The First Omen (2024)

by - April 5th, 2024 - Movie Reviews


The First Omen Births a Delightfully Sacrilegious Prequel

Rome. 1971. American novitiate Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) has journeyed thousands of miles to take her vows and begin work at an abbey on the outskirts of the city that doubles as a boarding school for orphaned girls. Her mentor Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy) is excited to have her here, and the abbey’s Reverend Mother Sister Silva (Sonia Braga) is certain Margaret will fit in nicely with the other nuns.

The First Omen (2024) | PHOTO: 20th Century Studios

As The First Omen is a direct prequel to director Richard Donner’s 1976 favorite The Omen, it’s safe to say that not everything taking place inside the abbey’s hallowed walls is exactly ordained by God. Margaret’s roommate and fellow novitiate Luz (Maria Caballero) is a free spirit intent on making the most of her youth before she takes her vows. The recently excommunicated Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) randomly pops up spouting wild conspiracy theories that are Biblical in nature and reach the highest echelons of the Catholic Church. Sister Silva seems strangely focused on the school’s most troubled resident, the awkward and unkempt Carlita Skianna (Nicole Sorace), frequently locking her up in “The Bad Room” for reasons she will not elaborate on.

The bad news? There really isn’t any place too unexpected for director and co-writer Arkasha Stevenson to take things. This story must end more or less where The Omen begins and, as that is the case, whether or not the impending birth of the Antichrist on June 6 at 6:00 a.m. will be stopped is never a question mark.

The good news? There is no additional bad news. While certain elements do work better than others, this happily remains a marvelously inventive religious horror tale that offers up enough creative twists and turns to never feel like a nostalgia-laced retread. Stevenson’s handling of the material is measured, confident, and gorgeously cinematic, the director creating a lush tapestry of blossoming evil that becomes increasingly unnerving the closer Margaret gets to uncovering the profane truth.

Best of all is rising star Free. Primarily known for her performances on the television series Game of Thrones and Servant (although, don’t discount her sublime work in the 2021 sci-fi drama Settlers), the young actor delivers her best work to date as Margaret. This is a bona fide tour de force, as physically dynamic as it is emotionally multifaceted. The novitiate’s excitement gives way to concerned bewilderment before spinning again into a gnawing dread before giving way to full-blown hysteria the moment the full scope of the conspiracy is revealed to her. Free handles each moment with mesmeric virtuosity, my whole body trembling in concert with her own as Margaret’s furious cries of painful terror echoed into the pitch-back nothingness of an otherwise eerily quiet night.

Cinematographer Aaron Morton (No One Will Save You) creates visual synchronicity with Gilbert Taylor’s work on The Omen throughout. Through color choices and shot composition, Morton echoes what Gilbert did in the original film, but never in a way where it feels like he’s simply copying what had already been done previously. This allows this story to live on its own. Yet it also nicely feeds directly into the prologue of Donner’s opus, this naturalistic symbiosis between the two motion pictures suitably — and unsettlingly — potent.

There are some structural and narrative similarities between The First Omen and the recently released Syndey Sweeney religious shocker Immaculate directed by Michael Mohan, and that’s admittedly unfortunate. While the latter can go for broke during its third act, the former is a little hamstrung by the fact its ending is preordained (Damien must be born, as the Antichrist has three more movies to star in, after all). Yet I’m glad the two are out at the same time, as both Stevenson’s major studio-financed prequel and Mohan’s indie barnburner showcase two exceedingly talented filmmakers brazenly raising middle fingers to the conservative status quo. I love that.

The First Omen (2024) | PHOTO: 20th Century Studios

But then, I’m of the mind that we are currently living through an era where blasphemy — cinematically, culturally, socially, all of the above — isn’t so much needed as it is required. Films can’t be about sex. They can’t be too political. Can’t touch religious taboos. Gender norms are absolute. Heroes must be heroes but villains cannot be all bad. I say hogwash to all of that, and so far, all of the better pictures I’ve had the pleasure to see in 2024 (Love Lies BleedingThe People’s Joker, the aforementioned ImmaculateDrive-Away DollsLovely, Dark, and Deep, just to name a few) triumphantly articulate something similar.

While I won’t put The First Omen in that upper echelon of titles, it certainly comes close to joining them. By the time Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning “Ave Satani” theme inevitably cuts loose in all its thunderously cantankerous glory and blood splattered across the screen as if it were a Jackson Pollock painting, I was ready to stand up and cheer. The devil is in the details, and Stevenson’s attention to all of them makes her feature-length debut an unforgettably sacrilegious delight.

Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)

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