Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Omen (1976 and 2006)

We've all been around a young child with a devilish streak for mischief but what if that child was really the son of the devil, the Antichrist with the Mark of the Beast  - 666 - tattooed on his scalp and not just little Jimmy who likes to pull Susie's hair. It's hard to believe that it took filmmakers until 1976 to come up with a son of the devil idea. We've had SON OF DRACULA, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, even SON OF KONG but no son of the devil until THE OMEN (1976).

While it's to be expected that there will always be remakes of DRACULA or FRANKENSTEIN (horror's closest thing to Shakespeare) for the next generation of audiences, it caught me off guard recently when we started to see remakes of horror films that first came out when I was in my teens. So far we've seen remakes and retellings of THE FOG and FRIGHT NIGHT and FRIDAY THE 13TH and THE THING and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. So what other horror remakes did the creatively starved studios have in mind next?

20th Century Fox decided to remake 1976's THE OMEN with another version 30 years later in 2006 (had it really been 30 years!).  THE OMEN was another of those R rated films of the mid-70's that I was not allowed to see. When I did eventually watch it, THE OMEN quickly rose as one of my favorite horror films of all time.  It has a great premise (Satan's son is born on earth); some very creative deaths caused by either Satan or unnatural forces (impalement, hanging, decapitation); and director Richard Donner (SUPERMAN, LETHAL WEAPON) gives THE OMEN cache by casting Hollywood legends Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the unsuspecting parents (at first) raising little Damian, the devil's son. And we finally learn that if you put the numbers 666 together, bad things will happen.

But TH OMEN remake really does little new with the original story except for a few minor alterations. Surprisingly, the new OMEN is written by screenwriter David Seltzer who wrote the original OMEN.  Seltzer obviously knows the story well but hardly explores new areas from his first stab at it, seemingly content with what he originally wrote (which was great). It's almost surprising that original director Richard Donner didn't direct this newer version too (he didn't).  Irishman John Moore gets the opportunity this time. My guess is the new OMEN was made to introduce to a new, younger audience the tragic tale of Ambassador Thorn and his wife Katherine and their first child Damian.

But let's begin with the original THE OMEN. It was directed by Richard Donner who was not yet the powerhouse director that he would later become. This was one of his first feature films after working years in television. But THE OMEN'S success would propel him to SUPERMAN (1978), THE GOONIES (1985), and the LETHAL WEAPON series. THE OMEN also benefits from a great score (using a spooky chorus at times) by renowned composer Jerry Goldsmith (PLANET OF THE APES, CHINATOWN) and the cinematographer is Gil Taylor (DR. STRANGELOVE, STAR WARS). So this is no cheap horror film. THE OMEN has star power with its acting and technical people.

The original THE OMEN opens on the night of June 6th, 6am, in a Rome hospital where American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) learns that he and his wife Katherine's (Lee Remick) first child has died during birth. Afraid Katherine can't handle the shock of losing her first child, Thorn makes a deal (not with the devil but it might as well be) to secretly adopt another child born on the same night who's mother has died during birth. They name the child Damian.

Thorn, who is best friend's with the President of the United States, becomes the new Ambassador to England.  They move to London and live in a huge English manor outside of the city, raising little Damian. Things begin to unravel on Damian's (Harvey Stephens) 5th birthday party when the Thorn's nanny (Holly Palance) leaps off the top of the mansion, a noose around her neck, and hangs herself. Soon afterward, a Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) visits Thorn's office and warns him he and Katherine are in danger. A new nanny arrives to watch over Damian, the mysterious and very protective Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw).

Father Brennan tracks down Thorn again and tells him he was at the Rome hospital the night Damian was born. Brennan knows who Damian's real mother was and he also tells Thorn Katherine is pregnant again and she and the unborn baby are in danger. Brennan is tragically impaled by a steel rod soon after during a freak storm near Bishop's Park. Katherine begins to suspect Damian is different. The young boy freaks out during a trip to attend a baptism at a church.  Later, wild animals react violently to Damian when he and Katherine go to a London Safari Park. Katherine's suspicions are realized when Damian (accidentally?) knocks her off a ladder at home while riding his tricycle. Katherine falls over the upstairs balcony, sending her to the hospital with a concussion, broken bones, and causing Katherine to have a miscarriage.

Thorn enlists the aid of Keith Jennings (David Warner), a photographer, to travel back to Italy with him and revisit the hospital where Damian was born. Jennings has uncovered unusual marks and symbols on photographs he had taken of both the first nanny and Father Brennan, marks that foreshadowed their deaths. An accidental self portrait taken by Jennings reveals he may be marked too. Thorn and Jennings arrive in Rome to discover the hospital burned down five years ago with all the birth records. They track Father Spiletto (Martin Benson), the priest from the original hospital, to a monastery. Spiletto, now disfigured from the fire, sends Thorn and Jennings to an Etruscan cemetery called Cervet to learn the true identity of Damian's real mother (I won't spoil the secret to you). To their horror, Thorn and Jennings also find the skeleton of an infant, a large hole in the side of the child's head. Thorn's real son was murdered the night he was born.

Thorn tries to call and warn Katherine at the hospital that she's in danger but Mrs. Baylock sneaks into the room and throws Katherine out the window. Convinced that the son he has raised is the Antichrist, Thorn and Jennings fly to Jerusalem, Israel to visit an archaeological site called Megiddo (which means Armageddon) and a man named Carl Bugenhagen  (Leo McKern) who gives Thorn daggers that must be blessed with holy water to destroy Damian. Thorn has second thoughts and throws the bundle of daggers down an alley but Jennings retrieves them, only to be decapitated by a sheet of glass thrown from a runaway truck. Thorn returns to London, kidnaps Damian after fighting off both a deranged Mrs. Baylock and a giant black mastiff dog (another of  Damian's protectors), and races to the nearest church to kill Damian before the authorities can stop him.

Although THE OMEN owes its devilish roots to other satanic themed films like ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and THE EXORCIST (1973), THE OMEN is scary because it derives its plot from real passages from the Bible, specifically the Book of Revelations. As the morphine addicted Father Brennan explains to Thorn, "When the Jews return to Zion / And a comet rips the sky / And the Holy Roman Empire rises, / Then You and I must die. / From the eternal sea he rises, / Creating armies on either shore, / Turning man against his brother / 'Til man exists no more." The filmmakers don't try to film these passages literally but Thorn and Jennings interpret them to a modern world. Thorn and Katherine were chosen to raise the devil's child because of Thorn's connection to the U.S President. Damian will rise to power through the United States political bloodline. Even more horrifying is that little Damian is played as an innocent.  He doesn't know who he is. He doesn't have any supernatural powers...yet. He's just a typical 5 year old child. But the devil's disciples (Mrs. Baylock, the black mastiff, Father Brennan) are there to watch and guide him toward his destiny.

THE OMEN has the Hollywood star power of Gregory Peck (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and Lee Remick (DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES) to give this horror film some cinematic credibility that most horror films don't have. Peck is commanding as Ambassador Thorn and both he and Remick do a marvelous job conveying their horror of discovering the child they have raised is pure evil. Throw in one of my favorite character actors David Warner (STRAW DOGS, TIME BANDITS), cast against type as a good guy and the downright creepy Billie Whitelaw (FRENZY) as the new nanny Mrs. Baylock, THE OMEN has a compelling cast. Two sequels would follow. The first one called DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978) would try to rekindle the magic of the original with another Hollywood legend William Holden and Lee Grant as the new guardians of 13 year old Damian. Although gorier, OMEN II would not have the success that the original OMEN had. In 1981, the third and final chapter called OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT with Sam Neill as an adult Damian was released.

Although I think there have been a few earlier films before THE OMEN that had a series of spectacular or unique deaths (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES with Vincent Price comes to mind), THE OMEN catapulted grisly set pieces that would be embraced by future horror films like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series or FINAL DESTINATION films. Director Donner showcases each character's death with a high degree of theatricality: the first nanny's hanging, Father Brennan's impaling, Katherine Thorn's fall (twice), and photographer Jennings decapitation (filmed in slow motion and from multiple angles). I think THE OMEN also springboarded the decapitation into screenwriter's minds as a very visual way for someone to be killed on screen. The advance of special effects and now computer generated effects has helped too. Nowadays it's fairly common on horror television shows like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES or SUPERNATURAL to have a beheading on prime time.

So the omen that no one saw coming was that 20th Century Fox would remake the original OMEN thirty years later.  But not much has changed with the plot although writer Seltzer and new director Moore add a few little brushstrokes here and there. The film opens with a Vatican astronomer (Predrag Bjelac) spotting the dreaded comet in the celestial skies foreshadowing that Satan's son is coming. He reports the bad news to his Cardinal (Carlo Sabatini). Robert and Katherine Thorn are much younger in the newer version, played reliably by actors Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles (but not making me forget Peck and Remick). Katherine supposedly miscarries and Thorn accepts Father Spiletto's (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) gift of another child born the same night to replace their dead son. Thorn is only an undersecretary to the US Ambassador of Italy Steven Haines (Marshall Cupp). When Ambassador Haines dies tragically in a car fire (caused by the dregs of hell who lurk like homeless people throughout the film), Thorn (who is the godson of the United States President in this version) is named Ambassador to Great Britain, replacing Haines.

We jump forward again to Damien's (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) 5th birthday party. The nanny (Amy Huck) hangs herself in front of everyone. Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite) tries to tell Thorn the terrible secret about his son Damian. In what seems like a casting coup, Mia Farrow (who may or may not have carried the devil's son in ROSEMARY'S BABY) plays Mrs. Baylock, one of Lucifer's disciples sent to protect Damian from any harm. Father Brennan is impaled by a steel rod struck by lightning near a church after revealing to Thorn Damian's real mother. Katherine begins to reject Damian, even seeking help from a psychiatrist (Richard Rees).  When Katherine is injured in a fall caused by Damian, freelance photographer Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) shows Thorn photographic proof that unholy forces may be at work. Thorn confesses to Jennings that Damian isn't his real son.

This OMEN'S final act follows closely the original. Thorn and Jennings learn the secret of Damian's mother at the Etruscan cemetery Cervet, barely escaping the hounds of hell sent to stop them. Katherine Thorn is killed by Mrs. Baylock before Robert can warn her to leave London. Thorn and Jennings travel to Israel and meet the archaeologist Bugenhagen (who Father Brennan had told Thorn to seek out) who has the weapons that Thorn needs to destroy Damian. Satan's derelicts help facilitate Jennings decapitation leaving Thorn alone to return to London and attempt to destroy the Antichrist known as Damian Thorn.

The new OMEN won't make anyone forget the original but it doesn't desecrate the first one, instead treating its source material almost like gospel. Director Moore incorporates a few more modern horror film devices for this version with some supernatural dream sequences and satanic imagery. As far as the spectacular deaths go, Moore outdoes the original with Jennings decapitation but makes Katherine Thorn's death less spectacular but more terrifying.  His staging of the nanny's and Brennan's deaths are almost identical and he even uses the same technique for Katherine's fall from the balcony (although Damian now strikes her with a Razor instead of a tricycle).

One of the big differences I noticed between the two OMEN's is that the original director Donner played up the mystery of the story a bit more than director Moore. When Brennan is about to tell Thorn who Damian's mother was, he's cut off in mid-sentence. I never quite heard what Brennan said. But the new version makes it very clear who Damian's mother was. Even the reveal of Damian's mother's skeleton in the original is less clear. In the newer OMEN, there's no question what Damian's mother was. The character of Father Spiletto is more defined in the newer version.  Spiletto's more on the periphery in the first one but he's a key player in setting up the Thorn's with their unholy child. The relationship between Thorn and Katherine was much sweeter in the original. Peck and Remick appeared to be more in love before things start to unravel. In the new OMEN, there already seems to be tension in the Schreiber/Stiles relationship that only festers as Damian grows older.

In this newer one, Damian seems to have a sense that he's a bad seed.  He even mind controls a security guard when Mrs. Baylock murders Katherine Thorn. One interesting side note is the remake was made after 911. In the first film, Ambassador Thorn doesn't have a whole lot of security but in the 2006 one, there is a noticeable increase in police and secret service agents around Thorn. Just a sign of the times from thirty years ago. Ultimately, the newer one, whether intentional or not, seems to make things a little easier to follow.

Actor Liev Schreiber is decent as Thorn but the aura of Gregory Peck is too hard to shake although at times Schreiber seems to channel Peck by sounding like him. I loved the choice of David Thewlis as the photographer Jennings. Thewlis reminds me of David Warner who played Jennings in the first OMEN. Warner so seldom played a good character that his death is all the more powerful for me. Pete Postlethwaite, hard to forget with his bald pate, made a career out of playing tormented characters like Father Brennan. But little Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick as Damian can't make me forget the original devil boy Harvey Stephens. The only scary thing about Davey-Fitzpatrick is his bad haircut. Stephens had that devilish stare but a sense of innocence as well. Director Moore cleverly casts the now adult Stephens as a tabloid reporter in the remake.

Julia Stiles, one of my favorite unsung actresses, is fine as Katherine Thorn, who begins to suspect that she may not be the mother of Damian but Stiles doesn't make me forget how good Remick was in the original.  Probably the biggest disappointment is Mia Farrow as the diabolical governess Mrs. Baylock (just who is Mr. Baylock as an aside). Farrow seems a great piece of casting with her relationship to the witchy/satanic classic ROSEMARY'S BABY but it's Farrow's child-like voice, so great in ROSEMARY that nullifies her evilness in this new OMEN.

Speaking of director Moore, THE OMEN isn't his first remake.  Moore also directed a decent remake of THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (2004), introducing new audiences to director Robert Aldrich's 1965 classic starring James Stewart and Richard Attenborough. Moore also brought a video game to the screen with MAX PAYNE (2008) and helmed the 5th DIE HARD film called A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013). But ultimately, Moore's remake of THE OMEN doesn't break new ground, only provides new actors and a new audience a chance to experience a well written and well made original film all over again.

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