While the 00s undoubtedly witnessed its own unique brand of horror franchises, such as the Saw, Hostel and Paranormal Activity films, there was also a renewed serial gesture regarding older films as well, producing releases that were somewhere between a continuation, a remake and a serial reboot. Peaking around 2006-2008, some of these films, like Rob Zombie’s Halloween, and Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes, generated a cult status of their own, and went a considerably way towards renewing interest in the original serials, with Zombie actually coming back to helm Halloween II in 2009. Others flew under the radar, with the 2006 remake of The Omen probably counting as the least successful, both critically and commercially, of these serial homages. In large part, that’s because the Omen franchise was never exactly a serial franchise per se, but instead a stand-alone film that spawned a sequel, which then turned into a trilogy, only glimpsing real serial potentiality a decade later with The Omen IV, a telemovie that was so critically derided and disavowed that it pretty much stopped the franchise in its tracks. Renewing a serial impulse that wasn’t there to begin with is an impossible task, at least for a feature-length film, and while the upcoming TV series Damian may go some way towards restoring the vision of The Omen IV, the remake of The Omen itself was more or less doomed to be just that – a remake – rather than a new serial vision or a genuine serial homage.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, since this is almost an object lesson in how to remake a film successfully, up there with Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho as an example of constrained creativity. For the most part, the characters, story and set-up remain entirely unchanged, as we’re once again faced with an American ambassador to Great Britain (Liev Schreiber) and his wife (Julia Stiles) who are forced to face the unthinkable when it turns out that their adoptive son may be the Antichrist. In the original version, that allowed director Richard Donner to contemplate the emergence of a neoliberal world order with a millennial outlook – somehow austere and lush at the same time – that seemed to foreshadow the prominence of Vatican noir in American cinema of the 1990s. The biggest difference about John Moore’s version, in some ways, is that this world has came to pass, although there’s no great effort to signpost that in the script or events themselves. Whereas the original film delighted in pairing biblical prophecy with the politician and economic events of the 70s, here that’s very little interest in the surrounding context, which is not to say that the film doesn’t feel updated, but that it’s precisely that waning of any sense of historical specificity that somehow seems to signal it as a symptom of the indefinite present that we all seem to inhabit. Suffusing every scene with a drab, depressive, muted palette, Moore creates an atmosphere that feels part post-apocalyptic and part post-natal depression, lending the events of the film a fatal inexorability that’s even greater in the original. While the ending explicitly sets up a rebooted Omen II, the tone seems to preclude it, with Moore’s hues often resembling Eastwood’s latter-day palette in a vision of the historical present that feels even more remote than the cinematic past.
In that respect, one of the interesting things about the adaptation is the way in which casting is organised. In the first and second films, one of the most noticeable feature was the choice of venerable classical Hollywood actors to play the lead roles – Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, William Holden – setting in play an obsession with patrilinearity that was only gradually undone in the third and especially the fourth film. In the 2006 version, however, all those venerable actors – Pete Postlethwaite, Mia Farrow, Michael Gambon – are relegated to fringe roles, creating a sense of ruptured continuity between the cinematic past and present that is perhaps John Moore’s own version of post-continuity. What ensues is not a kinetic, handheld, digital update of a classical horror franchise, but instead a kind of intensified classicism that feels more original in retrospect, or at least less of it time. While Moore does undoubtedly filter some of the most iconic moments through a hallucinatory split-second kineticism for the most part he opts to simply increase the texture and minutiae of those moments, creating quite a deft and dramatic tribute to the original film, an imagistic recapitulation of its most memorable scenes and sequences, that – despite what many critics argued – feels designed expressly for people who have seen and enjoyed the original film, as well as the franchise as a whole, regarding the 00s digital craze with the same cool reserve that the original regarded the 70s slasher-and-splatter craze. If there is one way in which Moore creates something like an original aesthetic, it’s in the glitchiness he uses to shoot the sequences involving developing photographs, such an important part of the story, which imbues the entire photographic aesthetic of the film itself with something of a glitchy quality. Nevertheless, these are only touches around the edge of what is still a largely classical, photographic sensibility, providing Schreiber and Stiles with two of the most plastic, postural performances in their careers.
In particular, Schreiber’s presence is particularly resonant because, at this point in his career, he was still overwhelmingly associated with the Scream franchise. As Schreiber’s first horror performance since Scream 3, his presence in The Omen inevitably exudes a kind of slasher anticipation that never eventuates, which partly works to distance the film from the Scream cycle, but also recapitulates the overarching narrative of that cycle, in which Schreiber’s character – Cotton Weary – was the original slasher suspect, and was monitored cautiously throughout the entire franchise by each new wave of characters until he finally succumbed to the slasher himself in the opening sequence of Scream 3. Just as a slasher milieu lurked around the fringes of the original film but was never permitted to infiltrate its icy aestheticism, so Schreiber’s presence splits the difference between the late 90s slasher revival and the precipice of full-blown digital horror. In that sense, it feels as if the ultimate rationale for adapting the film in the first place lies in how deftly it responds to and resists the waning of a certain kind of suspense in the mid-70s, a waning of suspense that, according to the remake, has manifested itself in a different kind of way in this void between neo-slasher and high-digital horror that the film occupies in such an uneasy and tensile manner.
There’s no need, then, for Moore to do much with the formula of the original film, since it was precisely that formula that made for such an effective suspenseful for strategy, which perhaps makes this an intensified remake more than a straight remake, as Moore uses it as a pretext to showcase suspense as a kind of historicised experience, especially in the scenes that play out in and around the Thorn Mansion, which amp up the original in much the same way as the remake of When A Stranger Calls, also released in 2006. In doing so, the adaptation almost inevitably shifts the film back to a female perspective, albeit not in the radical and revisionary spirit of the 1991 telemovie instalment, but more by virtue of the way in which this suspenseful attention to domestic space increasingly modulates the film through a certain suburban horror vocabulary that thrives on women, alone, at home, surrounded by great slabs of empty residential space. It’s no surprise, then, that the creepiest moments – and the moments that are most extended from the original film – occurs when Stiles and her son are simply at home alone together, their paths crossing in eerie and unsettling ways, as Moore fleshes out the deep-focus backdrops of his tableaux with a subliminal and emergent quality that often reminded me of Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, released a year later.
Of course, there is another presence in the house besides Stiles and the child – Damian’s nursemaid, who also fulfils the role of his Satanic guardian. In the original film, this was one of the shlockiest parts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but was somewhat at odds with Donner’s aesthetic, even it if did pave the way for the high camp of the third and fourth films. In the 2006 version, it’s Mia Farrow’s performance of the nursemaid that forms the centre of the film, a show-stealing piece of casting that is one of the best of her rare latter-day performances – or presences, since she’s the kind of actress that doesn’t even really need to “act” that much, simply resonating with a calm and comforting presence that is wonderfully subverted here. While I don’t want to seem sensationalist or intrusive about Farrow’s private life, there is something about her presence in this film that seems to channel the whole Soon-Yi situation more poignantly and poetically than any other film I’ve seen her in since that whole scandal emerged. As The Omen IV made clear, the series had been gradually moving towards a total conflation of mothering and daughtering, parenting and romancing, ever since its very inception, with the obsessive patrilinear geometries of the first two films increasingly feeling more and more like a defense mechanism against this possibility. Given that Farrow plays the only adult in the first film who is really committed to this devolution of parent and child into a single incestual entity, there is something about the role that brings out all the sadness of the Soon-Yi affair, as well as the way it peremptorily relegated Farrow herself from the mother to something more like nursemaid, a role that has its own kinds of queerness. While there’s no explicit reference to Farrow’s personal life, then, there’s something structurally about the role that allows her to commune with her deepest and most private experiences while also retaining her dignity, imbuing her performance with an intensity that I hadn’t seen since her collaborations with Woody Allen in the early 90s. For a film in which everything seems so foreclosed, fatalistic and resigned, there is a spirited intensity to Farrow’s performance that makes it the most cathartic in the entire film, a gem of late work buried within the different and wider gesture of late work that makes this remake so compelling and odd to watch.