The First Omen Finds a Gruesome Way to Make a Prequel Surprising

Nell Tiger Free in The First Omen. - Image: Fox
Nell Tiger Free in The First Omen. - Image: Fox
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The new horror film The First Omen isn’t the first Omen. It’s a prequel set before the events of the actual first Omen, aka the 1976 classic starring Gregory Peck, which itself had several sequels and a remake. Those movies focused on a young child named Damien, who happens to be the Antichrist, and this movie is the story of where Damien came from. So technically we know how The First Omen (which is really the sixth Omen) is going to end. But that doesn’t matter.

Co-written and directed by Arkasha Stevenson, The First Omen miraculously crafts a full, intense, horrific mystery around a conclusion we already know, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and engaged with smart writing, editing, and directing. We may know how it ends, but the journey to get there is never a straight line, and with a dash of mystery injected into this horrific tale, the whole thing gets a nice boost.

The First Omen begins when we meet Sister Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), a young American woman who arrives in Rome to become a nun. She spends her days in an orphanage there and soon realizes all is not what it seems. Margaret keys in on a child named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who has many scary, evil tendencies. Tendencies that Margaret knows she had as a child too.

Tiger Free and Nicole Sorace in a very Omen-looking shot. - Image: Fox
Tiger Free and Nicole Sorace in a very Omen-looking shot. - Image: Fox

As an audience member, The First Omen makes something clear very early on. One of these characters is the child of Satan and is going to give birth to the Antichrist. And the movie delights in red herrings and clues as to which one it’ll be. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a huge mystery— my first guess was the right one —but that never took away from the enjoyment of watching Stevenson, who is somehow making her feature debut, playing with it. She frames certain shots that leave the question open to interpretation, introduces new characters to shift suspicions, and provides details that change expectations. Ultimately though, the reveal isn’t a huge shocker, but it is an important throughline to the film.

As Margaret learns more about the happenings at the orphanage, she begins to encounter increasingly scary situations. Some of these mirror the original Omen in ways that add a dose of nostalgia for fans of the original. Others push the envelope in terms of gore and taste even for modern audiences. One scene in particular that shows a certain birth was so shocking, it reportedly held the film back from getting an R-rating before release. You’ll know it when you see it and you won’t soon forget it.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg too. Several scenes throughout the film push those boundaries in levels of intensity and violence, adding needed punctuations to slightly less noteworthy sections with fake scares, flashbacks, or narrative explainers. That’s the biggest issue with The First Omen. It rarely can keep up the tension and energy because the highs are so incredibly high. As a result, it never feels like a completely cohesive experience.

Add another franchise to the Ineson list. - Image: Fox
Add another franchise to the Ineson list. - Image: Fox

Even those sections are watchable though thanks in large part to Tiger Free. The Servant star’s dynamic turn sprinkles a veil of innocence over something much more complex and potentially sinister. And both of those sides shine at different times, from her relatable fears of commitment and social anxiety to another unforgettable scene where, in a single take, she gives a masterful physical performance akin to something you’d see at a circus. It’s terrifying, shocking, and crucial to the story.

The supporting cast also adds to the proceedings. Genre icon Ralph Ineson plays Father Brennan, a priest who is on the hunt for the evil child, whoever she may be. Bill Nighy is Cardinal Lawrence, a church leader with a special eye on Margaret, and as Carlita, Sorace gives a similarly excellent, dualistic performance to her older counterpart.

In the end though, The First Omen is the Nell Tiger Free and Arkasha Stevenson show. Each flexes their muscles in front and behind the camera aiming to create a prequel that simultaneously does four things: stands alone as a satisfying installment; pays homage to the original; makes the original more interesting; and leaves you wanting more from the revelations within. And The First Omen accomplishes all of that. Could its mystery have been a little less telegraphed? Could the tone have been a bit more even? Sure. But those big moments of terror and gore make The First Omen a good omen for the future of these filmmakers and the franchise.

The First Omen is now in theaters.

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