flick play like unintentional comedy (and were received by the audience as such) rather than the straightforward horror tale it aims to be. Especially towards the end, it just gets downright silly, and the movie becomes entertaining for all the wrong reasons. If Moore was aiming to do a parody, this would be just fine. But The Omen is supposed to be a disturbing horror film, and getting those kind of laughs doesn’t jibe with those intentions. I’m not saying Donner’s original was some sort of masterpiece, because I don’t really think that it is. But at least you could watch the thing without getting a case of the giggles. I’m not sure why Fox thought Moore, a guy who previously specialized in action films like Behind Enemy Lines and Flight of the Phoenix, was the right person to remake a beloved horror film. But this is the same studio that hired the Rush Hour guy to make an X-Men movie, and just hired the Underworld guy to make a Die Hard movie. So obviously creative consistency is not a big concern for them.

This is the fundamental difference between what people like me think makes a good horror film, and what people like Ebert and Roeper think makes a good horror film. This movie relies mostly on cheap theatrics like dream sequences with really loud music to punctuate the supposed scariness. Some people think that’s scary – even some people in the audience reacted that way. But then they realized it was all a dream, and they laughed. That’s not scary to me. I could always tell it was a dream, because I’ve seen horror movies before. I admit that I smiled a little bit whenever someone fell for a cheap shock, because it means that the movie is working for them, and I like that. But it didn’t work on me the same way. To me, The Hills Have Eyes is way scarier than this, because some really fucked-up shit happens and it and it ain’t no dream. It’s disturbing because the “evil acts” in it are committed by humans, not some monster or some devil child that couldn’t possibly exist. Monsters aren’t scary to me – people are scary because they can really do some evil shit. They do evil shit every day. Not because they are monsters, or they’re possessed by Satan. Because they’re human. Their “evil” comes from within themselves. The Devil doesn’t make them do it. They do it because they want to, and because they can.

That’s the world we live in, and movies like The Omen simply don’t reflect that. Back in 1976, people really believed in all this Satanism mumbo-jumbo, at least enough for it to freak them out. There was a genuine (if overblown by the media) fear of Satanic cults back then – people thought that human sacrifices could actually be taking place in their own neighborhoods. Movies like this capitalized on that, and maybe even perpetuated it to some extent. It was a different time, a more naïve time. As time has passed, things have become more complicated, and people’s outlooks have changed to reflect that. I don’t know a single person, religious or non-religious, who believes in Satanic cults or thinks that Satan could roam the Earth. The very idea is a fantasy, a “what if?” story that’s interesting to entertain for 2 hours. But you’d have to be functionally retarded or, at the very least, weak-minded to take it literally. “Evil” is not an outside force waiting to be let in so it can fuck everything up. Evil is within us, and everything’s already fucked up. Osama bin Laden may be evil, but he’s a human being who did an evil thing, not a monster who came from another dimension. Serial killers are human, terrorists are human, rapists are human. The best horror films are the ones that acknowledge that the true monsters are us. Some people can’t handle that idea, and I think Ebert and Roeper are among that number. But there are plenty of us who get it, and that’s why movies like this simply aren’t scary anymore.

It’s no so much that the remake is bad – it’s not badly made like The Fog remake, and it’s certainly not as misguided as the Amityville Horror remake (talk about pulling a scam on the audience). It just feels unnecessary, irrelevant. I’m not saying that every horror movie has to be a certain way, or that they can’t use things like ghosts or vampires or possibly even Satan anymore. Of course they can. But for god’s sake, come up with an idea that feels like 2006, not 1976. If you’re going to “update” something, make it relevant. Give it more weight than just cheap scares. Come up with some new ideas. Have a little more ambition than simply carbon-copying what someone else has done. Even a cover band can sound great if they know what to cover and how to do it right. The Omen, unfortunately, is basically a lounge-act version of “Carry On My Wayward Son”. And that’s not a song that anyone really needs to hear ever again.

You know what they should have done? Instead of simply remaking the original movie, they should have covered all three Omen movies in one film. Spend about 20 minutes on his childhood (hitting the highlights), maybe 30 on his teen years, then end with him rising through the political ranks to become President. But don’t portray him as an evil little fucker – spend the whole movie showing us what a great guy he is, how everyone likes him and forgives all the mistakes he makes. Then reveal the true self, the devious, calculated, Machiavellian bastard who’s intended all along to destroy the world. Now that would truly be a movie for our times.

**   6/7/06

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