Friday, June 09, 2006

On Remakes: The Omen…Thirty Years Later


As I sat in the dark listening to the teenagers behind me chatter through John Moore’s strangely subdued remake of The Omen this week, I kept wondering: why is everything so stylized? Why has nearly every scene in this picture been imagined as a hyperreal gothic homage to the old newspaper joke, “what’s black and white and re(a)d all over?” Doomed adoptive mom Julia Stiles dreams herself as a bloody gash of silk in a bathroom of cold white tile; hospital rooms are rendered in muted palettes of grey and white to offset the inevitable gift of red gerber daisies; duped and deceiving dad Liev Schreiber sprints endlessly through black and white corridors offset by a single red detail; nosey photographer-cum-P.I. David Thewlis dwells in a developing room of perpetual red light; heck, even the plant-spritzer in the white-walled Thorn estate is red! And sure, black-haired anticherub Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick scowls his way into our hearts as demonspawn Damien, but did he really have to wear a RED sweater to his birthday party? We get it! He’s the antichrist! Does the film need to broadcast it so loudly? Why is every inch of this film so relentlessly aestheticized? What prompts this impulse to alienate the audience so completely from any identification with the characters at all by overpowering the dramatic content of every scene with fetishistic, chromatic artifice?

At first, I thought that this was a simple case of cheap postmodern filmmaking. A love-affair with images and surfaces, an utter disinterest in narrative or depth. And hey, I’ve got no problem with that. My own interest in seeing The Omen—indeed my mild enjoyment of it—stemmed from precisely the expectation that it would be a slick, pretty nightmare with a hollow center. The best parts of the film were undeniably those that were the most hyper-aestheticized, artificial, and pointless: the compulsory (but lovely) bibliophilic montage of medieval woodcuts, astronomical tables, and arcane texts that has become de rigueur in recent horror cinema; the parents’ chillingly stylish nightmares; the apparently Charon-helmed passage across the misty lake to the hidden monastery; the courtyard meeting with exquisitely deformed Father Spiletto (Giovanni Lombardo Radice); Thewlis’s ornate decapitation (“That was a cool death,” the critic in the seat behind me tittered to his shushing girlfriend). (Not surprisingly, shots of these evocative scenes made up a disproportionate amount of the trailer.) Equally fun, and equally silly, was watching a perfectly (stunt-)cast Mia Farrow steal the show as Satanic Mary Poppins, Mrs. Baylock. One doesn’t go into an obviously B-grade remake these days expecting much more than this: a couple of memorable visuals, a campy performance or two, and maybe even a little scare. As long as one’s expectations are low enough (which is to say “postmodern” enough), The Omen doesn’t completely disappoint.

But there’s still the matter of the film’s more general aesthetic overkill. Why black, white, and red in nearly every scene? Sure, most film-goers are cynical enough not to expect too much in the way of an involving story, and skimming along the surface of filmic hyperreality can be fun—to a point—but did the movie really need to go out of its way to prevent us from identifying with the protagonists at all?

And then it occurred to me that even without the movie’s alienating visual gloss, I didn’t really like these characters. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we’re asked to believe that Liev Schreiber’s Robert Thorn is capable of doing something extremely silly, and as a result we lose all respect both for him and for his insipid wife Katherine. Yet the film bombards us early on (in those montages of bringing up baby) with signals that we are supposed to like and care about this sorry couple, whose marriage remains as much of a cipher throughout the film as the characters do themselves. Stiles looks puzzled throughout the movie, and who can blame her? Victimized heroine Katherine oscillates between shrill and baffling. Schreiber’s Robert, who behaves like a stunted emotional cripple bouncing between anguish and stupidity, is no better. It’s hard not to root for Damien and his nanny from hell if these nouveau riche twits are our protagonists.

And so, like David Thewlis’s improbably-connected photojournalist (he got his hands on that coroner’s report how, exactly?), I began to feel that something wasn’t right about the images I was looking at. Like Thewlis’s spooky photographs, the film seemed to bear the mysterious marks of some other plane of reality—only this time they weren’t anticipations of the future so much as ghostly remainders of some moment in the past. Some moment in 1976, to be precise: they were all traces of Richard Donner’s original The Omen from thirty years earlier.

This is what I learned when I rented Donner’s movie the next day and watched it for the first time. It turns out that John Moore’s 2006 film isn’t just a remake of the 1976 original—it actually uses the same script that David Seltzer wrote for that first movie thirty years ago too. Of course, in the new one, the signs of the apocalypse have been updated in all the tacky ways one would expect, and some of the scenes have been changed—slightly, and not always for the better. But the script of the remake, even though lines are sometimes placed in the mouths of other characters, is almost a scene-for-scene, word-for-word repetition of that earlier film. (Amusingly, many of the non sequiturial bits of dialogue from the new movie make sense once we hear the fuller version of the conversation in the original film.) This is hardly a scandal—The Omen is a remake, after all. But the remake’s lazy, relatively wholesale adoption of Seltzer’s 1976 script does explain why the characters and plot of the 2006 remake often make no sense.

Turns out, a few things have changed since 1976! This might not matter for a pseudo-religious horror pic like this, except that Seltzer’s script is so rooted in the details, dilemmas, and sexual politics of the 1970s that many of its incidents simply don’t translate well into their new 2006 context. I was puzzled, for instance, by the awkward prominence (and seeming irrelevance) of Katherine’s announcement that she intended to have an abortion, and by her equally surprising conclusion, after a bad day in the monkey house, that she “need[ed] to see someone” about her disturbing feelings for Damien. Really, Katherine? A shrink? That’s so…1976. Why not just turn on Dr. Phil? And while I’m on the subject, why all the drama about declaring your right to an abortion? One doesn’t have to be a medieval zealot to acknowledge that abortion might be a difficult personal choice for even the most ardent feminist, and this is a Catholic horror film after all, but somehow your clipped announcement to Robert still feels a little overheated. But perhaps this is in keeping with the film’s general dilemma about what to do with you; you made so much more sense as a supportive political wife who gloried in the splendor of the ambassador’s estate and felt right at home bossing Mrs. Baylock around than the uncomfortable neurotic who sighs about how big and empty the manor is and waters her own plants on the balustrade. And when, exactly, was it standard practice for psychiatrists to discuss the details of a patient’s “fantasies” with her husband? Probably about the same time that father-knows-best husbands were beginning to feel anxious about the gains of second wave feminism and that foreign diplomats apologized to obnoxious paparazzi for breaking their cameras and offered to buy them new ones, instead of pushing them down the stairs and hoping they broke their necks.

Ah well. At least it’s reassuring that some things have changed.

What becomes particularly clear when watching Richard Donner’s no less cheesy but grungier, more naturalistic, and in many ways more satisfying 1976 version of The Omen is the purpose of the alienating hyper-stylized red, white, and black aesthetic in the John Moore version. It is there not just to satisfy our postmodern craving for the simulacrum and its evil demon of images, but to distract us. To keep our natural inclination to identify with the strangely antique protagonists of David Seltzer’s mothbally old script at bay. Because, of course, if we look too hard, if we don't yield completely to the superficial pleasures of the simulacrum, the movie’s already rickety narrative scaffolding collapses. These people make no sense in 2006. At least, I hope they don’t.


Anonymous said...

I think The Omen remake's biggest crime was in failing to deliver more than one or two real scares.

Many an essay has been written on the connection between pornography and horror films, and I think the comparison is especially apt here.

You can't make a good porn with just one or two sex scenes, and you can’t make a good horror film with just one or two scares. Those moments (whether or not they are embedded in a narrative) need to be gratuitous. That's what the audience is there for.

Horror films like The Omen remake falter the second the filmmakers forget that the story is just a pretense for the scares.

Jim Roeg said...

Totally agree, thomas. Where was the scary? The original, though no masterpiece by any means, was actually much scarier than the remake - particularly the graveyard scene and the scene in which Mrs. Baylock attacks the dad. In the original, the latter plays out as a brutal and intense domestic battle (think: Misery); in the remake it seemed almost to be played for laughs. And what was the deal with the anticlimactic struggle between Damien and dad in the church? Couldn't the devil even muster up a couple of bats or some flapping window-shutters?

The difference that I've noticed between older horror films and new popular horror films (excluding slasher pics) is that the older ones (even the bad ones) envision the films in terms of suspense, whereas the newer ones seem to see the films in terms of dark fantasy/adventure. This is obviously too much of a generalization to support, but I'm thinking of how the scenes that stand out in the new Omen are those that have a Lord of the Rings aesthetic, whereas the scenes that stand out in the original are just very dark, atmospheric, and nerve-wracking. The difference seems to be a move from heightened affective concerns (producing fear in the audience) to heightening aesthetic ones (creating creepy/pretty pictures). It's almost as if the filmmakers of the Omen remake forgot that they were supposed to be working with (temporal) narrative categories as well as (spatial) visual ones. The result being pretty, but dull. Or maybe just pretty dull.

David Golding said...

This post by Mark K-Punk about the King Kong remake seems relevant...

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks for that link, david. Couldn't be more relevant! K-Punk also has a fascinating reading of X3 that some around these parts should find gratifying. (Are you listening, Thomas?)

Anonymous said...

this quote - "One doesn’t go into an obviously B-grade remake these days expecting much more than this: a couple of memorable visuals, a campy performance or two, and maybe even a little scare." - is why i didnt go see that movie..

and as far as why the movie had enough red in it to make it bleed from the screen? maybe the producers thought that people wouldnt get it..and instead of being understated, decided to go overboard..

what made them want to redo such a classic movie anyways?