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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The First Omen’ starts strong with excellent use of horror imagery until its cliched finale

The first hour and a half of ‘The First Omen’ is actually terrific horror.

Setting itself up as the sequel to the 1976 horror classic ‘The Omen’ by Richard Donner, ‘The First Omen’ surprises by being more than just a franchise cash-grab. Director Arkasha Stevenson is not above using jump scares, but she never relies on it (I was counting and only counted three, and all of them were organic to the scene and not gratuitous at all). Instead, she layers her horror with intricate camera shots that takes full advantage of the mise-en-scene and context of the narrative. The horror is born out of understanding the sheer malevolence that is happening within the story and juxtaposes this with terrifying imagery to remind us that there are forces out there who will do anything to bind us to their will.

Set in Rome in 1971 during a large-scale protest and rally against the police, the government, and even the church, an American novitiate Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) goes to an orphanage run by Father Lawrence (Bill Nighy) and a cloister of nuns. Here, Margaret will serve to care for the young girls while awaiting to take her vows. The older nuns, led by Sister Silvia (Sonia Braga), are a dynamic group of women, who have lives before and after taking on the habit (which is a welcome change). Margaret is enticed by her roommate Luz (Maria Caballero) to go out and enjoy the night life so that she understands what it is she is sacrificing as Margaret has lived with nuns her whole life having been raised in an orphanage herself.

(Left): María Caballero as Luz in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

But nothing is right here in the orphanage. There is a young girl, Carlita, who draws strange pictures and is frequently punished and put into “the bad room” and has strange interactions with Sister Angelica (Ishtar Currie-Wilson), a nun who seems not all there in the head. Margaret takes to Carlita, as she reminds her of herself but when a priest from a different cloister, Father Brennan (Ralph Inneson) corners Margaret and tells her that there is a sect of priests and nuns who believe that the church is losing its power over the people and have conspired to bring the antichrist into the world as a means to bring the people closer to god, Margaret must find it within herself to battle her own demons and discover the truth behind the secrets hidden in the orphanage.

(L-R): Nell Tiger Free as Margaret and Nicole Sorace as Carlita in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

What Stevenson does well in setting up her world is that she takes the time for us to really get to know Margaret and how she feels about the world around her. While she is laying down the groundwork for the story, she finds the most horrifying means of showing us that the devil is just at the periphery and that for all its religious adornments, there is such a close link between good and evil. One cannot believe in God without believing in the devil and Stevenson wonderfully intersects all the religious paraphernalia and rituals within the film and subverts it and turns it into something insidious and scary.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo credit: Moris Puccio/20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

There are the usual tricks – using darkness and the silhouette of a nun’s habit hanging on the wall to create a scary moment or bring about a moment of tension – but it is in the way that Stevenson creates a narrative that allows Margaret to question what it is that she is seeing (a story point that is related to her own past) and the way that it twists and turns in her mind and how we are able to see it on screen. 


The scariest things in ‘The First Omen’ are the things that the characters are imagining and seeing – a demonic hand coming out of a human body at the most inopportune moment is one of the most striking horrific images of the film – as the darkness and the evil of the conspiracy is closing in on Margaret.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

And it is here that the film finds its strongest piece because Nell Tiger Free manages to keep it all together and give us a person we are interested in and invested in. She brings a certain everyman quality to Margaret that brings us to her side but when the film hits its third act and the film makes physical demands from her performance, she is way more than capable of delivering a fully fleshed out performance. As the conspiracy reaches full swing and she is caught into it, there’s a scene that is both physical and transformative and she does an excellent job at physicalizing it. 

The first hour and a half of ‘The First Omen’ is actually terrific horror. It only loses its strength when it shifts from indie horror to a mainstream narrative where the main character must find a way to “defeat the beast.” It is a narrative trap that is often used by Hollywood to keep the protagonist active but in the face of what they are having to contend with in this story, it makes no sense for them to be so gung-ho. It becomes prosaic and loses its magic by the third act. Its finale undermines the first two acts that have so carefully created this world of horror amidst the backdrop of faith and revolution. 

My Rating:

The First Omen is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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