Title: The Omen
Director: Richard Donner
Screenwriters: David Seltzer
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens
The Omen is a remake so direct as to be almost identical to Richard Donner’s 1976 movie of the same name — not quite shot-for-shot a lá Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, but close. Many people deplore this sort of exercise, citing creative bankruptcy and cynical, lazy capitalism as its motivation. I am conflicted. It seems to me, for one thing, that the charges of creative bankruptcy are only borne out if it turns out that these projects are replacing worthier efforts in the studio pipeline, which is probably true to some extent but not to the point of being a 1:1 correlation. Also — and this is where I might to lose some of you — I find the idea inherently interesting. All things in moderation, of course; if we started getting one of these a week I would quickly go nuts. But as a general matter, the notion of seeing how a classic film would look if made today is intriguing to me.
Even with that, there remains the requirement that the resulting movie be good, and there’s the rub for The Omen. Directed by John Moore from the original script by David Seltzer (an uncredited script doctor provides some minor changes and updates), the film is a facsimile that has lost a lot in the replication process. It’s the same in all the obvious ways, but not in the ways that are important.
And I don’t mean that in some intangible cine-metaphysical sense, either — it doesn’t merely “feel different”; it’s not just that “there’s no there there.” This Omen is different in concrete ways: it’s less scary, less sinister, less suspenseful, less involving. Having been art directed to within an inch of its life, it has an oppressive gloss that substitutes for the original film’s energy. The hip, stylized lifelessness infects the performers, particularly Liev Schreiber, who wanders through the Gregory Peck role in a coma-like state. Like Schreiber’s version of Ambassador Robert Thorn, Peck’s character spent much of the film in denial about what we all guess must be happening, but it was accompanied by an intensifying nervousness, an edge growing sharper as his surroundings grew stranger. Schreiber’s Thorn may become more concerned as the proceedings transcend any possible threshold of reasonableness — I don’t know — you would have to ask him. I couldn’t tell from my perspective.
Another consequence of the facelift is that where the original invoked an organic, primal terror, this film turns everything into a Movie Moment. The jump scare quotient skyrockets, for example; the film even adds a series of incoherent dream sequences just so Julia Stiles can close a bathroom mirror to reveal something indescribably evil behind her — indescribably, because I have no idea what the hell it is. The set design becomes as gaudy and self-consciously imposing as possible (vast marble expanses for rooms, a psychiatrist’s office that looks like the set of an overdramatic game show); everyone shows up dressed in bright red at just the right moments; locations are bathed in shadows just so. Everything is calculated, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also all been done before, and here it’s not pulled off with much imagination or real style. It looks good, but it makes the movie predictable, sanitized, neutered.
To underestimate this material would be a mistake. Seltzer’s screenplay was strong in 1976, and it remains strong today. The last twenty minutes of the film, moreover, threaten to get something going, as the pace picks up and Mia Farrow’s Mrs. Baylock starts wielding what looks like an enormous croquet mallet. And if, as I do, you find this sort of story creepy in itself, you might at least be interested.
More than anything, The Omen is instructive. Two films, twenty years apart, are practically identical, yet are night and day. As intriguing and potentially lucrative as the ultra-faithful remake concept can be, sometimes following through can be sheer folly.