In the original 1976 The Omen, Father Brennan meets Robert Thorn in a park to deliver to him a message about the infernal heritage of his son, Damien. When the two split up, Brennan is left alone and the wind rises. Soon the trees are shaking as the wind howls, and lightning bolts are spitting down at the priest as a chorus chants something sinister in Latin on the soundtrack. He makes a run for a local church, clutching his crucifix for protection, but at the last second takes a lightning rod to the chest. In the 2006 remake, the same scene takes place, mostly with the same dialogue. But this time the meeting takes place beneath a bridge in a ghastly thunderstorm. It’s that detail that shows how weirdly tone-deaf John Moore is in regards to what made Donner’s version work – instead of slowly ramping up the violent weather, creating growing tension, Moore starts with his weather machine cranked up to 11. And this isn’t a case of the 2006 version trying to one up the old fogey version (although there is a touch of that here – Brennan doesn’t just get a lightning rod in his chest, he gets a face full of stained glass shards as well), it’s simply a case of John Moore not understanding why a movie is good. And looking at his resume, that’s not surprising.
The 2006 remake of The Omen is so faithful to the original that the WGA demanded that 1976 screenwriter David Seltzer get the whole writing credit. A hardcore fan of the Donner Omen will be able to watch this version the first time and recite most of the lines as they’re spoken. There are changes – the weather I mentioned above, and Damien goes to the zoo with his class instead of a safari park with just his mom, and there’s a little more business between Thorn and his wife at the beginning – but it’s otherwise so fastidiously faithful you have to wonder what the point is.
It brings up some excellent questions about remakes in general. I’m not against them, and they’ve been happening quite successfully since the earliest days of cinema. Heck, I’ll even defend Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake, at least in concept if not execution, as an interesting experiment. But generally speaking, a remake should bring a new vision to the material, it should be in some way a reinterpretation of the original work through someone else’s eyes. This version of The Omen brings virtually nothing new, and instead shabbily pantomimes through the script of the original.
Moore scored in one area – he has a great cast. Mia Farrow is the indisputable highlight of the movie, playing the satanic nanny Miss Baylock. Unlike the dour goth of the original, her Baylock is more a devil-worshipping Mary Poppins, and she at least seems to be having fun with the proceedings. While all the other actors are generally great, they seem to be aware of what a stinker they’re in, and they have constantly glum looks on their faces. Only the always-terrific David Thewliss manages to find a little bit of playfulness in his take on the David Warner photographer role, but even he gets eventually buried beneath Moore’s “taking it seriously and dully” direction. Liev Schreiber never had a chance – he’s got the kind of gravitas you need to play a Gregory Peck role, but the part is essentially a thankless exposition machine.
Which is something that left me puzzled – The Omen isn’t really a classic. It’s a damn good movie, and a damn well made movie, but it’s got issues. The second act drags, and there’s no mystery, since the whole concept of the movie is predicated on the kid being the Antichrist – while Thorn and the photographer are chasing clues the audience remains many steps ahead of them. A remake could serve as a way to address these issues, to tighten up the second act, to possibly play with our heads a little bit and make us second guess our assumptions about Damien. But the movie’s slavish devotion to the original means that while it never manages to reach the heights Donner did, it definitely manages to reach the depths.
I do have to give Moore’s The Omen points in one area – it has a much better ending than the original. The finale is more or less the same as the 1976 version, but the stakes have been raised in an interesting way that may make you wish for a sequel, which is impressive considering how totally ho-hum the rest of the movie had been. If the 2006 version of The Omen had taken that little flash of ingenuity and spread it around more, the movie may have been worth going to see. As it stands now, The Omen isn’t a complete turd, but it is a film unable to justify its own existence.