THE OMEN

R

-By Maria Garcia


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06/06/06: Among other ongoing mayhem and madness, today radical Islamists seized control of the capital of Somalia. Baghdad's principal mortuary reported that it has received 6,000 bodies since the beginning of this year. The AP announced that 2,480 U.S. soldiers have died and 18,356 have been wounded since our 2003 invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is debating a Constitutional ban on gay marriage and a bill that would make it a crime to burn the American flag. Perhaps it isn't Armageddon, but there is no denying the relief even a critic can derive from slipping into an air-conditioned movie theatre on a hot summer day to see an exacting remake of a favorite horror film. John Moore's The Omen is not as frightening as Richard Donner's 1976 version-Moore resorts to scare tactics rather than impending horror-but it is satisfying to find the prophecy unchanged.

Moore used David Seltzer's original screenplay, so except for the addition of a few dream sequences, attempts on the director's part to give the film a psychological twist, the plot remains intact: When their baby dies in childbirth, Robert Thorn, a U.S. ambassador, fears for his wife Katherine's mental state, and is encouraged by a hospital priest to substitute another child, an orphan, born the same night. Robert agrees to take the boy but keeps the adoption a secret from Katherine. Doubts about the identity of their son Damien surface a few years later when a priest, Father Brennan, and a photographer, Keith Jennings, approach Robert with disturbing stories and images. Too late, Robert discovers that his son bears the "666" mark of evil and is a reincarnation of the devil. The father is then compelled to commit an act no sane parent would consider.

Moore gathered a credible cast but then edited The Omen to within an inch of its life, condensing the scenes that establish Thorn's loving relationship with his wife, and Katherine's increasingly uneasy relationship to Damien. That makes it impossible for co-stars Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles to communicate their characters' increasing horror over the deterioration of their family. For instance, Moore races through two significant sequences involving Katherine and Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), the zoo scene and the one in which Damien is purposefully attempting to unnerve Katherine and she responds with a shrill plea for the nanny.

The zoo scene in Donner's original takes place inside the family car. Katherine and Damien are trapped when the apes, who wander freely through a zoo park, become agitated after seeing Damien. In Moore's version, mother and child are in a conventional zoo where a big ape cracks the glass wall of his cage. In the first instance, the entrapment adds to the horror, and it's possible for the audience to see the reactions of Katherine and Damien, but here the scene feels disposable. No reasonable comparison can be made between Lee Remick and Julia Stiles-Remick was a first-rate actress and Stiles is a talented neophyte-but Moore's direction undoubtedly inhibits Stiles. In the scene where Damien is playing, had Moore added another 30 seconds of screen time so that the audience could experience Katherine's increasing agitation over the repetitive noise, her outburst and, later, her estrangement from Damien would make sense.

In the original version, Gregory Peck played Robert, and it was Peck's slow transformation from a confident, successful bureaucrat to a bereaved husband and haunted father which swayed the audience toward the mounting proof of Damien's real identity. Schreiber is as cerebral an actor as Peck was; he's perfectly cast as a reasonable man confronted with a dilemma which requires him to act on instinct. That's why it is so important to sustain Thorn's point of view: We have to feel the torment of his decision whether or not to kill Damien. Donner held a shot long enough so that the audience could see Peck furrowing his brow, weighing every bit of evidence. Moore, on the other hand, cuts away too quickly and Schreiber, even in that transfiguring moment when he realizes his wife has been murdered, only has time to become teary-eyed.

Donner kept control of The Omen. In the end, we are sure of what went wrong. Robert Thorn took that baby and lied to his wife and, later, when Damien causes Katherine to fall and to lose the child she's carrying, Robert ignores her warning that Damien will kill her. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Katherine is an innocent destroyed by her husband, and when innocence is despoiled, evil is unleashed. In the last scene only one question remains: Is Robert's conviction strong enough? In this Omen, our connection to Thorn is severed by Moore's inability to sustain the hero's point of view. The question that loomed at the end of the 1976 version doesn't resonate as it should now, on 06/06/06: Will we as Americans have the conviction to undo the chaos we have wrought?

-Maria Garcia


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