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The Omen   C

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Moore
Writer: David Seltzer
Cast: Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Gambon, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick.

Review by Rob Vaux

Credit the remake of The Omen for acknowledging the hideous flaws of the original. Richard Donner's inexplicably canonical 1976 version was an ode to Wagnerian overkill, doling out thunderous revelations of profoundly tacky camp in its tale of a little boy who may be the son of the devil. New director John Moore understands that you can't get genuine scares out of cheap satanic goofiness anymore -- that the silly Dobermans and triple-sixes of the first film aren't going to sell anything beyond giggles behind the hand. Unfortunately, the story's inherent cheesiness proves remarkably difficult to exorcize, and the effort to restore some dignity to the proceedings robs this new Omen of all life.

Before we get to the meat of it, however, a little postulating. There's an inherent dichotomy to movies about the devil. I call it the Dr. Faustus/Dr. No Divide. The first side posits Satan as the adversary of a single individual or small group: he's after someone's soul or hopes to corrupt a mortal to his side, leading to a battle of wits between the ultimate evil spirit and his all-too-human targets. Some of the best movies in the genre adhere to this formula -- from The Devil and Daniel Webster to The Exorcist to Angel Heart -- for it grants Satan the power to truly terrify. Will the protagonists be strong enough to resist him? Can their simple tools of hope and faith overcome an evil that dwarfs their fragile mortality? The uncertainty leads to an inherent sense of drama, and the theological trappings give it a unique flair that a good director can transform into first-rate cinema.

The second variation, however, is on much shakier ground. The Satan-as-Supervillain idea posits all of humanity as his target, not just a few individuals. He's claiming the world for his trophy case, and our collective civilization is nothing more than a mosh pit in the final showdown between good and evil. And that's where the trouble comes in. For the theological underpinnings of such a scenario already dictate the outcome -- a rather positive one if I recall -- diluting the scares with the fundamentally comforting notion that God will emerge triumphant. Oh, the movies downplay the certainty of it -- pulling out some gobbledygook about rewriting the rules, exploiting a cosmic loophole, or simply ignoring God's presence altogether -- but it constantly lurks in the corner, refusing to go away. For if Satan exists (and adheres to all those biblical prophesies that sound so cool when intoned by scary-looking priests), then God must exist as well... and is more powerful to boot. It's a package deal; there's no getting around it. The devil is doomed to second-fiddle status -- by inescapable virtue of the cosmology that spawned him (a cosmology that these kind of movies invariably trumpet as so frightening) -- which means that even if he wins the apocalyptic battle, he's going to lose the war. Against a single human being, he's as scary a villain as you can ask for. But the minute he starts playing for all the marbles, he morphs into the Washington Generals... and his stock as Credible Menace takes a catastrophic drop.

The movies try to get around that by playing up the "scary" trappings -- the black masses, the inverted crosses, the hordes of dogs and flies and poo-flinging baboons -- which usually catapult the affair into over-the-top grotesqueries. Many people feel that the original Omen acquitted itself quite well with the formula. I am not one of them. Donner's film pounced on every occult nuance and hammered them into our forebrains with the subtlety of a Mack truck ("It's a jackal skeleton! A JACKAL SKELETON! Isn't that SCARY?!"). The new version has a little more sense than that, starting with the casting of the very fine Liev Schreiber and the equally capable Julia Stiles, who both know full well the value of understatement. The two play Robert and Katherine Thorn, a high-powered diplomatic couple preparing for the birth of their first child. But when Robert arrives at the Roman hospital where his wife has gone into labor, a pale and not-quite-comforting priest (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) informs him that the newborn baby has died. There is another child on the premises, however: one with no family and in need of a home. Robert could claim the child as his and no one would be the wiser. Eager to spare his wife the trauma of losing a newborn, he agrees. They name the boy Damien and... well, as anyone with even a modicum of pop-culture savvy knows, he grows up to be the last kid in the world the preschool teacher wants to see.

Moore adheres closely to structure of the original, even going so far as to use David Seltzer's 1976 screenplay. The showstopping moments from the first film (a suicidal nanny, an ominous tricycle bump, the aforementioned monkey attack) are in abundant evidence here, but imbued with more subtlety and grace, which makes them much more frightening. At the same time, however, the long spaces in between those moments drag the energy down considerably. Without Donner's lugubrious potboiling, we're slowed to catatonia by mausoleum-like respectability. Moore relies on handsome but overly calculated art direction (courtesy of Katerina Kopicová and Martin Kurel) and some stunt casting in the form of Mia Farrow's infernal governess to hold our interest. Damien himself, played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, is profoundly creepy, but the recent saturation of horror-movie moppets reduces his impact considerably. In the meantime, Moore tries to keep the drama in line by focusing on the Thorns' slow realization of who and what their son is. The restraint is admirable, but also leads to a frightful sense of boredom. Moore catches himself from time to time with a spattering of boo-gotcha moments, but they're very slow in coming and provide little respite from the increasingly turgid dignity.

That places The Omen between a horrid Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, it must avoid the bombastic camp of its subject matter; on the other, it must be sufficiently frightening to hold out attention. It vacillates between them from start to finish, finding an awkward balance at times, but never maintaining it for long. When the climax arrives, Moore surrenders to overkill and delivers a sloppy coda of thunderstorms and sledgehammers that finally sinks the movie beneath it. It may have been inevitable. Whatever charms the original held can still be enjoyed by its fans, and the rest of us don't need an update. Moore's version looks sharper and plays classier than the first film, but still hides the same old silly fright mask underneath. It just can't stop the cheese from smelling, no matter what steps it takes to cover it up.

Review published 06.04.2006.

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