Review: “The Omen”

The first time I heard they were remaking “The Omen” I had to ask…’why?’. Having seen the remake, I’m still left with the same question. Time has been kind to Richard Donner’s original 1976 effort, the thriller having earned itself a solid notch on the belt of the supernatural horror genre. Yet many seem to forget that upon its initial release, “The Omen” was essentially seen as a pale imitator of masterpieces like “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby” which had both opened to great success before it.

Rewatching it again the other week, the film holds up better than many of the other efforts in the genre that still get churned out today. Even more surprisingly it yielded a half-decent initial sequel. Still, it remains the somewhat disappointing sister when compared to those other two benchmarks of the genre, and is ultimately a flawed but still highly effective bit of work.

This remake however is not a masterpiece, the complete opposite in fact. The whole point of a remake is to either improve upon a flawed film, or to bring a new and/or different perspective to a classic tale. ‘Omen’ does neither, rather it’s more like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” – essentially a shot for shot remake of the original, but with weaker performances and more deliberate ‘jump scares’ to get the teen girls screaming and gripping their boyfriends in fear.

In many ways it’s disturbing how much Director John Moore has adhered to the original film, so much so that those familiar with it in any way will very quickly get irritated or bored with this rehash. Even those new to the tale will find it’s now somewhat dated material and the inherent flaws from the original still visible, despite various attempts to hide them by ‘jazzing up’ the horror quotient.

How did this happen? Moore is partly responsible, but I’m sure Fox pressuring him to hit the target release date has not helped. The pair first worked on the odious “Behind Enemy Lines” in 2001, a film best described as the cinematic equivalent of some drunk taking a dump on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Their second was 2004’s “Flight of the Phoenix”, a remake of a classic 1960’s adventure film. That however was a movie that has been practically forgotten by modern culture, so Moore had much greater freedom with his characters and story. He ended up delivering a lightly entertaining but forgettable action vehicle that was loyal to the original film but not to the point of it being a crux.

In the case of “The Omen” though, he’s much more mindful of the original’s impact on its audience and so almost never strays from it. The script has had maybe five lines of its dialogue changed, that’s it. Even very minor scenes are not only in the same style settings, but shot and lit in ways that are the same or on a ridiculously bigger scale that screams Hollywood interference. They’ve kept it so close to the material that even many of the original film’s flaws – the endless reciting of the poem, the reason behind the priest’s thigh birthmark, etc. still pop up with no explanation.

With so much used from the original, the filmmakers have mishandled the four things which still resonate from it today – the deaths, the tone, the performances and the music. The most immediately noticable difference is the music. Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme with its chilling Latin choir chants immediately unsettled you, whilst the incidental music cleverly added atmosphere to an assortment of scenes ranging from the creepy dogs to the shocking deaths. Marco Beltrami’s redux of Goldsmith’s work is a wash, forgettable white noise I can’t recall a single note of now – just 24 hours after I saw it.

Also, right from the start you’ll notice the film’s very minor cosmetic changes to make it more contemporary. There’s a vague bit at the start and end where high members of the Vatican are talking about these coming events to an ailing Pope. In one rather surprising scene they link recent tragedies such as 9/11, the Challenger disaster and the South-East Asian tsunami to the prophecies in Revelations about the coming of the Anti-Christ. Yet that one bit, along with an extra death to make Schrieber’s new occupation more credible, are the only true moments of new material here.

The other scenes play out like before but Moore ditches the old film’s well-timed suspenseful build-ups in favour of extraordinary loud jump shocks. For example, instead of the dogs slowly amassing above the cemetery and adding a growing sense of dread to that sequence, they just suddenly appear. The wife has several prophetic nightmares full of horror imagery, and yet none of it is as memorable as that dizzying shot in the original of the evil nanny staring as Damien rides his tricycle around the camera. Even the deaths are ‘spruced up’ and in doing so take away from their simplistic horror.

The “Omen” movies in many ways were precursors to the “Final Destination” films – the series was notable for all its deaths being somewhat gruesome accidents in which an invisible hand seems to play a part. Here they essentially keep all but one of the deaths done like the original movie but make some cosmetic changes. Someone doesn’t just get speared, they get speared and rained on with broken glass for example. In another, someone doesn’t just fall from a first storey staircase, rather they fall from a second storey one. Funnily enough the original’s most famous death is the only one that gets a pretty decent and different reinterpretation, but it’s not enough justification for a whole new film.

The performances are the final and biggest nail in the coffin though. Whilst Schrieber and Stiles are both too young to be in the position they’re in, both are proven actors who could make it believable – and yet neither really seems to try. Stiles comes off the better of the two, and adds some more maternal qualities that were missing from Lee Remick’s original turn. On the other hand, she fails to pull off her character’s slowly slipping away sanity as effectively, mostly relying on exaggerated nervous swallowing to convey unease.

Schrieber however seems to be sleepwalking through his role, displaying none of the compelling depth he’s shown with other films including recent remakes like “The Manchurian Candidate”. So, when the final horrific decision has to be made, you simply don’t feel or empathise with the hesitancy and outrage that you should be feeling. Gregory Peck, admittedly a little too old for the part when he played it, nevertheless was able to convey the emotions far more effectively.

Not helping is the kid who’s creepy and seems to be aware that he is, right from the outset. It undermines the film as you sort of want this kid to die right from the get go, unlike the chubby little boy from the original who at least seemed like he hadn’t escaped from wherever they kept “The Boys from Brazil” locked up. Then comes the smaller stunt casting roles – Mia Farrow as an evil nanny sounds great on paper but she’s blander than bran, lacking that icy sinister edge required, so her final homicidal tantrum proves laughable more than anything else.

Great thesps such as Michael Gambon and Pete Postlethwaite have minor roles as priests, and both fail to bring that dark edge and sense of desperation that Leo McKern and Patrick Troughton were able to imbue in their roles in the original. Only David Thewlis, taking over the great David Warner’s shoes as the paparazzi photographer who helps Schrieber, manages to at least feel like he’s giving a half decent performance on his own terms.

Ultimately pointless, the remake of “The Omen” is exactly as it appears – a marketing ploy to exploit the admittedly intriguing release date gimmick. There is absolutely nothing new here, nothing to justify why it was made and nothing of redeeming value short of a few (and admittedly effective) jumps that work more because of loud music blaring rather than actual scares. Some of the shots are grander, some of the deaths more elaborate, but it comes at the cost of any real sense of atmosphere, emotion or suspense. The only evil going on here is the two hours you’ll waste watching it.