‘The First Omen’ Review: A Period Horror Prequel With A Timely Story

Michael Lee reviews The First Omen, which delivers on being an effective extension of the classic 70s horror film.
User Rating: 8

The First Omen is a direct prequel to the Richard Donner horror flick. While the 1979 classic spawned multiple sequels and spinoffs, none have scared or expanded upon the mythology and reimagined it the way directed by Arkasha Stevenson has. With a terrifyingly committed performance from Nell Tiger Free, the film offers a refreshingly new perspective on the genre that has made audiences jump out of their chairs for years.

It’s 1971, and Margaret (Free) has arrived in Rome to begin her life serving the church. She’s excited about her new job, especially since it reconnects her with old friends like Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), a senior member of the Catholic church. She also meets Father Gabriel (Tawfeek Barhom), whom she will work with at the orphanage. As the three travel by taxi, they learn about the civil unrest that is protesting against the low wages and the powerful influence the church holds over the country. Lawrence says Margaret has a huge role to play as she may be the one to change the course and bring back people to the church.

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Upon her arrival, Margaret meets Sister Silvia (Sona Braga), the Abbess of Vizzardeli Orphanage in Rome, and later on, her roommate Maria Caballero (Luz Valez). By all accounts, all seems typically normal. The sisters are committed to the veil. They live to serve the church and spread the good word. However, there are fears that the religion will lose its followers due to the growth of the progressive movement. Though the film sees Margaret staying out of politics, she will be pulled into that world. The orphanage – which also doubles as a medical clinic concentrating on women who got pregnant out of wedlock – is large in scale, so there are many people to attend to. Marget focuses on Carlita Skianna (Nicole Sorace), a misunderstood older child at the orphanage who is often sent to “the bad room” for her pension for violence and otherwise strange behavior.

Margaret’s vows are constantly tested throughout the film. That is first evident when she meets Luz. Though she is a newcomer committed to the church, she is more of a free spirit. One night, she takes Margret to a local nightclub. Dressing her up in seductive clothes, Margaret feels out of place. However, Luz encourages her to be brave and fly. The sequence shot by Aaron Morton helps establish the sensations of being buzzed and losing yourself to the music while establishing questioning reality.

The film expects us to believe that Margret took Luz’s advice literally. Our protagonist worries that she did something undignified, but Luz assures her that isn’t true. However, you can tell something is amiss in the tone of her voice. It’s clear that Margret is being gaslit. The film leans more into those ideas in the dialogue and imagery.

Evidence of that appears when Margaret takes more interest in Carlita’s well-being. The orphan is prone to violence and has had a tragic history, like Margret. As such, there is more of a reason for Margret to protect Carlita. Soon, the nuns grow concerned over Margret’s increasing emotional investment and worry that it will hurt her state of mind. Stranger occurrences happen more frequently, and the film frames it like Margaret is the only one affected. Bishops and sisters try to cover up the incidents or attribute it to but as they grow more alarming, Margaret uncovers a terrible conspiracy, which directly connects to Donner’s Film.

Stevenson challenges what we know about the Omen franchise and the horror genre but still respects it. She knows what scares the audience and how to make it effective. And if we aren’t jumping out of our seats, we are curling up in fear. We stare into the dark, knowing something will pop out, or we are distracted by what’s happening in the foreground, knowing that the blurred image in the background will frighten us. And if she isn’t doing it with jump scares, Stevenson makes sure the lingering images of surgical blades and charred bodies scar us. And the way that she draws these scenes out maximizes the horror.

The First Omen is more than just jump scares and frightening imagery. It is a chance to reimagine the franchise while paying homage to it. The film explores themes of female autonomy and dares to tackle rape through the lens of female body horror. Margaret frantically runs from window to window to see how the church treats women who are pregnant out of wedlock. Shots of surgical tools linger to remind us of how painful this procedure will be and how the church doesn’t care about the patient’s well-being. The patient is also forcibly strapped down, stripping away any autonomy she has left. She wants to escape but can’t. She violently convulses, which helps inform Margret and the audience of the severity of the situation. Eventually, she is out under to keep her from writhing out of control. As such, her subjection spotlights the church’s violations of this woman and how they have stripped her autonomy away from her. By not shying away from the content of female agency and the crimes of rape, Stevenson puts a modern-day twist on the period horror film.

Since the horrors of The First Omen are rooted in the real world, audiences can connect to the story and the characters on an emotional level. Margaret is frustrated that she’s the only one having these experiences that have her questioning her reality. Free is our guide to understanding what’s happening. And through her, we see how the church gaslights her. We know what she sees, but she is told that creating life is a messy business. However, the full frontal birthing scene that sees a demonic hand reaching out of a vagina tells us otherwise.

Free is up to the challenge of giving us a character who guides us between realism and surrealism. As such, Margret’s role is emotionally and physically demanding. The gaslighting and questioning of reality are apparent. But this role also requires Free to put herself out there. The movements and activities help sell us how scary the scene is and how afraid we should be for all the characters involved. It’s not constant, but it is effective. One long take of Margaret shaking uncontrollably in the public square is unsettling, and it reveals how committed Free is to the role.

The First Omen isn’t for the faint of heart. By exploring the franchise’s origins through a female lens, we get a refreshing and timely story. It is a post-Roe v Wade world, and the film isn’t afraid to expose the violations of stripping away a woman’s autonomy through the lens of female body horror. The graphic full-frontal birth serves as a metaphor for how painful taking away agency can be, while the gaslighting provides a warped sense of reality. Though there may be a few lulls in each of the acts, Stevenson rewards our patience with effective scares, and Free gives us a performance that justifies the prequel’s existence.

The First Omen opens in theaters on April 5, 2024.

Written by
Michael Lee has covered the film industry for over the past decade for sites like Geeks of Doom and That’s It LA. He looks forward to all kinds of films of all sizes whether it's the commercial blockbusters or small independent fare. But what he is most interested in is pushing for more diversity and representation, whether it is on screen, behind the camera, or at the top of a studio office.

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