Of all the sources they could choose to be slavishly faithful to, they pick “The Omen”? In case you’ve forgotten, the 1976 thriller about a kid named Damien who might be the spawn of Satan was no prize to begin with. It was slowly paced and had Lee Remick as the remarkably bland surrogate mother to the devil, though it did have an enjoyably over-the-top Gregory Peck as her husband. (Charlton Heston was approached first. Oh, if only!)
Now, after three schlocky sequels, we get a remake of the original that uses David Seltzer’s 1976 screenplay almost without alteration. The dialogue in many scenes is verbatim from the original, and the few new scenes (mostly focusing on the Catholic Church’s reaction to the just-born Antichrist) don’t add much. A few adjustments to bring it up-to-date — the hero is now pointedly non-religious and even atheist, cuz that’s cool nowadays — and that’s it.
Liev Schreiber, as bland as Lee Remick but less pretty, fills the Gregory Peck role as Robert Thorn, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to England. He’s been living in Rome, where his son was born, died, and was replaced by an alternate baby without his wife’s knowledge. Played by Julia Stiles (who is as bland as, well, Julia Stiles), Katherine Thorn thinks there’s something odd about her little Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), but she’s can’t quite put her finger on it. And Robert is never with the kid long enough to notice anything amiss, besides sorta not wanting to know that the baby he swapped for his real one might be Lucifer’s child.
The family settles in to its vast London manor, where the nanny celebrates Damien’s fifth birthday by committing suicide in full view of the party guests. That’s awful, but if you think about it, it’s still less traumatic than if they’d hired a clown.
She doesn’t just kill herself, though. First she sees a black dog. The movie seems to think this is a very important detail, so I figured I’d mention it.
Damien is friends with the black dog, but no one else is, except for the creepy replacement nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow), who appears out of nowhere like Scary Poppins and is duty-bound to protect the adorable li’l Antichrist from harm.
And he is cute, too! Mercy me, I could just gobble him up! Young Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick isn’t called upon to do much “acting,” per se, just scowl and look malignant. But when he does so, he doesn’t look evil; he looks like a 5-year-old pretending to be evil. Adorable, in other words, like a puppy pretending to be vicious. Your Antichrist, ladies and gentlemen.
But Damien has some dark powers, including the power to frighten monkeys and the power to make sandwiches late at night. (Both of these events are portrayed with chilling starkness.) If that’s not scary enough, sometimes the movie makes things happen really suddenly, to make you think, “Oh, that was scary!,” when really it was just startling. The original film refrained from such shenanigans; the remake, being made in 2006, seems obligated to indulge in them.
There is a priest named Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite) who warns Robert Thorn about his potentially evil son, and a photographer named Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) who helps Robert look for answers. They wind up in the company of an artifact-collector/ranting lunatic named Bugenhagen (Michael Gambon), and here’s a fun game you can play: Every time someone says “Bugenhagen,” giggle at what a funny name it is.
Robert is an obtuse fellow (which was also true when Peck played him), sometimes intentionally refusing to face facts and sometimes just thick-headed. After his wife suffers a miscarriage, the doctor says, “There was damage to the womb, so she might not be able to…” and Robert says, “Might not be able to what?!” Might not be able to play the violin, you moron, what do you think?
But anyway. The film’s dogged devotion to the original goes beyond using the same screenplay and its accompanying specious reasoning and nearly suspense-free plot. Director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines,” “Flight of the Phoenix”) even re-creates some of the same shots, filming certain scenes so they look exactly the same, which I guess will only be apparent if you’re really, really familiar with the original or if, like me, you watch it the same afternoon as you watch the remake.
Moore is a serviceable director, but he can’t match Richard Donner’s utilitarian elegance. A Donner movie always looks like it was made by somebody who knew how to throw a scene together, even if the content of the scene is ridiculous. Moore puts no stamp of his own on “The Omen,” apparently content to be a hired hand and nothing more.
But why remake the film at all if you’re just going to do a carbon copy? That is the $666 question. This film is for people who’ve never seen the original, and who are easily scared by mediocre horror films. You know who you are.
C- (1 hr., 50 min.; )