One can’t necessarily blame Fox for remaking The Omen. It represents a name brand, and every studio in town had been going through any horror franchise with even vague clout. Most of these have met with middling-at-best critical reaction. Meanwhile the box office has just about justified the expense but the telltale drop off following the first weekend that indicated none of them were successfully reinvented for a new generation. The Omen isn’t just a horror franchise, however. For Fox it represents a horror blockbuster, perhaps not in comparison to the likes of Spielberg and Lucas, but nevertheless one of their Top Ten films of the 1970s.
The mainstream horror movie was really born with The Exorcist in 1973, a phenomenon in the genre that has still known no equal forty years later. The key to films of this ilk was psychological terror; a non-corporeal, rather than visceral, dread that manifested in the everyday. Families were afflicted by intangible evil, taking possession of, or incarnating in, their children (The Exorcist, The Omen) or setting up residence in their homes, the centre of all that is holy in an increasingly areligious society (The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist a few years later). Was this a reflection of growing affluence and comfort; with the means to raise a family the average middle-class American now had the luxury to attend to the rot at the heart of the nuclear family? Possibly, but horror has always been the genre most welcoming of diverse readings and subtexts (even more than science fiction).
But The Omen also had apocalyptic portentousness going for it. Couching itself in Christian end-times lore of the coming of the Antichrist, it took its cues from the Catholic guilt of The Exorcist, but appropriated a more epic canvas. Its protagonists were not merely affluent, but rich, and they lived on the world stage, not a pocket of suburbia. Gregory Peck played the US Ambassador to Great Britain, and little Damien was expected to rise to the presidency. It featured set piece deaths, just like the previous year’s Jaws (by impalement, by decapitation) but it was a glossy kind of horror; I hesitate to say “family friendly”, but a far cry from the gore and dismemberments of Romero’s zombie series or the extreme terrors created by Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper. Further softening the horror hammer were elements of one of the decades rising sub genres, the conspiracy movie; the worlds of politics and church congregate as dark forces conspire to put Satan in office.
And so, Fox made two sequels (the finality of David Seltzer’s script for the original was resisted by Richard Donner and Alan Ladd, Jr.) to diminishing returns. And that seemed to be it. But Fox has generally been marked out by the tatty approach it takes to its properties (the odd TV movie aside). But Fox always had an eye to resuscitating its franchises. The success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was more through luck than diligence. One only has to look at the rocky paths of the X-Men, Die Hard and the Alien and Predator series to see that knocking out undiscerning product has been the main a priority. True, other studios are also guilty. But Fox has made crapping on much-loved originals the norm.
The announcement of David Moore, Fox’s in-house pet director (he has made all five of his features with the studio, suggesting some kind of demonic pact in itself), spelt concern from the off. Moore recently crapped on the Die Hard franchise (time will tell if it spells the death knell for the series) and had previously helmed an unnecessary and tepid remake of Flight of the Phoenix.
Curiously, The Omen appears to utilize David Seltzer’s original script (if it has been given a once-over it isn’t evident), inviting comparisons with Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake (but without the shot-for-shot gimmick to at least justify the claim that it was only ever intended as an expensive art experiment). But why? Surely, it represents a golden opportunity to tap into fears over 2012? Instead, Fox have binned their franchise for another twenty years by plain not giving a shit.
Moore’s one inspiration appears to have been to make the Thorns significantly younger. If ever there’s an example of decent actors unable to salvage an utterly bland film, it’s this. Liev Schreiber is usually the best part of any film he attaches himself to (invariably as a supporting player) but here he manages to be near forgettable. Julia Stiles is likewise hamstrung. David Thewlis makes a serviceable David Warner replacement (Moore has even cast a similar “type”). Mia Farrow is probably the standout as nanny Mrs. Baylock, going for a different tone to Billie Whitelaw. Pete Postlethwaite is earnest but all at sea, and has none of the impact of Patrick Troughton’s Father Brennan.
Most damagingly, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick is absolutely terrible as Damien. Apparently, no one informed him he was playing evil incarnate, which may be why his “Damien face” is suggestive not so much of Machiavellian machinations as trapped wind.
It’s difficult to tell if Moore just doesn’t care, or he’s working to the best of his abilities and the results are never better than plodding. Every choice he makes is artless, tiresome and obvious. Showing the elapse of time as Damien gets older? Break out the faked home movie footage. Trying to instill shock/fear? Quick, insert a few flash cuts and some jarring strings on the soundtrack. He manages to eke the life and tension out of any given scene, as if it’s a test of how poorly one can render source material. Damien’s freak-out on the way to church is unintentionally hilarious, as are the headlines showing “Priest killed in bizarre tragedy”. Technically, the revisited decapitation sequence is very good. But like every other aspect of the film, it is predictable and tension-free.
The Omen remake is worse than a really bad film in some respects; it’s an utterly banal one. It has no reason to exist other than the (weak) box office returns its name guaranteed. Oh, wait. There was a reason; they opened it 6/6/06, didn’t they? That makes it all worthwhile. At least a cynical reimagining would have been something. Whether if stumbled or not, it could have claimed to be attempting a fresh angle rather than repeating every plot beat verbatim. John Moore is three-for-three on fumbling Fox properties now. I’m sure it won’t prevent them from allowing him to defecate afresh on whatever archive material they carelessly wish to disinter next.