By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Hell'z still a-poppin' in the remake -- well, it's more a tracing -- of the surprise hit of the 1976 movie season, "The Omen," which gets a rare Tuesday opening in salute to an even rarer day of three sixes.
The original was the first to put high-end stars (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick) in a blood-soaked, Devil-worshiping, supernatural, slick and -- did I say blood-soaked? -- horror movie, which had been theretofore the province of second- and third-tier faces (such as the one belonging to Vincent Price). It was such a hit, it got its director, Richard Donner, in line for a mainstream career (his next film was "Superman," and he later was founder and franchise owner of the "Lethal Weapon" series). One hopes it nicely feathered the nest of those sturdy yeomen of the American industry, Peck and Remick.
The remake is directed by another slickster, the Irishman John Moore, who is no deep thinker (as his "Behind Enemy Lines" confirmed) but, like Donner, he's an able hack -- smooth, stylish, clever, soulless and a hoot. And so's his damned movie. And it is damned.
It's still the same old story, hardly updated, possibly because the same typist is behind the same keyboard, hitting the same keys. That writer would be David Seltzer, here as before earning a solo writing credit. He hits the same high notes as before: a horrifying moral paradox driving a taut, detective-like story ahead, well-lubricated by highly choreographed murders engineered from down under by His Satanic Majesty. Impalements, burnings, beheadings, hangings, all those nasty things done to witches in days of yore. Here they're done again, to the tune of malodorous choral music, only the victims are the chaste, the good and the pure. And on top of that: You get to see Mia Farrow get creamed.
Seltzer's plot is simple and serviceable. When the just-born son of an American diplomat dies in the postnatal care theater, the father (Liev Schreiber) knows it will break his fragile wife's heart, if not her brain. A priest points out that an unwed mother has just perished in giving birth; could we not switch the now parentless newborn for the now-dead newborn?
He doesn't bother to tell the young man that the baby's mommy was a hyena or maybe a jackal or some other slavering canine from beyond the Styx. That deed done, the son Damien grows into a beautiful boy but one with an odd sense of aloofness. He never speaks but projects a spooky sense of implacable serenity. At the same time, he can issue a laser-shot of contempt through his beady little eyes (the production must have looked for months before it came up with a tot with just such a willed coldness to his presence in newcomer Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) that would give a black cat a myocardial infarction.
When he's about 4, deaths begin happening around him, each calculated to advance his position; a nanny spectacularly hangs herself (shocking in 1976, still shocking 30 years later). Soon, lovable old Mrs. Baylock (Farrow) has shown up to take over as nanny, and she bonds with Damien and begins radiating nutcase heat waves. A priest (Pete Postlethwaite) who comes to warn the couple (Schreiber's Robert Thorn is, by dint of another weird accident, now full ambassador) seems nuts, but ends up skewered like a Vienna cocktail wienie on a really big toothpick for his trouble. A photographer (David Thewlis) notes suggestive light streaks in the photos he's taken of two early victims, implying their spectacular ends, and so he begins to investigate, first on his own, then with Thorn. Cue the beheading machine.
Anyway, soon enough Daddy begins to wonder if the boy is actually He Whom the Liturgical Chants on the Soundtrack Heavily Suggest to Be Old Scratch in Diapers; that is, the Devil himself, the Antichrist. What's a father to do?
A lot of things stay the same. The movie still has the gloss of a Lincoln Continental commercial as it prowls through swanky European backdrops (Italy, then England; it was filmed mostly in Prague). It's handsome in the way it's fast-moving: sleek, well-engineered, full of gooses and honks.
Some of the casting seems a little off. For example, the heroic parents, David and Katherine Thorn, played in the original by the patrician Peck and Remick, are played by Schreiber and Julia Stiles. Whatever you think of their talent (Schreiber has lots, Stiles less), the truth is they are too young for their roles, which insist that he ends up the ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Schreiber, hardly a patrician, looks more like the ambassador to the Kensington Gardens Courtyard by Marriott. Stiles looks like a hatcheck girl in a '40s melodrama. You keep thinking: Where are the Pecks of yesteryear? What are these kids doing in grown-up clothes?
Still, it works. Moore keeps the thing humming, leaping from atrocity to atrocity. And he gets something weird: that is, the deep and abiding pleasure certain people feel in watching the elaborate extermination tricks assembled diabolically. For Moore, anything can be a killing machine. To cite one example, when a certain character gets that extremely deep crew cut (note to cultural scorekeepers: The ever-progressive American film industry has finally surpassed the Japanese film industry in depicting that magic moment when Mr. Head goes over here and Mr. Body goes over there) he has a laff riot of a time tracking the implausibilities that lead up to it. A roofer ticks a hammer with his foot, it lands squarely on a rusty bolt, shearing it, and thus a heavy steel sign is freed to rotate on a rusty rod, its lower edge picking up the speed and fury of Mme. Guillotine, and it loops down just as today's victim is standing in the arc of its rotation and --
And Moore reiterates the other unsettling, disturbing aspect of "The Omen," which is in itself a cautionary warning of the power of film to manipulate. That is, as the movie rushes toward its finish it subverts the audience into mobhood; it makes us no longer human. It makes us yearn to break our deepest moral code, and harm a child. The guy behind me summed it up: "Kill that little freak!" he implored. Now that's scary.
The Omen (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for disturbing, extreme and graphic violence and some profanity.