This is a fascinating original versus remake because the two films share almost identical scripts. The movies are almost word for word the same, yet due to bad direction and poor performances one is completely boring and the other is a thrilling masterpiece.
We’re going to start with the original. Released in 1976, The Omen is a supernatural horror film directed by Richard Donner and starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as a couple who’s son just might be the antichrist.
The film opens with Peck’s character Robert Thorn faced with a horrible decision. His son has died just after birth and an orphan boy is born at the same moment. Does he switch the orphan for his own son and lie to his wife, or does he face the grief and devastation of losing the child? He takes in this child and that decision turns out to be monumental in ways he could never anticipate.
The film becomes this highly convincing montage of the family growing up. They appear to be a real loving family. Nothing strange about them, except on the boy Damien’s birthday when his governess kills herself at his birthday party in front of everyone. Then things start to go awry and Thorn begins to explore the origins of Damien and what it might mean for his family.
This movie is amazing. It is freaky. It is unnerving. It is both psychologically scary and full of visceral thrills. I loved it. There are sequences that build and build the tension slowly, until we can’t take it anymore and the movie snaps. There is a thrilling moment in which Damien rides his tricycle around his bedroom in a rapid circle until launching into the hallway to horrible results. The way the sequence builds is just a masterclass. The camera follows Damien in a dizzying circle. The action cross cuts with the precarious events taking place in the hallway. The soundtrack ratchets everything up to eleven until finally it all comes crashing to a head. It’s brilliant.
Every performance here is superb, but Gregory Peck is the standout. He is so charming and warm in the early happy family scenes. He is commanding and authoritative as he demands the truth of what his son is. He is lost and tormented as the truth reveals itself to him. He gives such a complete performance, that the movie might have been completely lost without him. Lee Remick infuses her smaller part with a believability and a charm that it needs. She is convincing as the warm loving mother. She rings true as she begins to realize something is wrong. She is not given as complete a story as Peck, but she gives it her all, and the movie wouldn’t work without her performance. As Damien, the child who may be evil incarnate, Harvey Spencer Stephens plays a child first and the devil second. He is just a kid for the most part. He is a happy little boy, but there is definitely something wrong with him. He has the wonderful ability to rigid and stare with dead eyes that creates such an eerie sense of unease. Two factors really make him work though, he has only two or three lines in the whole movie. He communicates almost entirely nonverbally. Also, he is never trying to be creepy. He is just playing a kid who stares a lot. It’s incredible especially for one so young.
Moving on to the remake, released perfectly on July 6th, 2006, the film stars Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, and Mia Farrow. The film is working from the exact same script with a few alterations. The first change is the opening scene. Instead of opening on Robert Thorn’s fateful decision regarding the child, it opens on a random priest using the Vatican’s telescope to look at a comet. It then cuts to a meeting of Vatican priests and the Pope. The meeting involves a powerpoint presentation of Bible verses and news footage showing how these Bible verses came true in modern times. It feels so wrong! This scene feels ugly and gross watching fake priests use 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina footage to justify their horror movie plot line. It is a gross way to start a movie.
After that, it cuts to Thorn and the choice at the hospital. The problems again become very clear right off the bat, Schreiber can be an excellent actor. He is good in other roles, but here he looks like a wooden carving of a generically handsome man. His acting’s so stale and one note that it looks like he made a bet to see if he could go through an entire movie without changing his facial expression once, spoiler alert, he won the bet. Without a charismatic and compelling lead, this film is left with little to steer the boat. Julia Stiles is okay if unconvinced as the mom of the little demon. She emotes well enough, but she feels like a stranger to the people around her. Mia Farrow plays Damien’s evil protector, a role brilliantly played in the original by Billie Whitelaw. Here Farrow just sort of plays a nice lady. She gives no hint of the evil under the surface. Nothing seems wrong or amiss about her. She feels like she wandered in from a very nice story movie about a friendly nanny.
The acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once said, “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film.” Here is proof. With the same script, Richard Donner produced a truly great horror film with tense atmosphere throughout combined with spikes of massive horror. With that same script, director John Moore produced a boring film that doesn’t add anything to the story.
The directorial problems are glaringly apparent when looking at the two side by side. The remake has no point of view. The camera cuts wildly between perspectives and has no real sense as to whose perspective we’re seeing. The story also cuts wildly between two perspectives. The original follows Robert Thorn. The remake splits the focus between Robert and his wife. This divided attention creates a schizophrenic feeling as sometimes Robert is worried about Damien and his wife needs to calm him down. At other times, its the wife who is convinced something is wrong and he needs to talk her down. I appreciate trying to give the wife a more active role, but doing so actively diminishes the impact of the story. Rewrite the script entirely if you want to give her more to do.
Also, the remake replaces suspense and tension with more of everything else. It doesn’t build to the horror, it just ups the violence. Gone are the intricate set ups that lead to big moments. Gone is the stellar soundtrack that puts the viewer on edge. Gone are the off kilter camera angles that signal horror is on its way. Present are cgi blood and guts. If a character fell one story in the original, they fall two stories in the remake. If they get stabbed with a spike in the original, they get stabbed with a spike and a hundred pieces of broken glass in the remake. This isn’t scarier or more interesting, just more violent. It doesn’t have the same effect.
All right, I’ve complained about the remake enough. It was a fascinating experiment to watch both films one right after the other. I’m not a purist who only likes the originals because they’re old. There is observable filmmaking problems with the remake that diminish it. The remake is not good as a movie, and it especially suffers when compared to the original.
Watch the original. It’s awesome. It’s my cup of tea. A+
Avoid the remake. It is bad. It’s not my cup of tea. D+