The First Omen REVIEW – Devilishly Decent

The First Omen
The First Omen

For the most part, The First Omen is pleasantly shocking. First, in that this prequel to a nearly fifty year old film is more than a weak cash grab, but is in fact a (mostly) well made and interesting standalone horror film. Second, in its commitment to eroticism and genuinely disturbing sequences in a studio-produced, wide-released movie. These wonderful surprises make it all the more disappointing that the film falls apart in its final act, as it assures audiences of its connection to 1976’s The Omen.

The First Omen opens with a prologue that sees two priests, played by Charles Dance and Ralph Ineson, who immediately lend the film gravitas, vaguely discussing some secret dealings in the Church that center on children and may be unforgivable. Intercut with their conversation are flashes of a ritualistic assault featuring a woman tied down to an altar with a black shroud held over her face by a noose around her neck, all lit in beautiful candlelight. It’s a powerful opening that successfully sets the film apart from many of its legacy sequel/prequel/reboot/etc. siblings early on.

Director and co-writer Arkasha Stevenson, who makes her feature debut here, has a strong handle on the tools of horror filmmaking that she deploys throughout the film. There’s the atmospheric tone setting of the opening, several shots that make use of empty space to build tension, and a bravura horrific birth sequence that repeatedly teases the audience with a reveal before delivering something truly unexpected and upsetting. Not every scare works though. Some jump-scares arrive on the heels of the images of empty space and fail to capitalize on the tension built, instead simply deflating any sense of terror because they feel perfunctory rather than real threats or anything other than a “gotcha” moment.

But those annoying jump scares are forgivable in a movie that meaningfully explores the faith of young women preparing to become nuns in the early 1970s. There are (admittedly on the nose) conversations about the threat of secularism to the Church. At one point, our protagonist Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is convinced that she needs to go out and embrace being a beautiful woman so that she knows what it means to give it up for God. That convincing leads into a clubbing scene that shows transcendence found in a non-religious space. Questions abound about the Church’s relationship to power, humanity, and of course, the devil. Topping it all off, there’s a sense of ambient attraction and desire between many, if not all, of the sisters.

This stew of effective horror and compelling themes moves along well in a plot that sees Margaret connect with tween Carlita (Nicole Sorace), while simultaneously investigating if Carlita is the literal spawn of the devil. But a telegraphed twist marks the film’s downfall from remarkably good legacy franchise entry to a parade of references. Albeit not all of them are to the Omen franchise and the extended Possession homage is admirably bold if not entirely successful.

In the film’s homestretch, the excitement of the horror and the ideas are lost in what feels like an equally rushed and overlong requirement to tie directly into The Omen. We get a picture of Gregory Peck and just before the credits roll, a name drop of Damien in an epilogue that’s wholly unnecessary.

The First Omen is a mostly good, sometimes great, religious horror movie when it functions as a standalone film that loses its magic when it strains to force itself into its franchise. But the shoddy finale, which is all the more disappointing in the context of what came before, can’t take away the film’s captivating first two acts. While it fails to live up to its potential overall, the high highs of the film make it something special in the current landscape of constantly reinvented franchises.

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The First Omen
The First Omen is a surprisingly strong legacy prequel, full of atmosphere, disturbing scenes, and challenging ideas that can’t quite stick the landing.