The First Omen

The 70s-started horror franchise gets one of its best films yet in this prequel, which boasts a wealth of unnerving imagery and a committed lead performance.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 04, 2024


Resurrecting horror franchises that first gleamed bright in the 70s is a trend that Hollywood isn't done idolising. Halloween did it. The Exorcist returned as well. Via remakes, Carrie, Suspiria and Black Christmas have all made comebacks since the 2010s. The Omen was always going to get its turn, then. Taking the prequel route — because the OG 1976 film hadn't spawned one yet with 1978's Damien — Omen II, 1981's Omen III: The Final Conflict and 1991's Omen IV: The Awakening, plus a 2006 remake and 2016's one-season TV series — gives rise to The First Omen, as set in Rome in 1971. Fans will know that June 6 that year was when Damien was born. Spinning backstories into new movies can create flicks that smack of inevitability above all else, but not here: this is a genuinely eerie and dread-laced Omen entry with an expert command of unnerving imagery by first-time feature director Arkasha Stevenson (Brand New Cherry Flavour), plus a well-chosen anchor in lead actor Nell Tiger Free (Game of Thrones).

Horror, unusual babies, childminding at its most disquieting, a claustrophobic location, a lack of agency, distressing displays of faith: Free has been here before. Indeed, if Stevenson and her co-writers Tim Smith (a screenwriting debutant) and Keith Thomas (the director of 2022's awful Firestarter remake) used Servant as their inspiration in more ways than one, they've made a savvy choice. Featuring their star for four seasons between 2019–2023, that M Night Shyamalan (Knock at the Cabin)-produced series was one of the great horror streaming efforts of the past five years. The First Omen goes heavier on jolting visuals to go with its nerve-jangling atmosphere, but it too stands out. Its worst choice is being needlessly and gratingly blatant in connecting dots in its very last moments, even if nearly half a century has passed since this spawn-of-Satan saga began.

For those who don't know the Damien-centric details going in, The First Omen redresses that gap in your pop-culture knowledge — except that anyone unaware of the franchise's ins and outs will have still picked up the antichrist basics; they're that well-established. Also, as per above, every decade since the 70s has given something Omen-related a whirl. In the actual first Omen film, an American ambassador in Rome adopted a boy in secret, as sourced by a chaplain, when his own didn't survive childbirth. Five years later, when the bulk of the flick takes place, a 666 birthmark proved exactly what the title described. Stevenson's movie steps in before all of that, spending its time with a novitiate from the US who is invited to take her vows in Italy and, in the lead up, to stay and work at a convent that cares for orphaned girls and unwed pregnant mothers.

Free's Margaret is that aspiring bride of Christ, in Rome at the behest of Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy, The Beautiful Game), who she knows from a childhood spent entirely within the church. Despite her devotion to god, and to prim-and-proper rules, her reception is mixed; she finds abbess Sister Silvia (Sônia Braga, Shotgun Wedding) spooky, colleague Sister Anjelica (Ishtar Currie-Wilson, Lockwood & Co) unsettling and the stiff treatment of Carlita Scianna (Summer Limited Edition), one of the older girls under the nunnery's guardianship, questionable to say the least. Luz (Maria Caballero, The Girl in the Mirror), Margaret's roommate who'll also soon take the veil, encourages her to let loose before giving her body to the lord. A night at a bar, and also witnessing a mother ushering her child into the world at the orphanage, quickly sparks nightmares. Then there's Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson, The Creator), who has gone rogue to warn her about the plans for Carlita.

Horror, unusual babies, pregnancy at its most disquieting, a claustrophobic location, a lack of agency, distressing displays of faith, the Catholic church trying to keep a stronghold on power by nefarious means, an American nun-to-be in Italy and in trouble, sisters and priests that can't be trusted: cinema in 2024 has been here before as well. The First Omen arrives mere weeks after Immaculate, where filmmaker Michael Mohan (The Voyeurs) helmed a Sydney Sweeney (Madame Web)-led dance with Christianity at its most devilish — but with a different progeny hoped for. Call it a case of twin films, right down to the cues taken from giallo. Releasing either side of Easter, a go-to time for Catholic horror flicks — 2023 had The Pope's Exorcist and 2021 The Unholy, for instance — call this pair a great double feature, too.

One of the greatest tricks that The First Omen pulls: making its audience not give a damn whether it's an Omen movie or not by being utterly engrossing in its visuals and lead performance regardless of the nods sent in obvious directions. That's another reason why the last scene lands with the clunkiest of thuds. Former photojournalist Stevenson, plus No One Will Save You's Aaron Morton as her cinematographer, are both bold and elegant with the sights that grace the screen — images that haunt with mood and texture as they evoke a visceral response. 1981's Possession, which shares Sam Neill (Apples Never Fall) as a star with the same year's Omen III, gets a striking visual nudge. Elsewhere, black habits virtually come alive, closed curtains hold fearsome foes, walls and floors are filled with sinister scribblings, and a line of nuns hugs the floor. A face screaming in agony while trapped in a black veil, claws replacing a crowning baby's head: they provide unforgettably chilling moments, and also reinforce that The First Omen, like Immaculate, is born into an IRL world and from a country where control over women's bodies is no mere relic.

Examining how religion reacts to dwindling influence lingers in The First Omen in several ways, including seeing and speaking about protesting students, who Lawrence laments have no trust or faith in Catholicism. New blood such as Margaret and Luz is just one tactic floated for connecting with non-believers, of course. There's little subtlety to The First Omen's themes or plot but, again, its deeply perturbing vibe and look, and a committed lead performance from Free (plus the always-great Braga, The Witch's Ineson putting his gravelly voice to great use, and Nighy and Charles Dance, the flick's third GoT alum, adding a creepy air), all demand adoration. With the latter, who swings between innocent and unhinged, emotional, psychological and physical devotion are part of her portrayal. In fact, when "it's all for you" is wailed in Free's vicinity — a line no Omen movie can pass up — it could be coming from Stevenson, who has made a spine-chiller that hardly needs to exist on paper, but is wholly worthy of her star's remarkable efforts.


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