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Review: ‘The First Omen’ Is The Perfect Horror Prequel

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In an age of horror legacy continuations, it was about time we got back around to The Omen. The original 1976 Richard Donner-directed film centered around a couple who unknowingly adopted the spawn of Satan: Damien. Its unnerving, camp-infused scares have allowed The Omen to maintain its place in the canon. Its three sequels? Not so much. Not even a 2006 remake or 2015 TV series, titled Damien, could inspire the same level of fervor. Finally, prequel The First Omen restores a sense of prestige to The Omen title.

It arrives at an opportune time. Religious horror is on the upswing. The Nun series, and The Conjuring franchise it spawned from, continues to make a mint at the box office. Just last year, Universal’s The Exorcist: Believer arrived. One month ago, even, Immaculate sparked all sorts of conversations.

The First Omen outclasses the whole lot. The directorial debut of Arkasha Stevenson, The First Omen is an assured piece of work that makes its mark by taking its concept seriously. Stevenson weaves a wicked tale that’s as scary as it is critical of organized religion.

The First Omen nails its prequel elements

Set in Rome, 1971, The First Omen centers around Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free). Before the quiet, kindly young woman becomes a nun, she takes up work at an orphanage under the tutelage of mentor Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy). She’s drawn to troubled child Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace), who is treated as an outcast by the nuns and fellow children.

Margaret, however, feels that she may be a victim of mistreatment by the sisters at the orphanage. Her suspicions are confirmed in the worst way by the arrival of priest Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), who informs her of a conspiracy to bring about the birth of the Antichrist. The vessel? Carlita.

The script, written by StevensonTim Smith, and Keith Thomas, is uncommonly good for this kind of movie. The world of the orphanage, and the various schemes behind the veil of the nuns, slowly unspools itself. The First Omen wants to make you feel dread creeping up until it’s downright suffocating.

Furthermore, it’s a lot smarter than many are likely expecting. The First Omen turns a critical eye towards the Catholic Church. Specifically, the main conspiracy of birthing a child by the Devil’s hand serves as a fitting metaphor for rampant sexual abuse in organized religion.

It may not have the flash of Immaculate‘s more controversial moments, but it certainly resonates more. When the purpose of the Church’s scheme is revealed, it’s a sickening reminder of how far those in power will go to maintain that power. The relationship between Margaret and Carlita starts off as bonding over being “bad kids”. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more clear that they’re shared victims of abusive behavior.

As a prequel, The First Omen nails it. It constantly plays with expectations of what audiences will expect to happen. Of course, we know Damien will be born by the film’s end. Yet, the path getting there is a winding one. We know from the first film that Damien’s mother was heavily implied to be a Jackal. Well, we get clear answers to that odd bit of lore; just not the answers you’d think.

Character dynamics change wildly throughout the film’s deliberate 119-minute runtime. Iconography is twisted in fresh ways. Aside from a way too on-the-nose denouement, The First Omen slots in perfectly as the predecessor to the original film.

Image from The First Omen
Image from The First Omen (20th Century Studios)

Nell Tiger Free dominates the screen as Margaret

The First Omen does a swell job of building out the characters surrounding the orphanage. Maria Caballero charms as Margaret’s worldly roommate Luz. Sônia Braga is appropriately creepy in the role of Abbess Sister Silvia. And, of course, Bill Nighy can always be counted on to play an on-the-surface benevolent authority figure belying a level of cruelty underneath. Impressively, Ralph Ineson (from The Creator) manages to play the role of Father Brennan so well that you truly believe him and Patrick Troughton from the original are playing the same character.

I was thoroughly intrigued by the performance of one Nicole Sorace. As the film goes on, you grow to have a lot of empathy for her specific situation. She subverts the creepy child archetype to become something three-dimensional. She’s one part of the bleeding heart at the core of The First Omen.

The other is Nell Tiger Free. An actress whose work on the Apple TV+ Original Servant has gone woefully under-noticed, this is her big chance to really show audiences what she’s all about. Free‘s Margaret starts off as a kindly, meek woman, who over the course of The First Omen begins to transform into a figure of righteous anger. More than that, she descends into outright madness over what she’s become a part of. There’s a scene here mimicking horror cult classic Possession that’s worth the price of admission alone. It’s a dignified, complex performance that deserves to be remarked on not for its flashiness, but for its versatility.

The First Omen shouldn’t be the last

Arkasha Stevenson has a bright future ahead of her in horror. On just her first go around, she nails the atmosphere. Under her direction, cinematographer Aaron Morton evokes a ’70s style. By that, I don’t mean pastiche. Rather, careful framing. A reluctance towards cheap jump scares. Letting the audience take in and be unnerved by uncomfortable imagery.

To take it a step further, Stevenson is a master at employing shock at just the right moments. Meaning, in this case, that she lets brief bits of gore and body horror seep in. The flash of a jackal-like creature is terrifying because we only see it ever so slightly. And, more impressively, the simple shot of priests and nuns standing around a screaming woman draws out even more terror.

The First Omen is a marvelously confident work. It doesn’t seek to try and do “The Omen for a new generation”. Arkasha Stevenson opts to make a full-on thoughtful, bold prequel that expands on the original in ways that might rile up fans. The fact that she manages to add in a critique of the Catholic Church and craft such multi-layered characters, plus make a film that looks and feels this good, is a big deal.

When the first trailer debuted, I had hoped The First Omen would live up to what it promised. Needless to say, I’m very satisfied. I certainly hope this isn’t the last we see of this franchise, and I hope even more that Arkasha Stevenson gets her next project greenlit immediately.

The First Omen is now in theaters.  Do you plan to go see it? Let us know what you think on social media @mycosmiccircus on in The Cosmic Circus Discord. 

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James Preston Poole

James Preston Poole is a Houston-based writer who specializes in genre film, while also screenwriting and working on film sets whenever he can. He believes that as long as there’s someone out there to champion a movie, then there’s no such thing as “objectively bad.” James holds a Bachelor of Science in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas and owes everything to his friends, family, significant other Catherine, and their three-legged cat Trinity.

James Preston Poole has 22 posts and counting. See all posts by James Preston Poole