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The First Omen (15)

Director: Arkasha Stevenson
Screenplay: Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson, Keith Thomas

Starring: Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson, Sonia Braga

Running time: 120 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

Prequels to horror classics generally tend not to turn out very well. Take The Thing (the 2011 version obviously), and both Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist and Exorcist: The Beginning. On the other hand, some horror prequels are far better than the originals. Think Ouija: Origin of Evil and Annabelle: Creation. When the horror community first learned about a prequel being prepped for the original Richard Donner 1976 version of The Omen (and its two direct sequels), reactions were mixed, to say the least. Why did we need to know about the birth of the Antichrist when it was all pretty much covered in the classic horror? And wasn’t his mother a Jackal? Eww. The project was first mooted in 2016 and fell subject to severe delays caused by Covid and whatnot. But it was eventually completed, and it features a pretty impressive cast including Bill Nighy, Ralph Ineson, Sonia Braga and Nell Tiger Free (fresh from Servant). It’s directed by Arkasha Stevenson, who also co-wrote the screenplay and is best known for some sterling work on TV series Channel Zero and Legion. Opening pretty much globally on cinema screens, it’s time to tackle another thorn-y issue once again.


After a moody prologue, which feels aesthetically very close to Donner’s movie and includes a nice low-key cameo by a famous UK actor, the stage is set for Margaret Daino (played very effectively by Tiger Free). She’s a naïve young American sent to Rome to work at a Catholic-run orphanage before taking her eternal vows as a nun. As this is 1971, the city is prone to riots and student-led protests about civil rights and dissatisfaction with the state and the Church. Despite all this and a lack of self-confidence, Margaret meets her longtime acquaintance and sponsor (Nighy as Cardinal Lawrence, bringing his usual gravitas) and eases into her role as a teacher whilst awaiting her induction. She meets the mentally fragile young teenager Carlita Skianna (Nicole Sorace) and is disturbed by the treatment given to her by Sister Silvia (the Abbess of the orphanage played by Braga) and the other staff. This is compounded when she meets Father Brennan (Ineson in the role played by Patrick Troughton in the 70s film) who tells her that Carlita is “special”… and not in a good way. Shocked by what she gradually learns, a diabolical conspiracy soon becomes uncovered, and she is placed in immediate danger as a result.


I dunno, you wait years for a movie about the Antichrist, and then you get at least three almost at the same time (See Immaculate and Deliver Us). Despite certain similarities, The First Omen is a beast of its own. The issue here is whether it holds up as a worthy prequel to the classic demonic trilogy. There’s also a question as to whether it will find an appreciative audience among those who either know the franchise well or are completely clueless about the legacy of Damien Thorn. Well, there’s not an easy answer to those questions, but “sort of” and “maybe not”. Starting with the positives (and there is a pleasing variety of them), this is much better than it could have been since it’s not a clumsy studio knockoff that plays fast and close with the concept. It’s stylish, exceptionally well-shot, has some exemplary imagery being used in sequences, pushes some envelopes (especially for a ”15” certificate in the UK), and features a great performance from Tiger Free. It’s another transformative turn from a central female actor, with one moment being reminiscent of a certain scene involving Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Żuławski’s notorious Possession (1981).


Oddly enough with the cast involved, it’s a good job that Tiger Free can carry the film so well, because Nighy and Ineson are pretty much sidelined for most of the time, just popping onscreen to provide exposition and occasional tension. Braga is quite good and has an importance to the plot that is so understated that most people will probably miss the implications on initial viewings. For the most part, primarily during the early sequences, this is all pretty effective stuff and quite daring in some respects. There are at least three moments that could scare off prospective parents where some visual details are not shied away from. The nuns are classically creepy and the first few sequences genuinely feel like they could have been shot in the 70s, with slightly washed-out stock and a Euro-shock-type atmosphere, somewhere between Mario Bava and Jess Franco (check out the cheesy Euro soundtrack). Plenty of superior jump-scares here and several takes of a totally black screen, where you wait apprehensively for something to appear in the blackness for what seems like minutes. It’s pretty close to arthouse and doesn’t feel like a studio franchise horror, at least to begin with.


So it’s all good then? Well, the main gripes come from a couple of issues. The plot dances between satisfying the lore of the original trilogy, nodding towards main plots, updating some motives, and then retconning certain elements. If you’re familiar with the original film, the final line of dialogue in the last scene feels like it’s supposed to be a “DUN-DUN-DUN” moment of revelation, but it’s absolutely nothing of the sort and feels underwhelming. There is a photograph callback that confirms that the 1976 version is still “canon”, but this is then upended by at least two major changes that mean things are different. It’s also compounded by a typical studio ending that feels tacked on and a bit predictable. You generally get the feeling that some of these changes are somewhat cynically contrived so that the franchise can branch into alternative directions if this film is a big success. Speaking of predictable, a major narrative point is easily guessable from close to the start and loses its impact due to that.


It's a bit of a pity because those gripes and relationship problems with the original narrative are the only significant stumbling blocks with the proceedings, as much of the experience otherwise is pretty good. Overall, the film comes across as more like Rosemary’s Baby than other pre-21st century genre pieces, although there are nods to The Exorcist and suchlike. But story-wise it just ties itself into knots to extend elements of the Damien plot and add unnecessary details to it. There’s an intriguing spin put on the Church’s involvement with the Antichrist and the motives for the birth, but this doesn’t really make sense, especially given how Damien’s story turned out in the trilogy (unless they retcon that too). By the time the conclusion rolls around, you’ll have a headache from trying to unravel what was real and what was a hallucination, not to mention how the Damien family tree looks on paper and who his father actually is.


It's certainly not a complete failure and as already noted, there is much to recommend in it. But the muddle of changes and narratives is likely to annoy older fans, whereas younger (or new) genre viewers may just find it all a little confusing. As a result, it could alienate a potential audience from both demographics. Seeing as critics have been mostly positive about the film and initial box office takings are surprisingly low, that could well be the case. Definitely worth seeing, but it doesn’t slot easily into the franchise. Still, easily better than the 2006 remake, just not as good as the original. 

Pleasingly surreal, some “damned” good imagery and great acting, this is a better-than-expected prequel. However, it does stumble when it tries to balance refreshing franchise lore with providing a standalone experience. As a whole, it doesn’t quite pay off but it’s certainly well-made and a brave effort.
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