The First Omen Review | Devil in the Details

by Andrew Parker

It might seem like we were at this same exact spot a couple of weeks ago with the similarly plotted Immaculate – another film about an American nun-in-training gets caught up in a rogue religious plot to resurrect a biblical figure – but there’s plenty of room to be found for the equally compelling, gory, and well made prequel, The First Omen. The best film in the Omen franchise since… well, the first… Omen, this prequel resurrects the series and brings it to new heights in the process. It’s a highly entertaining and squirm inducing blend of nasty religious horror and a story that has a lot more on its mind than one might expect. Sometimes smart and stupid come together in a way that’s both sweet and sour, and The First Omen is one of those such coincidences.

It’s the early 1970s, and Sister Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) from Pittsfield, Massachusetts has travelled to Rome at the urging of Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy) to take her formal vows. The convent where Sister Margaret will be staying and learning also takes care of young, wayward girls, including creepy Carlita (Nicole Sorace), who is known for making unsettling drawings and starting fights with other kids. Sister Silvia (Sonia Braga) tells Margaret to leave the young woman alone, but her own harsh past makes her want to reach out and connect with Carlita. Little do either of the young women know that they are both pawns in the plans of a secret underground sect of religious figures trying to resurrect the antichrist.

So, yes, if you know the plot of Immaculate (or Rosemary’s Baby, or anything else in this vein), The First Omen might seem quite familiar. (In an even funnier turn of events, actress Dora Romano pops up in both this and Immaculate as a nun.) But as long as the results are as accomplished as this, then there’s more than enough room for both, especially when one considers the glut of recent religious horrors (which, again, I talked about when I brought up Immaculate) have been pretty much awful across the board.

While The First Omen sets itself apart from the films that came before it, first time featured director Arkasha Stevenson maintains the pacing and adult minded tone of a 1970s paranoia thriller throughout. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but never boring thanks to Stevenson’s intelligent and well reasoned sense of pacing, which is coupled by outstanding visuals, opulent period details, one of the best sound mixes any film is likely to have this year, and jump scares that actually work for a change. As a piece of trashy entertainment, The First Omen is considerably punching above its weight class. And when Stevenson needs things to get gory and violent, the filmmaker mounts some of the most disturbing, gruesome visuals ever to be seen in a mainstream studio project. There’s several moments in The First Omen that just a few years ago would’ve guaranteed an NC-17 or X rating in the US, without question. The First Omen isn’t always for the squeamish, but the squirming and recoiling in horror is part of the experience. Right from the tremendous opening sequence, The First Omen lets the viewer know what they’re in for, calling its shot early before any doubt can settle in.

But all of the visual and visceral panache on display in The First Omen isn’t empty, as the script from Stevenson, Tim Smith, and Keith Thomas provides enough interesting modern subtext to make the whole thing relevant and even somewhat respectable. The First Omen takes place amid a time of great political and social unrest, one where students and unions are taking to the streets to voice their displeasure en masse. This backdrop contrasts really well against a story of far right religious zealots who are willing to bring about a biblical apocalypse just so they can be exalted and their beliefs can be proven correct. The latter films in The Omen series bring this all into sharper focus, even if they are decidedly sillier and goofier than The First Omen, but Stevenson and her team are exploring these themes better now than they were when the original and its sequels were still being conceived. In the world of The First Omen, human beings are wayward souls turning to God and the devil, and all of them end up feeling used.

And as one might guess, The First Omen is also a story about fears of womanhood, growing up, and potentially becoming a mother, built around a big reveal that’s fairly obvious, but well handled. What keeps things fresh, however, is the way the supposedly biggest reveal is pulled rather early into the story, and how even more twists pile on from there. It gets ridiculous, sure, but the story is already pretty ridiculous. Part of the fun of The First Omen lies in trying to figure out just where the story is going to swerve towards next.

The cast also does what any great ensemble in a horror movie pitched at this level should do: ride the fine line between being deadly serious and subtly campy. Free delivers a star making performance in the lead, making Margaret a compelling character and tragic figure. Ralph Ineson has a memorable supporting performance as an excommunicated priest trying to coach and protect Margaret, and Nighy is a hoot as the unusually kindly and outgoing Cardinal. Everyone knows precisely the type of movie they signed up for and treat it with just the right amount of respect it deserves.

It’s all a bit overlong, and the end lingers longer than necessary, but everything else about The First Omen amounts to one of the most pleasant surprises of the year thus far. (Or unpleasant if gory religious horror isn’t your jam.) Since it’s a straight up prequel and not really any sort of reboot, it’s tough to say if this will lead to any further Omen films, but if they turn out like this or Stevenson stays at the helm, I am all in for more of these. It’s a triumphant, nasty blast of fun that makes one excited for what its brighter, younger players have in store next.

The First Omen opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, April 5, 2024.

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