The Omen (2006) Review

Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber), an American politician living in Rome, receives news at 6 AM on June 6th that his wife, Katherine (Julia Stiles), has given birth to a stillborn child. To shield his wife from the horror, he accepts a priest's offer to replace their dead child with a baby born the same night whose mother died in childbirth. Shortly afterwards, Thorn is appointed Ambassador to Great Britain, for which he departs, taking with him Katherine and their young child, ominously christened Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). Life is peaceful until, on Damien's sixth birthday, his nanny hangs herself before a crowd of horrified onlookers, with a cry to Damien of "It's all you for you!" The nanny's death is just the first of a series of sinister happenings and, as Thorn investigates further, he becomes convinced that the child he is raising is the son of the Devil...

Sound familiar? It should: it's exactly the same synopsis I wrote for the Collector's Edition DVD release of 1976's The Omen back in June this year (review here). I now find myself reviewing another film called The Omen, featuring the exact same plot and characters and, on a number of occasions, the exact same dialogue. The 2006 version of The Omen is everything that a remake should not be: a slavish carbon copy of its predecessor. Obviously commissioned for no reason other than the fact that the marketing possibilities of a 6/6/06 release date were too good to pass up, its existence is something like serving up a meal several days past its sell-by date, where what was once a tasty dish has now become cold and stale.


If I was organising a class on cinematic technique, the viewing of both versions of The Omen would definitely be a mandatory part of the curriculum, since the two, watched back to back, serve as an extremely effective demonstration of how a film can succeed or fail almost entirely based on how its director chooses to execute it. After all, the script, when all said and done, is hardly a masterpiece: David Seltzer wrote it not because he had any deep interest in the Occult but because he needed the money. It was a combination of several factors, most noticeably Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score and Richard Donner's slick direction, that turned it into one of the most gripping and enjoyable horror films ever made. Director John Moore, who takes a nearly identical script, with only minor modifications (considered so minute that the WGA denied credit to Dan McDermott, the writer brought in to "reimagine" it), succeeds in turning out a deadweight from almost exactly the same material.

The differences in technique are visible right from the start, arguably nowhere more clearly than in the scene in which Thorn arrives at the hospital, and is greeted with the news that his newborn son is dead. Donner plays the scene for its stillness, favouring wide shots and largely static camerawork. Moore, on the other hand, shoots the scene with the camera swaying around like a lunatic, while the claustrophobic close-ups serve only to make the scene more nauseating. It's a matter of personal experience, I suppose, but I know which version more effectively captures the delivering of tragic news, and it definitely isn't Moore's. Another case in point: the scene where Thorn meets Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton in the original, Pete Postlethwaite in the remake) and learns about his son's identity. In the original, Donner had the scene take place on a tranquil afternoon in autumn, with the wind gradually rising and the tension slowly building to a crescendo. Moore, instead, shoots the whole scene at night in the middle of a thunderstorm and has his actors shout their lines over a cacophony of background noise. One is eerie and genuinely unsettling; the other is sensory overkill.


Before, I mentioned that almost exactly the same script was used for both films, to the remake's detriment. However, the minor changes made by McDermott are perhaps even more destructive than his otherwise slavish faithfulness to Seltzer's material. The new opening sequence, showing an emergency meeting in the Vatican, is utterly ridiculous, using photographs of real-life disasters like 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami as evidence of the Antichrist's arrival. Not only is the sight of a group of priests solemnly nodding their heads and whispering horrified prayers at the sight of this crackpot theory verging on hilarious, it disrupts the momentum of the narrative and firmly establishes the events that are about to take place as utterly real. In the original, Donner allowed for the possibility that Thorn could in fact simply be deluded; Moore either thinks his audience isn't smart enough to make up its own mind, or is himself not smart enough to realise the territory that could be mined if he were to allow for ambiguity.

It's not just Moore's treatment of the subject matter that irks: his film also looks incredibly boring. Generally speaking, the recent trend to dig 1970s horror films out of the vaults and remake them has been accompanied by higher production values and glossier cinematography (whether or not such "improvements" are justified). The original The Omen was actually a fairly cheap effort (Gregory Peck took a pay cut, and the bulk of the budget went to securing Jerry Goldsmith for the score), but it looked beautiful, thanks to the keen visual sense of Donner and cinematographer Gil Taylor, who made the unusual decision to shoot the largely character-driven drama in Scope. Moore's film is the first horror remake I've seen that actually looks less polished than its predecessor. Framed at 1.85:1, it loses the scale of the original, and, much of the time, looks drab and grotty, almost like a TV movie in places, something which no amount of fancy digital grading can hide, while the continual use of the colour red to foreshadow death is staggeringly ham-fisted.


Even the generally impressive cast is a disaster. In the role of Thorn, Liev Schreiber, more youthful and supposedly more "relevant" to today's audiences than Gregory Peck, is as wooden as a forest. The same accusation could also be made about Peck's performance in the original, it's true, but the difference is that Peck carried with him such presence and respect that, as Donner put it, if he thinks his child is the Antichrist, it must be true. Schreiber doesn't carry this level of baggage, and as a result has to get by on his performance alone, which is decidedly apathetic. Julia Stiles, too, try as she might, is utterly unconvincing as his wife. She's far too young, and delivers her lines as if she were simply reading them from the page. Meanwhile, as Damien, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick makes a poor substitute for Harvey Stephens. The horror of the original version came in no small part from the notion that a completely normal little boy could be a thing of innate evil. Davey-Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, continually tries self-consciously to be scary - something which he quite categorically is not. He glowers and plays to the camera, but is never remotely convincing. This is not a child with evil inside him, but a child who has been told to play evil.

The rest of the performances are merely unremarkable, with Michael Gambon, Pete Postlethwaite and David Thewlis squandered in roles which don't really allow them to deliver anything but the bare essentials. Mention must, however, go to Mia Farrow, who inexplicably plays the sinister Mrs. Baylock as some sort of happy-go-lucky evangelist. Presumably, the intention was to contrast her cheery naivety with her evil intentions, but the effect comes across as infantile and never once comes close to matching the chilling performance of Billie Whitelaw in the original. Compare, for instance, her initial encounter with Damien, where she informs the child that she is "here to protect [him]". When Whitelaw delivers the line, it's chilling. Farrow strips it of all its threat and reads it as a sincere statement of good intent. It's bizarre, given that the rest of the film is at such pains to portray the events as literal manifestations of the Devil, that the portrayal of Mrs. Baylock goes so far in the other direction.


The only truly effective moments come from a handful of dream sequences not in the original film, although they "scare" by suddenly playing loud noises instead of actually unsettling the audience. Meanwhile, Marco Beltrami's generic horror score (the one that he has recycled since Scream) is an even poorer substitute for Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning effort than I ever thought possible, its only decent moments being the occasions in which he mimics Goldsmith's poetic love theme from the original.

The biggest problem, perhaps, is that the original has become such an icon of horror cinema that it is impossible to imagine the same events taking place in 2006. The name Damien, after all, has become so intrinsically linked to the Devil (thanks in no small part to The Omen's success) that a modern film in which a child called Damien turns out to be the Antichrist is verging on comedy. To be brutally honest, The Omen is not a film that needed to be remade. Those involved have nothing fresh to say, and are simply piggybacking on the marketing possibilities of the title and release date. I'm sure this is one of those occasions where defenders of the remake will be lining up to accuse me of unfairly slating it simply because I love the original, but I would like to think that I'm not so closed-minded that as to demean a film simply because of personal bias. Simply put, this film is a waste of celluloid and serves no purpose whatsoever.


DVD Presentation

Presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, The Omen gets a typical 20th Century Fox transfer. Soft and diffuse, with noticeable edge enhancement and the occasional visible compression artefact, it's serviceable but unremarkable. Indeed, the most recent DVD release of the original film, now 30 years old, looks considerably better.

The audio is much better, coming in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 variants, with the latter especially impressing with its excellent clarity, punchy bass and nice use of ambient sound effects. During the audio commentary, director John Moore recommends that those with decent audio equipment turn up the volume to truly appreciate the excellent work that went into the sound design - and I would have to agree, since it's the only aspect of the film that impresses on any level.

English subtitles are also provided for both the film and the extras (including the audio commentary).


Extras

Somewhat surprisingly, Fox have shelled out on a decent array of extras for this film - more than it either deserves or requires, given that there is very little that can be said about it beyond the most perfunctory remarks. This is especially true of the audio commentary, featuring director John Moore, producer Glen Williamson and editor Dan Zimmerman, which is dry and uninteresting, as the three men make generic remarks about how much fun they had making the film (you'd think they'd be more enthusiastic, then - Moore especially sounds utterly bored by the whole affair) and how great everyone who worked on it was. Most damagingly, they say virtually nothing about the original or in what way they feel that their take on it is worthwhile, beyond Moore's rather bizarre assertion that the Vatican framing device somehow justifies the whole thing.

Omenisms, meanwhile, is a 37-minute making-of documentary. Adopting the "fly on the wall" technique that seems to be becoming increasingly popular (presumably because the cheapest way to assemble a documentary is to simply go on location with a camcorder and shoot footage on the fly), but interspersed the occasional on-camera interview with various cast and crew members, it's too long for its subject matter, as nothing particularly untoward is revealed. Once again, of course, the usual "The Omen curse" story is dragged out as those involved attribute any setbacks (such as film deing damaged) to hellish intervention.

Composer Marco Beltrami also shows up for a 10-minute piece on the Abbey Road sessions, where he introduces some key themes and explains the instruments and theories behind them. It's nothing remarkable, but presumably of interest to those who are musically inclined.

Revelation 666, meanwhile, is a 22-minute documentary on the subject of the number 666, and what (if anything) it actually means. A number of people are interviewed, from film scholars to goth posers to religious lunatics, all of whom have their own take on it, which range from outlandish conspiracy theories to far-fetched interpretations of ancient scriptures. The scariest part, essentially, is less the subject matter itself but rather how seriously they all take their own crackpot conjectures.

Two extended scenes are also provided - slightly gorier versions of the impaling and beheading sequences - as well as an alternate ending, whose only difference, as far as I can tell, is that it is once again slightly more violent.

Finally, the teaser trailer and two theatrical trailers are included, as well as a trailer for the Collector's Edition release of the original The Omen, and previews for various other Fox releases.


Overall

Fox have served up an acceptable enough disc for their remake of The Omen, but, given how utterly shoddy the film itself is, there's really nothing to recommend here at all. I would strongly advise anyone contemplating picking up a copy of this remake to instead seek out the infinitely superior original, now available in an excellent 2-disc Collector's Edition set.

Film
2 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

3

out of 10
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