Damned Kids!

Washington City Paper | June 12, 2006
In the 06/06/06 version of The Omen, Damien is just so adorable when he scowls. Of course, the little devil is meant to be menacing—he is, after all, the Antichrist. Admittedly, the kid is sometimes a bit freaky, what with the way he seems to be sealed into a world of his own, aloof, apparently deaf and mute, and definitely in tune with the universe’s all-pervading Evil. But mostly he just narrows his eyes at silly adults and dismisses them like any unfiltered grown-up would love to do, and it’s just so gosh-darn cute.

Surprisingly, the utter lack of spookiness of the contemporary Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) in John Moore’s remake of the 1976 classic doesn’t entirely damn this latest in the seemingly never-ending parade of redos. He and The Omen’s original writer, David Seltzer, even added a notable opening scene—though whether it’s truly chilling or truly tasteless is up to you. After the sighting of a comet, two priests fearfully tick off a list of pre-Armageddon events (probably containing a little dramatic tweaking) and the filmmakers accompany a few of them with real news footage. The warnings include massive, deadly floods (the Christmas tsunami, Katrina), a flaming star (the Columbia crash), and balls of fire falling to the earth (yes, the Twin Towers). All that’s left to set the end of days well and truly in motion is the birth of a special bundle of horror, which occurs in Rome on June 6 at 6 a.m.

Elsewhere, Katherine Thorn (Julia Stiles) ends her own pregnancy with a stillbirth. When a priest tells her husband, Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber), the news, he also offers the grieved dad a deal: Another child, born at the same time, has lost his mother. Perhaps a swift switcheroo would spare Katherine the sorrow, and hey, it’ll be the men’s little secret. Astoundingly, Daddy, who’s dumb as a rock (a quality Schreiber nails), agrees. Fast forward to London, where Robert, an ambassador, was appointed after a former official’s freak death. You know what happens next: At Damien’s gigantic fifth birthday party, his nanny joyfully hangs herself. There’s that red-eyed dog, too.

Really, this Omen isn’t as ridiculous as all that might make it seem. Moore amps up the original’s simple eeriness with some updated yet still smartly restrained frights: the required monster-in-the-mirror trick, a silent montage of the satanic images that haunt Robert’s dreams, some unexpected, from-out-of-frame attacks. The gore is minimal by today’s standards, but a couple of the kills are somewhat entertainingly built up with outrageous Final Destination–style complexity. (Expect a desensitized audience to cheer during a particularly graphic beheading.) And the film as a whole is gorgeously stylized, with both the always-stormy outdoors and the Thorns’ mostly white, museumlike home periodically punctuated by flashes of blood red. It’s an especially nice touch when Katherine, whom Satan particularly has it in for, drapes a crimson shawl over her all-white outfit when once again trying to convince Robert that either she’s going nuts or their spawn is, well, a spawn.

The acting is another story. Besides Davey-Fitzpatrick’s low placing in the spooky-child category, there’s the rather inexpert casting of Damien’s parents. The 25-year-old Stiles, with a face fresh enough for Save the Last Dance 2, is hardly mom material, especially when paired with the 38-year-old Schreiber, who was probably born looking middle-aged. Of course, neither of their roles is very taxing—although Stiles, whose main responsibility is to appear spooked, does a better job than the monotone Schreiber. Both make it a pleasure to watch Michael Gambon chew a scene as Bugenhagen, who appears briefly to advise Robert on how to kill his kid (“He’s my son. I raised him for—” Robert says. Bugenhagen, nearly pogoing in frustration, spits out, “He’s not your son. He’s a beast!”). Other minor roles are well-played by Pete Postlethwaite, who serves as the priest who cryptically tries to warn Robert, and Mia Farrow, who here is happy to take care of Rosemary’s baby as the Thorns’ bad-news replacement nanny.

The Omen’s last chapter adds plenty of ghoulish touches to its various flashbacks to that fateful day in the hospital, but the story rarely rises above the level of rote—and sometimes pointless—remake. Indeed, horror nerds will likely find the laughs outnumbering the improvements. But with throwaways such as An American Haunting, Silent Hill, Wolf Creek—stop me whenever—recently sullying the screens, Take Two on the Antichrist’s birth is, at the very least, a small step up in the genre.

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