Director John Moore knows one thing — how to compose some compelling images with swirling white (flakes of snow, scraps of paper) and something creepy and scarlet to catch your eye. But those swirling flakes and glimpses of red have more movement than the film itself; most of it is just a bunch of static set-pieces that will be overly familiar to anyone who has ever heard a ghost story.
As in the 1976 original starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, a mysterious priest tells Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber), an American diplomat, that his newborn baby has died. Another woman has just died in childbirth, and the priest persuades Robert to take that child as his own, telling no one about the substitution, not even his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles).
As Robert achieves extraordinary success, becoming Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Katherine is left to care for the child, Damien. But Katherine cannot feel close to him and many disturbing incidents and dead bodies later, Robert begins to learn the truth about Damien’s real parents.
Scheiber acts as though he’d rather be back in Ukraine directing Everything is Illuminated. He and Stiles (who played siblings in Hamlet) are supposed to have a loving relationship, but there is no chemistry whatsoever. Indeed, hardly anyone in this movie seems to have any connection with anyone else; it’s as though each actor performed in front of a blue screen and chroma-keyed in later. The only exceptions are Mia Farrow as Damien’s mysterious nanny (and what a trippy experience it is to see the star of Rosemary’s Baby playing the Ruth Gordon-ish role) and David Thewlis as a photographer who discovers a strange stripe of smoke as a portent in his pictures of people who are later killed.
There’s a long tradition of stories based on scary evil children. It taps into some nicely primal and disturbing feelings we have about these adorable creatures who take over our lives. But when it isn’t done well, it just seems silly, and this child’s supposedly feral stares just seem petulant.
Yes, the gory gross-outs are there, with various characters getting impaled, beheaded, hanged, and knocked off a balcony. But the in between scenes, what is supposed to be a creepy increasing dread is just time to check your watch and munch some popcorn before the bad stuff starts up again. If it gets too dull, you might try counting the parallels to “Harry Potter,” with two of the same actors and a similar theme of a young boy with strange powers revealed at a zoo….
Parents should know that this is an intense and creepy thriller about the spawn of the devil. There are graphic scenes of peril, injury, and death. Characters drink and use some bad language. Some audience members may be disturbed or offended by the portrayal of some clergy and a devil child.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Robert agreed to the priest’s proposal and why he did not tell Katherine or anyone else what he was learning about Damien. Families may also want to discuss their own beliefs about God and the devil.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Da Vinci Code, The Name of the Rose, Rosemary’s Baby (starring Farrow),and the original.