When I was a moviegoing teenager, two movies scared the devil out of me: The Exorcist and The Omen -- the first for its unrelenting, visceral intensity, the second for its brooding atmosphere, punctuated by moments of schlock-value shock. While The Exorcist was the true cinematic treasure of the pair, The Omen had the spookhouse goods -- snarling rottweilers, an evil nanny, rampaging baboons, and spectacular deaths (including the impalement of a priest and the grand slam beheading of a photographer played by David Warner). It also had a little black-haired five-year-old named Damien who stood to inherit the Earth. (Damien, who in Omen III: The Final Conflict grew up to be Sam Neill, finally made good on his attempt to instigate Armageddon.)
There was no scene in The Omen that unnerved me more than the one in which Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his paparazzi chum (Warner) encounter a pack of demon dogs in a cemetery. While escaping, Thorn gets his arm impaled on an iron fence spike, and slowly, painfully wrenches it free. Thirty years later the image still makes me queasy. It's an indelible moment, as is the one in which Thorn's wife, Katherine (Lee Remick) takes a plunge from a balcony ledge (courtesy Damien) and lands next to a flapping, dying goldfish.
Try as it might, the remake of The Omen can't even begin to recreate these moments. Instead, it offers up watered-down versions, hoping you'll forget the original. Fat chance. Katherine's fall, in the new version, is preceded by a vase of flowers. And dirt is not as visually interesting as a shattering goldfish bowl.
The real question lurking here is why remake The Omen at all? Particularly if you're not going to do anything to improve upon the original, in which a couple learn that they're literally raising the devil's spawn. The producers even hired David Seltzer, who penned the first Omen, to revise his screenplay. But Seltzer takes the lazy way out, following his original screenplay's action to the letter (in some cases, even the dialogue matches word-for-word). The only aspect Seltzer improves upon is the hospital encounter between an immobilized Katherine and Damien's nasty nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow). It's the only scene in the film that transcends the original, the only time you feel something other than bored stiff.
Otherwise, The Omen is a ruinous affair. Director John Moore strips the movie of any suspense and intensity. The scene in which primates go wild at the sight of Damien, for instance, no longer takes place in a car during a drive-through ''outdoor safari'' but is set in the cozy confines of a zoo ape house. What was once terrifying -- the baboons besieged Katherine and Damien in a car -- is now just assorted shots of shrieking monkeys.
The scene in the cemetery is even more clumsily handled. It contains a jolting moment -- you can't help but perform a reflex jump when it occurs -- but it's an easily achieved spookhouse effect. There is no suspense, no build, just release. The editing during this point is such a mess that even the world's best cleaning crew wouldn't dare touch it.
There are those who consider the original Omen cheeseball material, and perhaps it is. But it remains one of my favorite '70s chillers. As the sequels progressed, the subject matter learned to fully embrace its over-the-top silliness, delving into even more spectacular Rube Goldberg contraption style killings (the Final Destination flicks owe a large debt to Omen II in particular). But this latest Omen takes itself so seriously, it abandons any hope of horror film fun.
Liev Schrieber makes a determined, if bland, Thorn and Julia Stiles is serviceable as his frightened wife. But Stiles can't begin to match the original's Lee Remick, whose eyes conveyed sheer terror better than any other actress of her day. David Thewlis is interchangeable with David Warner, which means that it's possible that, at Thewlis's career progresses, we'll see him play a Klingon Chancellor in a future Star Trek movie.
There is, of course, an inescapable touch of irony in the casting of Mia Farrow as Mrs. Baylock. Farrow, you'll recall, gave birth to the demon seed in Rosemary's Baby. She tries to bring malice to the role of Baylock, but she's no Billie Whitelaw, who personified the nanny from hell. Whitelaw's Baylock had an unfortunate and grisly climactic encounter with kitchen cutlery. Farrow's big finish includes an axe, a car, a lot of rain, and a very capable stunt woman.
As for the new Damien, well... he's got black hair, dark circles under his eyes, and the kind of vacant screen presence that makes you grateful that Satan's seed is considering a future in politics and not acting.