After Hollywood mangled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, botched the Exorcist prequel and turned the Amityville Horror into a homicidal Abercrombie and Fitch ad, do we really need its take on The Omen? If director John Moore's slick, enjoyably tasteless and surprisingly competent new version is any indication, the wave of awful horror remakes might finally be over. This is the first true guilty pleasure of the summer.
It helps that the original was no great shakes. A big-budget attempt to cash in on Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, 1976's The Omen took devil offspring-paranoia to ridiculous new heights: What if your husband placed the spawn of Satan in your arms and told you it was your child? And what if that precious baby just happened to be the harbinger of the apocalypse? A thick, gamy stew of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam anxieties (not only did little Damien infiltrate an all-American family, he infiltrated the White House too), the film cleaned up at the box office, and for good reason: It confirmed the worst fears of a scandal-ridden, death-scarred nation.
The new version has been "contemporized," as they say in the business, but just barely. Thirty years later, the anxieties of Americans are pretty much the same as they were during the Ford administration. Only today, a seemingly endless war, bottomless federal corruption and a spate of natural and non-natural disasters have made end-of-the-world scenarios trendy again, and the impish Damien is back to stoke the flames of our fear. Moore's film opens with a ridiculous Vatican briefing where cloaked priests present a slideshow (what, no PowerPoint?) of horrific recent events most shamelessly, footage of the crumbling twin towers and the raging floodwaters of New Orleans that they say point to one thing: the rise of the Antichrist.
Enter 6-year-old Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), with his jet-black pageboy haircut and devilish grin, son to U.S. diplomat Robert (Liev Schreiber) and his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles). The boy's origins are shady when Katherine's pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth, Robert orchestrated a desperate switcheroo with an orphan suggested by the doctor and doting mom and dad started to see some weird tendencies emerge in the boy. With Damien's nannies gleefully hanging themselves at his birthday parties and snarling Rottweilers showing up to play fetch, Katherine begins to suspect that something about the boy just ain't right. Meanwhile, Robert is busy ignoring the warnings of a freaky priest (Pete Postlethwaite) and a chain-smoking newspaper photog (David Thewlis) who've both observed some strange phenomena around the tyke.
Anyone familiar with the original will know that things get much, much worse, but while Moore remains faithful to the script, he still finds new ways of jolting his audience. Sure, there are plenty of shock cuts accompanied by lame shrieking noises on the sound track, and more than a few pretentious dream sequences but by deliberately adopting a slower, creepier pace and keeping the gore at bay for the film's first half, the director effectively ratchets up the suspense for a knockout last act.
The film's production design, gorgeous atmosphere and casting are also spot-on. The brooding, stage-trained Schreiber makes the material better than it has any right to be: He does Shakespearean angst better than just about any Hollywood hunk out there. Providing the perfect counterbalance are deliciously hammy supporting turns by Thewlis, Postlethwaite and a batty Mia Farrow, all of them playing it just short of over-the-top.
And as for little Damien, he's at once more actively murderous and more innocent than he was in 1976. Davey-Fitzpatrick doesn't look as robotically evil as he could for that, you'd have to hire a younger Haley Joel Osment but his cutesy demeanor makes the film's climax all the more queasy. After all, who could kill a young boy, even knowing that he was Satan's minion, sent to take control of the country and run it into the ground?
Apparently no one, considering the state we're in right now.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.