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‘The Omen’ is an eerily effective remake

As a religious thriller, this film has it all over ‘The Da Vinci Code’
20Th Century Fox

Maybe the key to the remake business is to hire the original writer. David Seltzer got sole screen credit for creating the 1976 Gregory Peck/Lee Remick horror hit, “The Omen.” And he gets full credit for the unusually efficient current remake starring Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles as reluctant parents of the Anti-Christ.

The new rehash so slavishly follows the script for the first film that you can be assured that all your favorite shock moments will be revisited, if not in quite the same way you remember. The beheading episode has been ingeniously restaged, the nanny’s suicide still shocks (especially her final line), and there are several jump-out-of-your-seat moments engineered by the film’s clever director-producer, John Moore (who also remade “Flight of the Phoenix”).

As a religious thriller, this new “Omen” has it all over “The Da Vinci Code.” The tension level is consistent, the discussions of faith and belief never drag on unnecessarily, and Seltzer and Moore know how to make the Biblical references resonate. The finale, which carries unmistakable echoes of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, still has unexpected power.

What’s missing is the star chemistry Peck and Remick brought to the original. Schreiber and Stiles rarely connect as a couple, and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick barely registers as their evil son, Damien — but you can’t have everything.

Besides, the supporting cast is unusually classy. Billie Whitelaw’s ferociously evil nanny has been replaced by the more subtle Mia Farrow, who knows something about birthing devil babies. She was the mother of one herself in “Rosemary’s Baby,” and in a way this role is a fulfillment of that earlier performance.

Pete Postlethwaite brings an Old Testament conviction to the role of a priest who warns Schreiber that his family is in danger. David Thewlis is believably grounded as a photographer who finds himself flirting with the occult. And Michael Gambon is appropriately dotty as a religious fanatic who scares off Schreiber’s politically savvy character: an American diplomat who’s been sent to Europe.

What drives both versions of “The Omen” is the horrifying transformation of a rational public figure who gradually becomes convinced that his son is, quite literally, the Anti-Christ and must be destroyed. Peck suggested a parent in agonized conflict with his darkest impulses, and Schreiber does much the same. The story concept may be trash, but the feelings are genuine. You end up wondering what you would do if you were similarly tested.

The major change here is context. Whereas the 1976 original had to generate apocalyptic foreboding without making references to the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the Sept. 11 attacks, the remake can’t resist plugging all this stuff into its lineup of Armageddon prophecies.

The result sometimes suggests a hysterical update of “The Late Great Planet Earth,” Hal Lindsey’s best-seller based on his interpretation of the Book of Revelation. But even if you can’t buy the premise, try to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours and you’ll find “The Omen” an effective thriller.