The First Omen – Film Review

Father Harris (Charles Dance) sits in a confessional booth revealing his sins. As the much younger Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) listens, the old man hints at a horrifying story. A story of bizarre rituals and cruelty which resulted in the birth of a female child. One who is now in her teens and who twisted men and women within the church have further plans for.

It is 1971 Rome, Italy and a young American woman named Margaret Daino (Neil Tiger Free) arrives to begin her life of service to the church. A troubled orphan, Margaret was set on the right path by her beloved mentor, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy). Now an adult, she will dedicate her life to raising the children at the Vizzardeli all girls orphanage as she readies to take the veil as a nun. She meets several fellow nuns in training, her superior Sister Silva (Sônia Braga) and the children of the orphanage. As well as an adolescent girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who seems to always be locked away from the other kids.

As Margaret bonds with Carlita, she begins to feel a kinship with this young girl. They are both plagued by odd visions which have made them question their own sanity. But the more time Margaret spends at the orphanage, the more things seem off. Her visions become more powerful, her superiors seem more sinister and the treatment of children and pregnant women is unmistakably barbaric. It isn’t long before she realises that there are two churches. One of love to which she belongs and one which conspires to create something completely different. One that plans to bring about the birth of evil incarnate, the Antichrist himself!

Following in the wake of The Exorcist (1973), Richard Donner directed his breakthrough film, The Omen (1976). Starring screen legend Gregory Peck, it was a chilling tale of a US diplomat slowly discovering his adopted child to be the Antichrist. Several sequels followed (they always do) and a remake predictably released on June 6, 2006 (6/6/6). While never as iconic as The Exorcist, the original film remains a supernatural horror classic. Now nearly 50 years later, director Arkasha Stevenson makes her feature directorial debut with this stylish prequel-reboot.

There have been some absolutely terrible attempts at breathing new life into old franchises. Ironically, while The Omen was initially seen as a poor man’s The Exorcist, it is a very different story with the latest films in each saga. The First Omen achieves much grander heights than The Exorcist: Believer managed last year. While Believer felt derivative and lazy, The First Omen actually works hard to illicit the same thrills as its predecessor.

Through Stevenson‘s direction, that same gothic and foreboding nature Donner gave us can be sensed. The film actually feels like a 1970s horror film with its timely soundtrack, its costume design, its pacing and its casting. This carries through even into its scares which are the most frightening when they’re at their most subtle.

The cast are quite stunning with Nell Tiger Free easily able to carry such a heavy film with all its disturbing content. Ineson as well does some heavy lifting and somehow helps maintain that authentic 70s feel by just being there. Unfortunately, Bill Nighy‘s character and his large absences from the film leaves little to latch onto, even less in the way of ambiguity. 

Despite some patches in logic The First Omen‘s story is actually interesting to follow even when, as a prequel, we know where the film must eventually end. As Margaret delves deeper and deeper into this insane conspiracy symbolism, foreshadowing begins to take shape and the true biblical horrors present themselves.

For much of its runtime, The First Omen is a great example of how to make a prequel film. One which tells its own story but sets up what needs to follow. At least. until it gets into Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter territory with a finale which feels rewritten to set unnecessary follow ups. A very modern Hollywood convention in a film and its greatest strengths lay in all those 1970s vibes it was putting down.

Still, The First Omen gets the job done. While some performers feel underused, Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson and Sônia Braga all elevate The First Omen immensely. Director Arkasha Stevenson has crafted an effectively creepy and original take on the familiar supernatural grotesqueries of The Omen franchise which is one that fans of the series and the uninitiated should readily find enjoyable.

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