by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing in this world that makes absolutely no sense to me, it is when Hollywood decides to remake a classic horror film and do a shot-by-shot redo of the film. We saw it happen with Gus Van Sant’s color remake of Psycho and we all know how THAT one turned out (if you can believe it, one of my film professors though it was brilliant…). In 2006, Hollywood got the bright idea to revisit director Richard Donner’s 1976 demonic thriller The Omen, one of the best horror films to emerge from the heyday of gritty, blood-under-the-nails horror. The film may have been one of the countless imitators made in the wake of such demonic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist but The Omen remains one of the titans of this subgenre because of its lingering post-Watergate chill and its bleak inverted-crucifix conclusion that practically leaves your heart pounding out of your chest. Basically, the original is a must for die-hard fans of horror. I can’t say the same about the absolutely pointless and flat post 9/11 update. Made to be released on 6/6/06 (I’m being serious), The Omen 2006 attempts to use horrific current events (9/11, Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) as its gloomy backdrop but then does little else new or exciting with the story. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one. Absolutely nothing has been changed.
For those who are not familiar with The Omen, I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis. After American diplomat Robert Thorn (Played by Leiv Schreiber) is told that his newborn son died shortly after birth, the distraught Robert grapples with how to break the news to his wife, Katherine (Played by Julia Stiles). The hospital’s priest suggests that Robert adopt another newborn child whose mother died during childbirth and has no other living family member. To spare Katherine the pain, Robert accepts this offer and the Thorn’s raise the child, Damien, as their own. Five years pass and Robert is made Deputy Ambassador to the Court of St. James and the Thorns begin a new, lavish life in London. Everything is great for the Thorns but soon a serious of bizarre events begin to surround Damien (Played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). After a horrific suicide at Damien’s fifth birthday party, Robert is approached by Father Brennan (Played by Peter Postlewaite), who claims to have information on Damien’s birthmother. As the events grow more and more disturbing, Robert is forced to humor Father Brennan and he begins searching for more information on the boy. He gets help from a spooked photographer named Keith Jennings (Played by David Thewlis), who may be marked for death. Meanwhile, a mysterious new nanny named Mrs. Baylock (Played by Mia Farrow) has come to the Thorn household and begun watching over Damien, protecting him at any cost.
Directed by John Moore, The Omen 2006 is shot like a gothic music video and frantically edited together to imitate a strobe light. It’s incredibly stylish and symbolically obvious (the color red surrounds Damien everywhere he goes) to the point where all you can do is roll your eyes. The death scenes are overly grisly and amped up to outdo the chilling sudden demises found in the original film. The sets look like leftovers from David Fincher’s Seven and when an ominous mood fails Moore, he just clouds up the sky and allows a little thunder and lightning to make things creepy or simply dims the light in places where he shouldn’t. He also falls back on shaky camera shots in the hopes that it makes the scene just a tad more interesting. Outside of exploiting real life disasters as the rise of the antichrist, Moore and screenwriter David Seltzer inject a series of bizarre hallucinations and nightmares suffered by Katherine. They are composed of blinding reds and whites as demons in ceremonial robes stalk Katherine in baroque bathrooms and red clad Damien waves a noose around. These scenes are brought to us in rapid fire flashes that are accompanied by loud bangs on the soundtrack, which Moore assumes automatically makes them scary. To the jittery horror viewer, this may all be extremely terrifying but to those of us who are seasoned veterans, it’s all very cheap and lazy.
If the movie itself isn’t dull enough, the acting doesn’t really do much to spice things up. Schreiber and Stiles are grossly miscast in their roles and look laughable compared to the original’s Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Schreiber looks stuffy and uncomfortable trying to prevent the rise of the antichrist while Stiles seems too young and bored as she sulks after their demon seed. Davey-Fitzpatrick could rank as one of the worst child actors to hit the screen in quite some time. He fails to really shake us up like he should. Moore instructs him to glare at everyone like they refused to buy him a toy he so desperately wanted. Things really get laughable at the end when Moore asks him to turn from distant child into thrashing demon. He looks like he is throwing a phony temper tantrum and it is downright awful. Postlewaite works his ass off as the perpetually terrified Father Brennan but there is just too little of him to really save this junk heap. Thewlis is likable enough as Jennings, a photographer who captures some sinister photographs. He makes up for the stiff and out-of-place Schreiber but the two just don’t have the chemistry that they should. Rounding out the main players is Farrow, who seems to be having a devilishly good time as Mrs. Baylock. She gives the film the suspense and unease that it so desperately wants.
As if the lack of any surprises and lukewarm performances wasn’t enough, The Omen is littered with glaring screw-ups in the script. Near the climax of the film, Robert receives news that someone very close to him has mysteriously died and upon learning that news, Robert tells Keith that he wants Damien dead. In the next scene, Robert goes to see a mysterious priest who instructs him on how to kill the child. As the priest explains the ritual, the distraught ambassador becomes sick to his stomach and claims that he cannot kill a child. Perhaps he forgot his previous statement? There are plenty more “What the hell?” moments like this to be found throughout the film so make sure you are prepared. As someone who admires the original film and appreciates its slow build-up, I say skip this utterly pointless remake and seek out the original. Somehow, it is more realistic and it’s all the more chilling due to its gritty presentation. If you are determined to see the modern interpretation, well, I suppose if you are in the market for a nap, this one will help put you to sleep.
The Omen 2006 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If action fans were turned off by Richard Donner’s 1978 slow burner origin story Superman, they will find tons to enjoy in Richard Lester’s breathless action extravaganza Superman II, the controversial follow-up to the original film. Pitting the Man of Steel against the dreaded General Zod, a foe that possesses the same powers as Superman, Superman II manages to be more of a nail bitter than its predecessor by really putting Superman’s back against the skyscraper. Out of all the Superman films, Superman II has to be my favorite for how tense some of it can be. There are moments where you really think Supes isn’t going to make it out of this one alive, especially when General Zod teams up Lex Luthor. Superman II also features some really complex emotions, especially when it dives into the relationship between feisty news reporter Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent. Filmed simultaneously with Superman, it is said that Donner, who claimed to have made 75% of Superman II, quit working on this film because the studio pushed him to make it campier than the original, which led to Lester stepping in and finishing the film. Personally, I have always found this film to be a bit darker and lacking in the winks that were heavy in the first film, something that made me like Superman II even more.
Superman II begins with a quick flashback to the events in Superman, which began with wise Jor-El (Played by Marlon Brando) banishing three criminals by the names of General Zod (Played by Terence Stamp), Ursa (Played by Sarah Douglas), and Non (Played by Jack O’Halloran), into deep space just before the destruction of Krypton. He traps them in the Phantom Zone, a glass-like cube that spirals aimlessly through the galaxy. The film speeds ahead to present day with Superman (Played by Christopher Reeve) foiling a terrorist plot to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Supes discovers the terrorists have a hydrogen bomb in their clutches, which he quickly takes to space and detonates. The shock waves from the bomb destroy the Phantom Zone and free Zod and his cronies. The deadly trio soon arrives on earth, where they begin destroying anything in their path. Meanwhile Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder) are on a business trip in Niagara Falls when Lois begins to suspect that Clark Kent is in fact Superman, given the fact that he is never around when Superman is swooping in to save the day. She is proven right and Superman learns that if he wishes to be with a mortal, he must be stripped of his powers and also live as a mortal. Soon, Superman learns of General Zod’s plot to enslave the human race and to make things worse, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman) has broken out of prison and offers an alliance to General Zod.
Bigger, louder, faster, and stronger than Donner’s original film, Superman II has an epic final showdown that goes on for almost forty minutes in the streets of Metropolis. Everything that gets in between Superman and General Zod is crushed like a tin can. Cars tumble through the air and buildings are destroyed as Superman tries desperately to prevent Zod, Ursa, and Non from reducing Metropolis to ash. It is a lot of fun with some camp thrown in to keep things from getting too dark for children. To make things worse for Superman, Lex Luthor refuses to lend him a hand in trying to figure out a way to beat Zod, Luthor revealing every single trick Superman tries to use against the trio. He is basically on his own and that adds a lot of anxiety to Superman II. How does the Man of Steel beat three invincible foes with little regard for human life? Now that is one hell of a sequel if you ask me. Screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz work overtime to also give the love story a set of teeth. Things are not simple between Lois and Superman, at least not as easy as Superman first figures they are. Responsibility steps in between the couple and forces them to put their love on hold as Zod forces Superman to step out of retirement.
With the screenwriters taking Superman to new emotional heights, the cast is forced to add more depth to their characters. The darkness that crept into Superman’s heart of gold flares up again in smaller ways. He grapples with being stripped of his powers as a hulking bully in a diner roughs him up. He trembles with fear and embarrassment, the nerdy Clark Kent actually helpless for once. The tough Lois Lane finally loosens up a bit, especially when her theory that Clark Kent is Superman turns out to be right. I actually enjoyed that the filmmakers made her character suspect that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. I always thought it would be a cinch to spot the resemblance. The affection between Lois and Superman is out of this world when it is being fully addressed, especially when without hesitation, Superman declares that he is willing to be stripped of his powers so that he can be with the one that he loves. It’s a sweet romance that builds up to a finale of tears and hurt, something that still pierces even after having seen the film multiple times.
Superman II also comes loaded with four villains ready to lay waste to the Man of Steel. Hackman’s Lex Luthor doesn’t really show much growth outside of the reveal that he is a slight coward. He gravitates to whoever is on top at that particular moment. He seems present just to add a little bit more comic relief to the action and to keep the kids chuckling. It is said that when Donner left the film, he went with him, refusing to work for Lester. Then we have Stamp as the booming General Zod, who speaks in third person and promises anyone he meets that they will “kneel before Zod!” He is so evil that you will want to cheer when Superman shows up and asks him if he’d like to step outside to work out their differences, which is code for throwing a few punches at each other. Zod’s second in command Ursa is a sexy femme fatale who is loyal to her general until the very end. She may just be an enforcer but she still sends chills down your spine, especially her amused smirk as she butchers a group of astronauts. Rounding out the baddies is O’Halloran’s Non, a mute giant who is capable of more destruction than Luthor, Zod, and Ursa combined. He barrels at Superman in midflight and smashes through brick like it was a sheet of paper. The trio gets a fun little destruction free-for-all in a small town where they deflect flamethrowers and break missiles in half as a warm up before the battle for Metropolis.
Much like Superman, Superman II’s special effects are completely devoid of the wonder I’m sure they once possessed. Some of the battles are a bit flat as the actors bob around on wires that don’t allow them to move as quickly as they would like. Still, the moments where cars and buses crash through the streets of Metropolis hold up nicely, adding a wave of apocalyptic dread to the battle. Zod is capable of destruction that makes Luthor salivate, another aspect that is pretty neat to watch. Superman II is also loaded with barefaced jingoism that really fits the superhero that stands for “truth, honor, and American way”. The film fades out with Superman flying to the destroyed White House with an American flag that he places atop the ruins, promising the president that he will never disappear again. It is this beaming pride that makes Superman II endearing and reminds us that ol’ Supes will always be the American good old boy. Overall, a faster pace and trickier romance angle allows Superman II to be just slightly more fun than the influential original, even if it is not as thought provoking with its imagery. It also justifies the very idea of a sequel and proves that a sequel can sometimes be a great thing.
Superman II is available on Blu-ray DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You can’t call yourself a comic book fan if you haven’t seen Richard Donner’s powerful interpretation of DC Comics hero Superman, the first superhero epic ever projected onto the big screen. This 1978 blockbuster, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was marketed with the tagline “you’ll believe a MAN can fly” and to this day, despite dated special effects, I still do believe a man can fly. Donner’s Superman was the film that laid the foundation for superhero origin stories, one that taught Hollywood how to properly pace the origin tale of a crime fighter in tights, slowly and with a never-ending amount of care poured into each and every frame. Superman was born out of the explosion of fantasy films that came with a gigantic price tag, mainly science fiction films escapism like Star Wars. While I have never been big on Superman and I have never really been an avid collector of his comics, I will give his big screen debut credit as being one of the best big screen interpretations of his character as well as being one of the finest superhero epics ever made. I love the slow building story that arrives at an apocalyptic disaster that only the Man of Steel could prevent and the casting of Christopher Reeve is a stroke of genius as the hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”. I will even go so far to say that any director planning to make a superhero origin story should be required to watch this film before they even think about stepping behind the camera.
Superman begins with the destruction of our hero’s home planet, Krypton, and his father, Kal-El (Played by Marlon Brando), sending him to earth in an asteroid-like spacepod. Three years pass and Superman or Jor-El, as he is called on Krypton, crashes in the rural farming community of Smallville. Shortly after he lands, the kind couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) discovers the young Jor-El and proceed to raise him as a normal human being even though they are well aware of his astonishing superpowers. At age eighteen, Jor-El or Clark Kent, as he is now called, grapples with his superhuman abilities and his world is shattered when Jonathan collapses and dies from a heart attack. Shortly after his father’s death, Clark finds a mysterious green crystal in the Kent’s barn, a treasure that was aboard the ship that Clark arrived in many years ago. Clark says goodbye to the grief stricken Martha and sets out to discover who he really is and why he is capable of such incredible powers. He travels to the arctic where he uses the green crystal to build the Fortress of Solitude, a temple where he can communicate with a recording from his father. It is here that Clark begins learning about his abilities and responsibilities to the citizens of earth. More time passes and the adult Clark (Played by Christopher Reeve) arrives in the big city of Metropolis, where he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and he meets the striking Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder), who he quickly falls in love with. Clark begins to use his powers to help the people of Metropolis, which earns him the name of Superman by the press. Superman soon grabs the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman), who is developing a plot that could wipe California off the face of the earth.
Many may find Donner’s Superman a bit longwinded and slow to get to the action, but he really wants us to become attached to the Man of Steel. It is easy to like the guy, especially when Reeve steps into the character and lets his good-old-boy charm have some fun. As Clark Kent, he is an ungainly oaf who stutters through every word that pours out of his mouth. The employees of the Daily Planet march around him, barely even registering that he is actually in the room half the time. He scurries after Lois, who tries hard to humor him but also forgets about him like the rest of their colleagues. His confidence and warmth really takes hold when he rips open that button-up shirt to reveal that iconic “S” stamped proudly on his chest. He almost single handedly cleans up the streets of Metropolis in one evening and still finds time to rescue a kitty stuck in a tree. It is funny that Donner uses New York City as his Metropolis, a city that was slowly deteriorating from rampant crime during this particular era. He seems to literally be suggesting that this “Metropolis” could use a savior who is willing to clean up the streets and stand up to the grimy violence. That savior is a Christ-like alien from another planet who can see through walls, shoot lasers out of his eyes, deflect bullets, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman belongs to Reeve but his supporting cast is equally as brilliant as he is. Marlon Brando shows up as Superman’s astute father who is always offering up lessons to his pupil. When Brando steps into the frame, your eyes won’t be able to be torn away. About forty minutes into the film, he gets to deliver an unforgettable speech that compares the Man of Steel to Christ, something that may upset some viewers. Brando booms, “I have sent them you! My only son!” and you can’t help but get goosebumps. When Brando isn’t making waves as Kal-El, Gene Hackman cackles as the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, who schemes up a nuclear plot (Cold War willies anyone?) that would leave millions dead. A scene where he hacks into Superman’s head and threatens to kill thousands of people in New York City sends an icy chill through the lighter atmosphere that grips the middle part of the film. Margot Kidder is a throaty looker as the force that is Lois Lane. Moving at one hundred miles per hour, Lois is always in the wrong place at the wrong time but the scenes where she is in need of help never feel strained. A sequence where she dangles from the very top of the Daily Planet will take your breath away but you never fear that Supes won’t be able to catch his damsel in distress.
Superman is loaded with sprawling special effects, destroying everything from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in between. These scenes of destruction still make us scratch our heads and say, “How’d they do THAT?” The most impressive has to be the wobbling Golden Gate Bridge, where the Man of Steel glides in and saves a bus of school children from tumbling to their death. The early sequences of Superman are appropriately trippy, fitting for their intergalactic landscape that looks like it would have been at home in something like Angry Red Planet or This Island Earth. These wondrous images are complimented by a trumpeting score that could only come from John Williams, who composes one of the greatest scores in the history of motion pictures. There are moments of Superman that are devilishly funny, lovingly winking at all the blue, yellow, and red clad fans that are hanging on every second of the film. My favorite wink has to be a scene where Clark is looking for a place to rip off his business attire to reveal the Superman armor. He jogs up to an exposed phone booth but opts for a revolving door that offers him some privacy for a quick wardrobe change. Yet the sweetest moments of the film are the ones where Superman literally sweeps Lois off her feet, taking her up into the clouds. These scenes show us that the Man of Steel has a mushy center.
Overall, Superman is grand achievement for the superhero genre. It proved that these stories could have intellectual ideas swirling below the special effects as well as breezy stories with tons of “WOW” moments. At two hours and twenty minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, something only Superman is capable of. In the end, the whole picture belongs to Reeve, who can’t be topped as the squeaky clean do-gooder. Surprisingly, he lets a small amount of darkness and rage slip into his soul, especially when someone close to him bites the dust in the final moments. You will be hoping that suppressed rage and darkness will be let loose in later installments. Donner’s Superman is a larger than life explosion of sheer superhero bliss that you will want to revisit again and again. Bring on part two!
Superman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.