‘The Omen’: Beware Of Kid, By Kurt Loder

Satan's baby is back, and Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles have him.

The unsuspecting couple, their doomed associates and of course the small but precocious Spawn of Hell himself all return in director John Moore’s stylish reprise of “The Omen,” a very profitable 1976 horror film that’s now been re-floated, with new rigging, by the same studio that put out the original movie. Because this new one uses the original script, by David Seltzer, it’s nearly identical, in structure and plot detail, to the earlier picture. In fact, it’s a virtual tribute.

Once again, Robert Thorne (Liev Schreiber), a deputy U.S. ambassador in Rome, receives word in the maternity ward of a local hospital that his wife, Kate (Julia Stiles), has delivered a stillborn baby. A strange priest appears and suggests that Robert agree to accept a living infant, whose mother has died in childbirth, as a substitute — and not tell Kate about the switch. “Give your love to the living,” the priest says. Robert agrees to this odd proposal.

Shortly thereafter, he learns that he’ll be accompanying his boss, the ambassador, to a new posting in the London embassy. But when it suddenly develops that the ambassador will be unable to make the trip (ever), Robert, who happens to be the godson of the President of the United States, finds himself appointed to this top diplomatic position. Settling into a baronial country estate outside of London, he and Kate dote on their raven-haired child, whom they’ve named Damien. But things start going wrong at a fifth-birthday garden party for the boy, when a big, drooling black dog shows up on the perimeter of the festivities, Damien makes smirking eye contact with the beast, and the Thornes’ nanny suddenly takes it into her head to … give notice, let’s say.

For anyone who’s seen the original movie, there’ll be no surprises from here on out. A weird new nanny, Mrs. Baylock, appears. (She’s played by Mia Farrow, trailing vestigial horror cred from her starring role in the 1968 “Rosemary’s Baby.”) Another priest from the Roman hospital, Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who was present the night Damien was born, also turns up, with horrific news about the little lad. (“Its mother was a jackal!”) Then Robert is contacted by a newspaper photographer named Jennings (David Thewlis), who has discovered ominous portents in the prints of the pictures he took at Damien’s birthday party — and in that biblical compendium of all-purpose apocalyptic rantings, the Book of Revelation.

Next, as you may recall, Damien flies into a rage as the family limo approaches a Catholic church. Then Mrs. Baylock announces she’s found a pet dog for the boy — a big black one. Finally, it begins to dawn on Kate, if not her husband, that “something’s not right.” Eventually, even Robert begins to get the picture.

Why remake a horror classic with such slavish fidelity to the original? No doubt director Moore (“Flight of the Phoenix”) realized that the story was unimprovable. The Antichrist theme — with the son of Satan installed near the center of world political power — is a perfect pulp subject. And the tale’s unsettling denouement remains unusual in the genre, and, as you may remember, quite memorable.

To make this material their own to some extent, Moore and his production designer, Patrick Lumb, and cinematographer, Jonathan Sela, working mostly in and around Prague, have given the movie a rich, dark sheen. There’s lots of thunder and lightning and rain-slicked cobblestones; and the shadowy Old World interiors add a certain spooky grandeur of their own. In addition, some of the most famous scenes from the original film — a startling rooftop leap, and a fall from a gallery balcony — have been given a contemporary FX jolt. (You can’t help wincing when the victim’s body actually bounces after hitting the gallery’s hardwood floor.)

The actors are well-cast, too. Schreiber and Stiles are younger and therefore, as characters, more emotionally engaging than the original leads, Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. (Schreiber is also a notably more interesting performer than the colorless Peck.) And David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite (and Michael Gambon, as well — he pops up as a devil-child extermination specialist later in the film) are character actors of easeful expertise.

On the downside, if only a little, Mia Farrow doesn’t attempt to capture the pure evil-bitch malevolence that Billie Whitelaw brought to the original Mrs. Baylock. (Although Farrow’s sinister sweetness adds a creepy frisson of its own in a crucial hospital scene.) More problematic, I think, is Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, the child actor who plays Damien. He’s a little too cute, and a little too blank, to be entirely persuasive as a demonic threat. The Damien in the first movie, portrayed by Harvey Stephens (who puts in a fleeting, all-grown-up appearance as a reporter in this film), exuded a considerably more menacing vibe.

But this new “Omen” works fine. It has its own look and it plays the story straight, as if this were the first time it was being brought to the screen. If you haven’t seen the original movie, this one should provide some good, shivery fun. And even if you have, it’s certainly more entertaining in just about every way than “The Da Vinci Code,” which, as you may have heard, is a really hellacious experience.

 
—Kurt Loder

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