Film review: The First Omen

Cult horror prequel The First Omen more than justifies its existence by being hellishly good.

Film review: The First Omen
James Hickie

‘On the 6th day of the 6th month in the 6th hour, he will be born.’ The he, of course, is Damien Thorn – the son of the Devil in the original Omen trilogy – who bears the number of the beast, 666, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, and immortalised in song by Iron Maiden and Slipknot.

The First Omen is effectively The Omen’s version of Rogue One. We know where things are headed, but the question is: how interesting can you make that preceding journey? In the hands of director Arkasha Stevenson, making her full-length feature debut, the answer is very interesting indeed – as well as dark and incredibly grim.

It tells the story of Margaret, played exceptionally by Nell Tiger Free, an American sent to Rome to teach in a monastery, with the intention of becoming a nun. There she meets a girl, Carlita, who’s ostracised because of her apparently aggressive behaviour and whose troubling visions mirror Margaret’s. As Margaret tries to find out more about the mysterious Carlita, she discovers a sinister plot to bring about the birth of the Antichrist.

To say much more would rob the viewer of The First Omen’s surprises, even if one of them is so blindingly obvious that it barely qualifies as a twist.

Naturally, there are nods to the 1976 original, such as Ralph Ineson (Finchy from The Office) playing a younger version of Father Brennan, who you'll remember meets his end skewered by a lightning rod. Less welcome are the rehashes of older scenes, such as a young woman standing high above a crowd and taking her own life, plus a new twist on someone being bisected. These feel rather like check-ins to remind us what this is teeing up, undermining the viewer’s intelligence in an otherwise smart, savvy offering.

This new entry is at its best when taking its own path, deepening the story in inventive ways, rather than joining the dots to what’s come before. This is where the 1970s setting comes into its own, providing a useful social context, of political unrest and sexual mores, rebellion and secularism, during which many turned their back on religion. Just how far would the church go to return their sheep to the flock?

The timeframe also gives licence to worship at the altar of the European cinema of the period, including the stylish work of legendary Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. The First Omen is therefore as much about mood as visceral shocks, conveying Margaret’s sense of foreboding in the process.

Despite being a bona fide horror classic, the original Omen was rather schlocky, as preoccupied with its elaborate, grisly death scenes as its demonic lore. It’s good, then, that The First Omen draws influences from weirder and less obvious fare, such as 1981’s Possession, a psychological cult classic about a spy whose wife’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing. A particular sequence from that film inspires one late in this one, which we won’t reveal here other than to say it unnervingly showcases Nell Tiger Free’s unbridled physicality.

The First Omen also owes a debt to David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror. At one point we’re shown a woman in labour. She’s given gas and air for the pain, which causes her face to fall into a rictus grin, before she convulses, her neck taut, her limbs flailing. Here, birth is framed as an act of exorcism. The scene culminates in a moment that’s sure to gain notoriety in the age of meme-indication, but isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, and leaves one wondering what exactly you have to show on screen to warrant an 18 certificate these days.

One of the First Omen’s biggest accomplishments is reigniting interest in a franchise characterised by rapidly diminishing returns – including 1991’s execrable TV movie, Omen IV: The Awakening – and a hollow 2006 reboot that repeated the beats with little of the impact.

Its other success is as a film in its own right – an atmospheric, genuinely scary one that will act as a gateway to modern and classic horror by being a brilliant synergy of both. And as with all great examples of the genre, it oozes with subtext, here encompassing everything from sexual consent and the blinkeredness of religious extremism to evil as a construct.

They say the devil has all the best tunes. Turns out he’s got some pretty good movies, too.

Verdict: 4/5

The First Omen is released on April 5

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