Thursday, 30 August 2007

Movie Face/Off! Biblical Horror Edition (Round One)

In a not-really-very-odd coincidence, over the past couple of weeks we watched both The Omen remake and The Reaping, two low-wattage horror movies tapping into the religious paranoia fad currently sweeping the world. Of course, this being the real world, that semi-coincidence did not signal the imminent birth of the Anti-Christ, or bring about a series of plagues that range in severity from mildly inconvenient to just plain deadly. Which is good, I guess. However, it begs the question, if The All-New-No-Actually-Pretty-Much-The-Same-Omen and The Swankening were downloaded into the bodies of giant robots and then sent to battle it out inside an enormous futuristic arena, which flavour of film-inspired Fightbot would triumph?

The original Omen isn't that great a movie, but it is a lot of fun, and was directed with an entertaining OTT conviction by Richard Donner. The remake, on the other hand, is utterly flavourless and pointless. Other than the rubbernecking attraction of seeing Mia Farrow play a crazy nanny (she's very convincing), there is nothing to recommend. It doesn't help that it features the two most adenoidal actors on the big screen, Liev Schrieber and David Thewlis. Their scenes together sounded less like exposition-heavy blithering about Revelations and more like two adjacent hornet's nests exchanging hostilities.

I'm not a fan of either actor, finding them to be deeply unwatchable, what with their numerous acting tics, relentless nasality, and humourless approach to their craft (though Schreiber did a lot to erase that image with a brilliant appearance on Conan O'Brien taking the piss out of Studio 60. I'd link to it but Satan himself took it off YouTube). The film also erased any good will The Bourne Ultimatum had generated towards Julia Stiles. Perhaps that's a little harsh. After all, it can't be much fun playing that most unpleasantly misogynistic of bibli-horror staples; the mother whose womb and maternal instincts are used as a battleground and weapon in the war between God and the Devil. Still, like Schreiber and Thewlis, she looks like she's counting the money in her head for long periods.

However, it's all well and good seeing actors you don't give a crap about turning up in dreary biblical horror movies, but when it's someone who you think is an acting hero, i.e. Michael Gambon, it gets less funny. Thankfully he's only in one scene, as the memorably named Bugenhagen. The name is whispered dramatically throughout the movie, usually by deformed or insane priests, often during thunderstorms. The dramatic effect this should achieve is undermined by the fact that Bugenhagen sounds like the creator of a popular ice-cream brand. Gambon gives it his all, bellowing various expositionary ravings with a conviction the movie doesn't deserve.

It was also a shame to see Pete Postlethwaite turn up as a priest who tries to encourage Schreiber to kill his kid. Quick pointer; telling someone their adopted child is borne of a jackal is a quick way to alienate them. I mean, I assume so. It's not like I've ever done it. Second thing to remember; if the hounds of Hell and all of Satan's minions are trying to stop you from killing Damien the demon child and will use the weather, twisted probability, and various possessed animals to do it, get to the point. Starting conversations with such information-lite ravings as, "When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet fills the sky, and the holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, until man exists no more," just obscures the important facts. A simple, "Kill your jackal child with a bunch of daggers owned by Fred Bugenhagen of Megiddo City or we're all screwed," should suffice.

The most frustrating thing about it is that, as has been commented upon by many, the film was rushed out to capitalise on the date 6.06.06. Knowing that, and sadly without the ability to verify this, I was unable to determine any difference between David Seltzer's script for the new movie and the original. Is it the same movie with contemporary references? It certainly seems like it, with only a couple of the death sequences altered, seemingly just to punch them up. Patrick Troughton got impaled by a church spire in the original, but Pete Postlethwaite gets impaled to the power of eleventy by a church spire and multiple shards of stained glass. A damaged sign swings down and clips off Thewlis' head in a shot that is probably less dramatic than David Warner's outrageous death by sheet-of-glass, but is maybe a touch more elegant, if you can call demonically-inspired decapitation powered by mystical contrivance elegant. Whatever. It was the only moment of the film that entertained me, and not just because it meant no more Thewlis, so it gets bonus points.

But I cruelly take those points away for the worst crime in modern cinema; misuse of London landmarks! It's a stupid thing to be pissed about, and I'm sure it happens in movies set in all the major cities, but having the US Embassy downriver from the London Eye is nonsense. Plus, where is the Saatchi Gallery? And the Aquarium? And the Royal Festival Hall? There is nothing. Just a landmark digitally patched into the background. Later, there are several scenes with Stiles and Schreiber driving miles out of London to get to their enormous estate, and yet over the tops of the trees you can still see the Eye. Perhaps it's possessed by Satan, and is following them around. In the final breathlessly boring chase sequence you can see Czech signs on shops in the city centre. I know the movie is a half-hearted, cynical exercise in cashing in on a frigging date, of all things, but surely someone somewhere could have made a bit of effort. I guess if effort's what you want, director John Moore is not your man.

So, in a Face/Off between this and The Reapening, surely the latter will triumph. Have I ruined the suspense by slating this movie so badly? Well, anyone who has seen Swank battle evil plagues with little more than science and not-science will know it's probably going to be a photo finish.

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