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‘The First Omen’ Review: Horror Prequel Is a Fever Dream With More Atmosphere Than Narrative Coherence

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Here’s a free tip to any nuns out there, or any young women thinking of becoming one: Whatever you do, don’t go to Italy, especially Rome. It’s not going to end well. Especially if you wind up pregnant.

Arriving swiftly on the heels of Sydney Sweeney’s bloody twist on virgin birth in Immaculate comes The First Omen, a prequel to Richard Donner‘s 1976 classic of religious horror, which devilishly spawned three sequels, a 2006 remake, and a short-lived 2016 TV series (Damien). Apparently, all those weren’t enough to satiate the needs of the horror franchise’s fanbase or movie studio accountants, since we now have this effort detailing exactly how the demonic infant Damien came to enter the lives of the ill-fated U.S. Ambassador Robert Thorn and his wife, memorably played in The Omen by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.

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The First Omen

The Bottom Line Is it too much to hope it’s also the last?

Release date: Friday, April 5
Cast: Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson, Sonia Braga, Tawfeek Barhom, Maria Caballero, Charles Dance, Bill Nighy, Nicole Sorace
Director: Arkasha Stevenson
Screenwriters: Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson, Keith Thomas
Rated R, 1 hour 54 minutes

The film provides the answer to a question most people probably weren’t asking but, as demonstrated by the recent The Exorcist: Believer, horror franchises never tire of beating a dead horse. (Even the classic Universal Frankenstein films of the ‘30s progressively wore out their welcome after Bride of Frankenstein, at least until Abbott and Costello met the creature.)

To fully appreciate this feature debut from director Arkasha Stevenson it’s best to rewatch Donner’s original, since Stevenson and co-screenwriters Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, working from a story by Ben Jacoby, throw in plenty of fun shoutouts, including one character offing herself in a style that recalls the chilling demise of Damien’s first nanny. One of the earlier film’s minor characters, Father Brennan, figures prominently in this prequel, now played by an effectively haunting-looking Ralph Ineson (The Northman). No doubt there are many more references devoted fans will catch, though I wish Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie Oscar-winning score had been reprised. 

Set in the early 1970s, the story revolves around Margaret (an impressive Nell Tiger Free, Servant), a young novitiate sent by the Church to Rome to work at an orphanage. She’s greeted warmly by Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), her old mentor, but not so much by the nuns, including the forbidding Sister Silva (Sonia Braga). Indeed, the nuns in this orphanage aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, looking so menacing that horror appears to be their vocation.

Margaret does find some supportive friends in the form of Father Gabriel (Tawfeek Barhom), a young priest, and Luz (Maria Caballero), her roommate at the orphanage. The latter makes a determined effort to get the newcomer out of her shell by encouraging her to put on a slinky dress and accompany her to a nightclub where she encounters a young man who soon meets an untimely and highly gruesome end.

Margaret also attempts to make a connection with Carlita (Nicole Sorace), a troubled young woman at the orphanage with whom she feels an emotional connection despite the warnings of the excommunicated Brennan, who’s become convinced that the Church is attempting to create an Antichrist for reasons never entirely made clear (it certainly seems counterintuitive). In an early scene, he tries reaching out to another priest, Father Harris (Charles Dance, don’t get too attached to him), which doesn’t work out so well since characters in these films are highly susceptible to falling objects.

While the events in the first Omen seemed to be taking place in a real world that just happened to include demonic figures, this film seems more like a fever dream, its outlandish storyline taking a back seat to a nightmarish vision that’s more about mood than narrative coherence. To her credit, director Stevenson effectively creates a disquieting atmosphere, abetted by an endless series of cheap jump scares. As in so many contemporary horror entries, no one can so much as get tapped on the shoulder without the accompaniment of a shock edit and jolting noise.

Since the original Omen is beloved for, among other reasons, its truly startling violent set pieces, the prequel doubles down, leaning so heavily into extremely gory body horror that David Cronenberg should get royalties. There’s one scene in particular that will have audiences buzzing, or retching, or both — suffice it to say this is not a film to be screened at Lamaze classes.

Ultimately, it all feels very familiar, and not just because this is the second movie in as many months to revolve around nuns and the birth of an Antichrist. That’s no fault of its talented young lead, whose emotional and physical commitment to her role is highly impressive. Here’s hoping that next time she has the opportunity to star in a nice romantic comedy.  

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