The First Omen

More often than not, prequels are lazy cash grabs designed to squeeze a little more business out of a tired franchise. The First Omen bucks that trend in a big way. This is one of the best prequels ever made because it exists on its own terms while still tying in seamlessly to the original. That, of course, is 1976’s The Omen, a picture that has lost none of its power in the intervening decades. Do we really need to know how devil-inhabited child Damien came into the world? Not technically, but I’m beyond glad that director Arkasha Stevenson chose to tell us her version of it (which differs slightly from what was revealed in the previous film).

Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is an American novitiate sent to a convent in Rome to take her vows. She’s reunited with Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), whom she’s known most of her life. Not long after getting settled in, Margaret is approached by the defrocked Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson). He warns her that something very un-Christian is happening within the convent’s walls, and it has to do with a troubled young girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace).

The impact of The Omen came from its depiction of protagonist Robert Thorn (played by the impeccable Gregory Peck) coming to believe he might have to kill his adopted son to stop the child’s evil. You wouldn’t necessarily think a prequel could come up with anything half that scary. The First Omen does, though. It has a smart story that imagines, as Father Brennan puts it, two Catholic churches – one that’s about doing God’s work and one that cares about power above all else. A compelling reason for Damien’s emergence is devised, and the scares spring directly from that. Instead of a routine “here’s how the villain came to be” backstory, we get a plot with significant dramatic depth.

Universal

Stevenson directs the movie with great confidence. She and cinematographer Aaron Morton create an eerie ambiance that’s in sync with the original’s. Camera angles and visual texture in the early scenes make it feel like a picture from the ‘70s. Later scenes, however, add their own eerie sensibility. Multiple gory, shocking images establish the danger that Margaret is perpetually in. Rather than seeming gratuitous, they underline the themes of control and bodily autonomy. This is definitely not for the squeamish.

Nell Tiger Free delivers a commanding performance as Margaret. For a chiller to truly succeed, it’s vital to have a lead actor who can ground the terror in palpable emotion. She does that beautifully. Ralph Ineson does fantastic supporting work as Father Brennan. The character could have been little more than walking exposition, but he brings urgency to the role that helps drive home the stakes.

The First Omen makes bold moves that are uncommon for a major studio horror film, especially since 20th Century Studios is owned by Disney. There’s a childbirth scene – not Damien’s – that pushes the envelope in ways you generally only see in indie horror. Similarly, the goal here is not simply hatching a series of jump scares. The plot is intelligent, with strong development of its core ideas. Will its depiction of the Catholic Church rankle some people? Without a doubt. Nevertheless, the film’s artistry is undeniable.

2024 has been a big year for cinematic nuns, with this, the faith-based Cabrini and Sydney Sweeney’s gruesome Immaculate in theaters at the same time. Coincidence? Probably. And yet, all three, in their own ways, prod viewers to contemplate matters of patriarchy within the Catholic Church. The First Omen just does it in a manner that may give you nightmares.


out of four

The First Omen is rated R for violent content, grisly/disturbing images, and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 2 hours.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan