Hollywood has always seemed most comfortable portraying Evil as something audiences can get their minds around: serial killers slaughtering a few dozen minor characters, oversexed teens hunted down by oddly puritanical butchers — that sort of thing.
But in remaking the 1976 horror benchmark, “The Omen,” director John Moore opted for another sort of terror, employing the post-9/11 moral and political climate in the U.S. as a roadmap to Armageddon — the literal, biblical Armageddon.
“John was able to convince me that the film could be as effective in 2006 as it was in 1976,” offered Liev Schrieber, who plays U.S. Ambassador and antsy new dad Robert Thorn in Moore’s film. “There’s no coincidence that [horror and anti-establishment] films flourished in 1976 — in particular films like ’The Omen.’ It felt like with the tail end of the Vietnam War and disturbing domestic violence in America, there was something being vented by that film, and I think the conditions are ripe for that in 2006.”
In a bid to update his otherwise loyal-to-the-original remake, Moore opens the film with a priest briefing the Pope on a series of catastrophic events — 9/11, the December 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina — that seem to correspond to passages in the Book of Revelations.
The birth of the anti-Christ, the signs seem to say, is imminent.
Fast-forward to a young, wealthy Thorn racing to a Rome hospital, only to be told that his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) has miscarried. Instead of delivering the grim news to the groggy, recovering Katherine, however, Thorn shows up at her bedside with a seemingly healthy, seemingly healthy, perfect baby boy, Damien, of questionable parentage — a boy born at 6 a.m. on the sixth day of the 6th month.
And thus begins (again) the bloody tale of a demonic lad mowing down all in his path.
Except for a handful of new scenes, Moore pretty much sticks to the plot of the original film — it is, after all, nearly impossible to improve on a film that, along with “The Exorcist,” laid out the blueprint for the demonic-horror genre.
But the casting of Stiles does bring a fresh naiveté to the role of the exasperated, increasingly terrified Katherine. While Lee Remick was in her 40s when she originated the role, Stiles is 25, and she tailored her performance to her age.
“It works really well that I’m a young, inexperienced mother,” she said of the role, “because a more mature woman would be able to assert herself and stick up for herself. Part of what I wanted to explore in [the remake] was all the guilt and confusion that my character feels. Her first instinct is not to be afraid of her son but to doubt her own maternal instincts.”
All in all, the updated “Omen” is not so much “new and improved” as it is broadened to incorporate manmade evils reflected in today’s headlines.
One cast member with experience of onscreen evil, Mia Farrow, re-creates the role of Mrs. Baylock, made famous in the original by Billie Whitelaw. As Damien’s chief enabler, Farrow is perfectly cast as an angelic nanny hired to replace the previous one — a young woman who happened to hang herself, in highly public fashion, at Damien’s birthday party. Playing caretaker to the human incarnation of the devil is, of course, hardly new to Farrow; 38 years ago, as a very young, fresh-faced actress, she birthed a devil-child in Roman Polanski’s psychological horror classic, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Could it be that the once-victim Rosemary has grown up, accepted Satan as her personal savior and is now a satanic evangelizer?
“Nothing rang a bell,” Farrow said when asked about the connection to “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Rosemary was a victim and [Mrs. Baylock] is a perpetrator. What is similar is the idea of the personification of evil.”
For Farrow, who was raised Catholic, evil is far more nuanced than the simple angels and devils she was taught about while growing up.
“We don’t have to look further,” she said, “than Darfur to see manifestations of the terrible capacity to destroy — to see evil, if you like. The enemy is within.”
As for the film’s director, the enemy might well be the ratings board of the MPAA.
“There’s something bad going on in this country,” Moore declared in his native Irish accent, clearly directing his venom at the MPAA, which he says sent him a letter early on, telling him that his film was flirting with a “hard R” rating.
“If the trailer for ’The Omen’ was a shot of Tweety Bird sitting on a tree on a summer’s day for 30 seconds and it says ’The Omen’ at the end, then you can’t show that trailer with any PG-13 movie,” Moore marveled. “It’s a f—ing First Amendment issue! They’re supposed to judge on content, not on perception.”
Much of the violence in Moore’s remake, meanwhile, is pleasantly CGI-free. In the original, as anyone who saw it will remember, a sheet of glass slid off a truck and beheaded one of the film’s stars. In the remake, the same character meets a similar demise — albeit this time in a masterfully shot, Rube Goldberg-esque decapitation-by-billboard.
“My little salute to the advertising industry,” Moore said with a conspiratorial grin.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Omen.”
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