The First Omen (2024, dir. Arkasha Stevenson)

by | Apr 6, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 119 mins

UK Distributor: 20th Century Studios

UK Release Date: 5 April 2024

WHO’S IN THE FIRST OMEN?

Nell Tiger Free, Sônia Braga, Ralph Ineson, Bill Nighy, Tawfeek Barhom, Nicole Sorace, Maria Caballero, Ishtar Currie Wilson, Andrea Arcangeli, Charles Dance

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Arkasha Stevenson (director, writer), Tim Smith and Keith Thomas (writers), David S. Goyer and Keith Levine (producers), Mark Korven (composer), Aaron Morton (cinematographer), Amy E. Duddleston and Bob Murawski (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young nun (Free) discovers a Satanic plot within her church…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE FIRST OMEN?

The fact that virtually everyone was predicting The First Omen would be terrible before they even had a chance to see it says a lot about the current state of franchise horror. With the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series both in limbo, the divisiveness of the recent Halloween trilogy, and the resounding negative feedback for last year’s legacy sequel The Exorcist: Believer, people seem to have become so numb to horror revivals falling well short of expectations that the anticipation just isn’t there anymore.

Up until its release, it looked like director Arkasha Stevenson’s film – a prequel to the 1976 Richard Donner horror classic – would be just another attempt to cynically cash in on audiences’ nostalgia for a known IP, hence the lack of hype surrounding it.

But then, something happened that not even the more optimistic collective could have predicted: The First Omen has turned out to actually be really, really good. In terms of recent horror franchise revivals, it’s not just one of the best in recent years, but in certain aspects it walks hand-in-hand with the widely-adored original film.

Set in 1971, the film begins as young American nun Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) arrives in Rome to work at a Catholic orphanage, where she is also expected to take her vows. She soon develops a close bond with Carlita (Nicole Sorace), a young girl prone to mistreatment by the other nuns, who isolate her in “the Bad Room” where Carlita is often strapped to a bed and denied contact with other children.

However, Margaret soon learns from rogue priest Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson, filling the role that Patrick Troughton played in the original) that there’s a reason Carlita is being treated in this manner: she is being prepped to fulfil a terrifying prophecy that will see her give birth to the Antichrist, aka that demonic little whippersnapper Damien.

What immediately sets The First Omen apart from a lot of other recent horror revivals is the fact that it actually seems to respect its audience. It profoundly resists the urge to insert jump-scares or fake-out dream sequences every so often to needlessly remind the audience that they’re watching a horror movie, instead using its time to establish a chilling atmosphere that turns some already creepy moments into even more chilling ones, which is captured by Aaron Morton’s often stunning and unnerving cinematography.

Director Stevenson, who also co-wrote the script with Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, is also wise to keep most callbacks to the original Omen film at a minimum, save for one or two scenes that either directly reference characters in the next chronological movie, or simply recreate famous deaths from it, right down to near-identical dialogue. Other than that, the filmmaker – who makes a remarkable feature debut here – allows The First Omen to stand firmly on its own, and to even set up its own mythology that previous films in this series haven’t yet touched upon.

The lack of cheap scares also allows room for Stevenson and her co-writers to properly develop these characters so that they have more going for them than just their most basic traits. There are scenes that are simply people talking and laughing with each other, with nothing outlandishly scary happening to distract the viewer’s attention, and it instantly makes these characters feel more real and natural, so that when something eventually does happen to them later on, it’s more devastating because you’ve spent enough time getting to know what makes them tick.

The performances also do well to disarm the viewer at every available turn, with some people initially seeming as charming as can be, only to then reveal something much darker and more sinister about them at just the right moments. There’s also the fact that lead actor Nell Tiger Free gives a central turn that is simply revelatory, as not only does she instantly draw you in with her warm and even mysterious nature, but when the script calls for it later on, she is able to go to some truly disturbing places for a performance that relies on heavy physicality and warped psychosis, always remaining magnetic to watch at every turn.

It’s an inevitable comparison to make, especially since it was released mere weeks before this one, but The First Omen has many similarities with Michael Mohan’s Immaculate, from its central premise about birthing a supposed saviour to its themes of religious shadiness, and in almost every way this one does it a lot better than the other. Mohan’s film isn’t without its own qualities, including an ending that is in some ways more daring and provocative than the one in this movie, but in retrospect there are a lot of things about it that don’t always add up, such as the villains’ ultimate lack of effort to keep their evil intentions a secret (the ones in The First Omen are at least better at hiding their true motives), and certain plot beats that make frustratingly little sense. Not that Stevenson’s film is more grounded in reality – it’s about the birth of the Antichrist, for God’s sake – but it has a clearer idea of how to better execute its out-there concepts while still feeling genuinely scary, not to mention the fact that it’s just a better-written movie with stronger characters and smart, carefully calculated plotting.

Not everything about The First Omen works, including its reliance on a major twist that is pretty easy to see coming, and it does fall victim to one or two outdated horror tropes that add little to the already tense atmosphere. However, the fact that it works at all is some kind of divine intervention, because what could have so easily been yet another quick and easy cash-grab for a dormant horror franchise, has instead had a lot of effort put into making this return a worthy one, whether you’ve seen any of the previous films or not.

It is one of the biggest surprises so far this year, and hopefully not the last in this franchise’s second coming.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The First Omen is one of the year’s biggest surprises thus far, reviving the dormant horror franchise with effective scares that rely far more on atmosphere than cheap frights, and by spending good time on the development of its characters and chilling narrative, which give this prequel enough footing to stand firmly on its own.

Four of of five stars

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