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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'The First Omen': A Stylish, Terrifying Horror Prequel

At first glance, I assumed that The First Omen would be yet another attempt to revitalize a long dormant horror franchise in order to cash in on nostalgia. On top of that, it seemed to be yet another horror movie that prominently features nuns, something we've been seeing a bit more of over the past few years with films like The Nun, Prey for the Devil, and Immaculate. As the film begins, however, it gradually reveals itself as something bigger and with far more merit than I was expecting. Not only does it have some striking, disturbing visuals, it also has some strong commentary on female bodily autonomy and religion. These both come together to make for a tense, horrifying experience, and one that feels rather relevant for this moment in time.

In 1971, Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free) arrives in Rome to work at an orphanage and to begin her journey to become a nun. Shortly thereafter, she meets Carlita (Nicole Sorace), a troubled young girl who is mistreated by the other nuns. Margaret soon forms a bond with her, but through their connection, she begins to uncover some troubling information. As the film goes on, Margaret begins to piece together a deep conspiracy within the Catholic church, and that they may be facilitating the birth of the Antichrist. Despite some horrifying visions and strange occurrences, she continues to seek the truth about what is going on, and with help from a priest (Ralph Ineson), tries to stop this sinister plan from becoming reality.

Despite my worries that the film would lean into nostalgia and be similar to the various reboots and legasequels that have become commonplace within the horror genre, The First Omen actually stands alone on its own rather well. For much of the runtime, it feels like its own thing, employing a more artful style than one would expect from a studio horror film. Director Arkasha Stevenson makes her feature debut with this film, but I would have assumed she had a few more films under her belt with some of the stylistic choices she makes here. The film has a few jumpscares, which normally annoy me, but they are used so effectively that I actually appreciated them. It helps that they are quick and only used sparingly, but they actually work well in the context of the film.

Most of the film feels in line with the grounded horror of the original Omen film, at least in terms of its tension and pacing, but it is the elements of body horror that make this film stand apart and reach disturbing new heights in the franchise. The film is largely about bodily autonomy, which is explored in highly visceral ways. The idea of forced birth is prevalent throughout the film, resulting in some deeply upsetting birthing scenes. One in particular might be one of the most graphic things I've ever seen on the big screen. Beyond that, the body horror underlines the film's larger statements on women's bodies being controlled by larger institutions, which is sadly quite relevant given our current sociopolitical climate. The way that women's bodies are treated more as a vessel throughout the film is frustrating, but a sad reality that the film depicts well.

It also has a fair amount to say on religion, particularly the darker side of it. The film's 1971 setting coincides with left-wing protests in Rome advocating for secularism, and rejecting traditional Italian society. Amidst this, people have begun to leave the church. This leaves the Catholic church trying to figure out how to bring them back. This aspect of the story seems to mirror the deconstruction movement that has sparked in response to Christianity. Recently, many churches have seen numbers decline, mainly because young adults have stopped going and are on their own journey to better understand their faith (or lack thereof). This puts several churches in the same situation the Catholic church faces in the film, and has left most of them wondering what they can do to get people back. I feel like this parallel allows the film's themes to come across extremely clear, and serves as a dismaying reminder that history repeats itself.

The film falters a little when it remembers that it is a prequel to The Omen, as the connections between the two feel a bit like an afterthought. It kind of feels like the film was a separate script that was reverse engineered to be an Omen movie, as much of it feels like its own thing. It goes pretty heavy into connecting to the original film in the film's third act, with the worst offense being the very last moment of the film. I won't spoil it here, but it is such a hat on a hat moment that kept the film from ending on an exceptionally strong note. Thankfully, the film keeps any references and callbacks to the original film to a minimum, and most of them actually serve the plot fairly well. It is really only that last moment that really bugged me, but the more Omen-centric details are easily some of the weaker aspects of the film. I will say that some of the references to The Omen are well deployed, especially the film's reworking of Jerry Goldsmith's iconic score for some of the film's biggest moments.

By the end of the film, I couldn't help but be a little awestruck by Nell Tiger Free's performance. It is such a star is born type of performance that shows her range as a performer. She spends so much of the film as a reserved, tacit figure, but once she starts putting the pieces together and her mind begins to unravel, she becomes more fraught and outspoken. She builds on the character of Margaret so well, and gives her a fair amount of depth. Free clearly has talent as a performer, and her work here has me extremely curious to see what more she might be capable of. It is one of the strongest performances I've seen in a horror film in some time, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

I also appreciated Ralph Ineson, who takes on the role of Father Brennan, a priest who tries to warn Margaret about the conspiracy in the church. The character was originally played by Patrick Troughton in the original film, and while Ineson has some shades of him in his performance, he makes the role his own. He has such a great screen presence, and is so magnetic in this film. Nicole Sorace, in her feature film debut, shines as Carlita, the neglected child that Margaret bonds with. She has this darkness to her that makes her a little scary, but balances this with lightness as we get to know more about her. It is a rather ambiguous role for much of the film, and she handles it nicely. I must also shout out Sonia Braga, Bill Nighy, and Charles Dance, all three of whom take on smaller roles within the film. Braga has the most to do out of the three, and she is quite intimidating at many moments in the film. Nighy is gone for long stretches of the film, but he changes the temperature of the film every time he shows up. Dance has the smallest role of the three, but he kicks off the whole film with a bang, sharing a scene with Ineson that had me immediately invested, in large part because of his performance.

The First Omen is the biggest surprise of the year for me so far, as wasn't expecting to enjoy it at all. This is perhaps the most I have engaged with a major studio horror film in some time, and it certainly cuts deeper than I would have ever guessed. I can see some people being turned off by the film's grotesque imagery or its social commentary, but I personally admired that a film like this was willing to go as far as it does, both visually and politically. I definitely want to see what Arkasha Stevenson can do when she's working with an original script, as she clearly shows a great deal of promise here as both writer and director. The First Omen is a very disturbing film that often left me feeling unsettled and disgusted, and I love it so much because of that.

Rating: 4/5

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