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Movie Review: “THE FIRST OMEN” has its holy terrors, even if it isn’t wholly surprising

Thursday, April 4, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson and Sonia Braga
Directed by Arkasha Stevenson
Written by Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson and Keith Thomas
20th Century Studios

THE FIRST OMEN is a bit of an odd bird–a franchise entry that might be best appreciated by people who haven’t seen Richard Donner’s 1976 classic. It’s a commendably serious-minded attempt to elicit suspense out of a scenario whose very existence makes its final act a foregone conclusion.

To get the minor elephant in the room out of the way first: This is the second movie in as many months about a young American woman who travels to a religious institution in Italy and becomes embroiled in a plot involving an unnatural birth. THE FIRST OMEN and IMMACULATE even have actress Dora Romano in common (she was the Mother Superior in the latter), and both contain sprinklings of vintage Italian film scores on their soundtracks. Where IMMACULATE aimed for a no-frills-all-thrills experience at just 89 minutes, however, THE FIRST OMEN runs two hours, with director Arkasha Stevenson, making an assured leap to features after series work like CHANNEL ZERO and BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR, aiming for a gradual development of atmosphere and foreboding.

First, of course, the story must open with a bang, as Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson in the role originated in the original by Patrick Troughton) meets with a colleague bearing evidence of an occult conspiracy. This gentleman lasts about as long as characters bearing evidence of occult conspiracies usually do in OMEN pictures, though this one, unlike the past sequels, isn’t simply a vehicle to contrive a series of creative killings. The focus of the script by Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas–the latter taking a leap of faiths from THE VIGIL–is the journey of Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), who arrives at a Church-run orphanage in Rome in 1971. It’s an unsettled time marked by political unrest and youthful riots in the streets, which ties in to the true nature of the horrors to come in ways that have unfortunately already been made clear in the trailers and ads.

The orphanage at first seems to be a haven from the turmoil of the city outside its walls, and in a fun touch, some of the nuns are seen engaging in comparatively irreverent behavior like smoking and bouncing on a trampoline. All is not happiness and light when it comes to one occupant: a girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace), whom Margaret first finds hiding behind her bed, and who gives Margaret an inappropriate greeting when she tries to get close to her. Carlita also creates drawings with uneasy intimations, including one of a nun carrying a baby inside of her. Soon Margaret is experiencing more blatantly horrific visions, including a nightmarish birth that is even more startling for arriving after a lengthy, well-sustained, comparatively subtle buildup, a few jump-scares notwithstanding. The movie also (much like IMMACULATE) has some points to make about the Church’s exertion of control over female bodies through a supernatural lens.

Free, who took part in a similar situation as a star of SERVANT, is a fresh and intriguing presence in THE FIRST OMEN’s lead. Margaret is clearly devoted to her calling, and to protecting Carlita, while also not entirely averse to giving in to a wilder side, as when she heads out on the town for a night of fun with her roommate Luz (Maria Caballero). As she becomes witness to increasingly unsavory events surrounding Carlita and others, Stevenson is sympathetic toward her while allowing Free to really go for it when things turn nasty and distressing. Clearly a student of the horror genre, Stevenson particularly gives her star a chance to cut loose in an acknowledged homage to Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, and Free makes the most of it. There’s no one better to play a concerned, excommunicated man of cloth trying to stop the forces of darkness than Ineson, while the equally dependable Bill Nighy doesn’t have very much to do but does it well as Cardinal Lawrence, the orphaned Margaret’s longtime ecclesiastical father figure.

The key and inevitable issue is that there’s obviously only one place this story can go, and only so many surprising digressions any filmmaking team could have taken with it. The longer THE FIRST OMEN goes on, the less mystery there is for anyone familiar with its forebears, and a story turn that’s supposed to be the big twist doesn’t really come as much of a shock. The finale lays on the blood and thunder, a new recording of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic “Ave Satani” theme and shout-outs to Donner’s movie (though a closing credit for AN AMERICAN HAUNTING’s Rachel Hurd-Wood–whose face never actually appears on screen–as Katherine Thorn, Damien’s adoptive mom in the ’76 OMEN, suggests at least one homage left in the cutting room computer). At the same time, there’s a bit of retconning going on here, given how strongly established it was back then that Damien’s mother was a jackal. THE FIRST OMEN is well-crafted and well-acted and better than one might have expected, yet fans of the first OMEN may find that this prequel’s book of genesis doesn’t have quite enough in the way of revelations.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).