THE NEW REMAKE of The Omen serves no discernible purpose. It is not a "re-imagining," a la Tim Burton's awful (but, at least, original) remake of Planet of the Apes. It is not an homage, as Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho purported to be. It's not even the studio's intent to bring a long-lost classic back to the fore, as was, once could charitable argue, the remake of House on Haunted Hill. The original Omen was released just 30 years ago and is still considered one of the all-time greats of the genre.
Replacing Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the parents of Damien the anti-Christ are Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles. Still born of a jackal, Damien's character is subtly different this time around; while the child actor who played the devil's son originally, Harvey Stephens, brought to life a character that was cute, with flashes of evil, this version's incarnation (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is consistently creepy. And annoying.
Schreiber, a talented stage actor with a hit-and-miss film career, holds his own in the role of America's ambassador to England, but is terribly miscast--he's 20 years too young. Stiles is out of her depth. The one pleasant casting choice is Mia Farrow, who brings some pep to Damien's Satan-serving nurse.
There are two significant differences between the original and the new incarnation: While the 1976 version used atmosphere and tension to create apprehension and terror, the 2006 model uses more traditional horror movie techniques to induce frights. Spikes of loud music and quick cuts to unexpected (and disturbing) images produce jumps at the intended moments. The old horror standby, a creepy image in the mirror where there should be nothing, also makes an appearance. Congratulations, director John Moore, you got the audience to shudder. But nightmares are not made of these moments. The difference in atmosphere can be attributed, in part, to the different soundtrack; whereas the original score was filled with a human chorus chanting in Latin, the remake's score is much more traditional.
The other difference between the two is the level of gore. In the 1976 Omen, a priest was impaled by a lightning rod after falling off of a church. Now, he is impaled and suffers a face full of jagged stained glass. The decapitation of the photographer from the original is also repeated; this time a veritable geyser of blood erupts from the wound and the headless corpse stumbles down a flight of stairs.
In the end the ambassador is still killed by the police while trying to off the anti-Christ, and Damien still ends the movie holding the hand of the President of the United States. Yawn.
BARRY LANGFORD'S NEW BOOK, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, divides horror into two eras: pre- and post-Psycho (1960). According to Langford, Hitchcock's classic is "(in)famous for massively intensifying the degree of graphic violence horror films were willing to inflict on their characters and vicariously upon their audience. . . . Audiences after Psycho could no longer confidently rely on narrative, generic and representational conventions to 'protect' the integrity of their viewing experience."
In a way, 1998's Psycho remake heralded another shift in the horror landscape: Gus Van Sant ushered in an era of horror remakes that have flooded America's multiplexes. As Langford points out, horror has always been fertile ground for serialization (think of the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th series), but many studios have now taken the Psycho model and simply remade original ideas. While horror remakes certainly existed before 1998 (David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) comes to mind, as does John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)), the last decade has witnessed a massive influx of retreads.
Since 1998, at least 14 horror flicks have been recreated (15 if you count Brendan Fraser's The Mummy (1999), which is less a remake of Universal's 1932 horror film than an action-adventure update). Coming out at a clip of almost 2 per year, this cycle includes remakes of Japanese and Korean horror films like Ringu (The Ring), Ju-on (The Grudge), and Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water). As evidenced by June 6's opening of The Omen and the upcoming releases of Pulse (originally Kairo in Japan) and The Grudge 2, the trend is not yet nearing completion. If anything, the pace is increasing.
Why do these films get made? There is a simple answer: They make money. In some cases, boatloads of it.
As Edward Jay Epstein explained in his revealing book The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood, the economics of Hollywood have changed. "The basic problem with all movies," he explained to me, "is recruiting an opening weekend audience. With horror films, you know who your audience is, you know how to reach them, you know the dates, like Halloween, that they watch such a movie." The reason Japanese movies are remade instead of subtitled is also simple: "Subtitles don't work in America. It's not the stars so much as the English language."
While Hollywood is still turning out some original horror flicks (such as Saw, or Hostel), there is an obvious benefit to simply remaking older American films or J-Horror films that were popular in their original overseas run: The studios already know the concepts have been successful once.
Although the first three movies in the current horror-remake cycle were either failures or modest successes (Psycho took in $21 million at the box office but cost $60 million to make, and The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill both grossed slightly more than their production budgets), they did teach the industry a valuable lesson: if you make these films for cheap enough, they will turn a profit.
Though an imperfect metric (as shown in The Big Picture), box office receipts are still a useful yard stick for demonstrating a movie's success or failure. Consider 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Produced for $9.5 million, it went on to gross more than $80 million theatrically. Or The Grudge, which brought in $110 million, on a $10 million budget. Or 2004's Dawn of the Dead, which grossed more than double its $26 million budget. Even a critical dud such as 2005's The Fog brought in half again as much as it cost to make.
The lesson for us, as consumers, is a simple one: If you don't want any more abominations like The Omen, stop seeing horror remakes in the theater. Otherwise, we will probably be treated to yet another Damien in the not-too-distant future.
Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.