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Parenthood's a devilish proposition in `Omen'

June 06, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

When the Lord, or whoever, offers you a release date like 06/06/06, you have no choice but to take it. Hence director John Moore's stunt remake of "The Omen," Richard Donner's classic of cornball '70s horror. Based on a script by David Seltzer, who also wrote the original, the movie is commendably faithful to its source, despite some early intimations that it might take off in a more topical -- and interesting -- direction. In the movie's only major departure from the original, it opens on a Vatican priest peering through a telescope, on the lookout for the celestial birth announcement signaling arrival of the Antichrist. When the seventh sign comes, he quickly alerts the ecclesiastical authorities, then prepares a PowerPoint presentation on the Apocalypse (which, surely, counts as the eighth sign) for a speechless pope.

The End of Times is nigh, or at least that's what recent current events would suggest. And "The Omen" has the new footage to prove it, which is scary -- possibly too scary for the filmmakers. The signs of the Apocalypse, which the movie has no trouble linking with events such as the fall of the twin towers, the tsunami in Thailand, the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, turn out to be a tease. Like its predecessor, "The Omen" remains at its core a domestic parenting drama. (Though in this regard too, things have gotten scarier since the '70s, or at least far more jittery and fraught.)

Despite slick camera work by Jonathan Sela and intense, naturalistic performances by Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles, "The Omen" retains the aura of ceremonious kitsch of the first movie, favoring a well-lighted, upscale Goth aesthetic punctuated with flashes of well-timed, cymbal-crashing shockers and giggly camp. Robert Thorn (Schreiber), the No. 2 guy at the American embassy in Rome, rushes to the side of his wife, Kate (Stiles), who has just delivered their child alone, last-century style. At the hospital, a priest tells Thorn his son has died in childbirth, but how would he like to adopt this newborn mystery orphan over here? (Sure, it sounds too good to be true, but when a priest, or whoever, hands you a boy to replace your stillborn child ... )

Before long, the little foundling has blossomed into a creepy toddler with ink-black hair, azure eyes and a sinister pout. Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is not like other kids, to mom Kate's never-ending chagrin. (Thorn keeps meaning to tell her about the swap but never gets around to it.) His terrible twos get off to a big start at his birthday party, when his young nanny, with a nod from a lurking hellhound, hangs herself from a third-story window.

Unlike Lee Remick's bad '70s mommy, who was prone to tossing the kid in the direction of the nearest butler whenever something more interesting came up, Stiles' Kate is not immune to the effect Damien has on others. During a group trip to the zoo, Damien terrifies the monkeys and spooks the other kids, but nothing is as terrifying as the pitying, judgmental glances of the other, smugger mommies.

Naturally, Kate blames herself and seeks professional help. She enters therapy around the same time as a new nanny -- played by Mia Farrow in a bit of stunt casting that she works to the hilt -- mysteriously enters their employ. Mrs. Baylock (Farrow) is no longer the gargoyle-faced spinster of the original, she's now a creepily passive-aggressive child-care specialist, who assures the Thorns that she never forgets that she's "not the parent."

Of course, these days, if there's one thing capable of sinking the conflicted mommy into a quagmire of self-loathing and doubt, it's hyper-efficient help. If any doubts remain that the vacant-eyed nanny is a devout bride-of-Satan type, they are dispelled in the scene in which she silently feeds the child strawberries in rapt devotion.

Thorn, meanwhile, struggles with whether or not to spill the beans to his wife, especially after he's visited by a nut-job priest spouting fire-and-brimstone. Evincing a tragic lack of directness, Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite) skulks around like a caped Bela Lugosi, unpersuasively trying to talk Thorn into a ritual killing.

Not that he comes out and states the problem -- it remains unclear (or at least it did to me) whether Father Brennan was in on the deal to begin with and is now experiencing a David Brock-style lightning-bolt conversion to the light side. The suggestion is that the child was ushered into the world of influence by a cabal of bad priests, but what they're up to, and where they are now, remains a mystery. All we get, near the end, is a dream/repressed memory sequence of Kate's labor in which a cousin of Nosferatu's rubs his hands together in wicked glee and somebody holds up a placenta.

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