The First Omen review — Origins of the Antichrist

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson | Written by Stevenson, Tim Smith, Keith Thomas, and Ben Jacoby, based on characters created by David Seltzer | 120 min | ▲▲▲△△

I like to say I’m just the right age to have seen and been profoundly affected by Richard Donner’s The Omen from 1976, but the truth is I probably saw it way too young. My parents were very much of the opinion I could watch what they were watching, and if I had any trouble I could talk to them about it. I think I saw the movie when I was still in single digits. Scenes from The Omen are burned into my brain, and the fact my father worked in the diplomatic corps made it seem that much more relatable — the story of the American ambassador to Italy, Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck), who secretly adopts a child when his own is stillborn, not telling his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick). Years later, the boy, Damien, makes life difficult for the couple and pretty much anyone else who comes into their orbit because, well, he’s the Antichrist.

This movie is the prequel to that, the Rogue One to The Omen’s Star Wars: A New Hope, if you will. I’m no fan of prequels on principle, but if they’re well done I can be persuaded. The First Omen is better than most, while also disappointing in a couple of key areas.

We’re in Rome in 1971 — the early 70s so well-captured in the recent The Holdovers in both the look and grain of the film as well as sets, props, and costumes — and full marks to the filmmakers here for doing something similar. This is a terrific looking film, the shooting style and editing mimicking the pictures from that era.

Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is an American noviciate arriving in Italy to take the veil, where she’s greeted by a man of the cloth she’s known all her life, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy at his warmest). She’s brought to an orphanage run by a convent where she’ll be living, and meets the  severe Sister Silva (Sonia Braga), who’s in charge. One of her more free-spirited sisters (Maria Caballero) takes her out dancing, but while that’s a bit of excitement she’s never before experienced, she is still committed to her orders.

She becomes interested in a troubled girl named Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace), who’s prone to acting out and violence, and she’s approached by an excommunicated Irish priest, Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), who tells her some disturbing things about Carlita.

If this scenario sounds really familiar, that might be because plot-wise this is shockingly similar to the recent Immaculate starring Sydney Sweeney. What it shares in large part with that film is a sharp thematic disrespect for the machinations of the Catholic Church and the ways it treats women and their bodies. In other ways it’s an improvement on the Sweeney picture, until the final 10 minutes or so.

What works best in The First Omen a feeling of authentic ’70s grit, the Roman setting, with the unrest of student protests out in the streets, the production design and overall gothic creep, including terrific sound cues and score. Where it transgresses is in the jumpscares, which are far too obvious, and when it has to deliver real gore and horror — too often the visuals are kind of ordinary, especially compared to the classic it’s attempting to live up to. The Omen includes one of the all-time most terrifyingly gruesome set-pieces, an unexpected decapitation, and there’s nothing in this prequel to compare with that — even when they provide a creative disemboweling, and a suicide that pays homage to a scene in the original.

Nell Tiger Free does some good work carrying our sympathies, and as she discovers more of the deep evil happening in this place, and what’s in store for her, the dark hand of the plot grips with an impressive intensity. No one else brings much in the way of character, however — Carlita, for instance, doesn’t do much but glower and sulk.

At its conclusion, The First Omen doesn’t have Immaculate‘s screenwriting courage. We all know where it’s leading if we’ve seen The Omen, but when a twist arrives entirely calculated to offer the possibility of a sequel you’ve got to wonder what they plan on calling it — The First Omen: Part Two? It’s extraordinarily trite, but doesn’t sour the good parts of what it took to get there.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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