Credit: Moris Puccio/20th Century Studios
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Genre Views

The First Omen — Arkasha Stevenson

April 4, 2024

As the sixth official installment in the long running The Omen theatrical franchise — this film is preceded by Richard Donner’s Oscar-winning 1976 original, three sequels, and a 2006 remake starring Liev Schreiber — it’s both high praise and setting the bar practically on the floor to observe that The First Omen feels like a “real” movie. Which is to say, for the vast majority of its two-hour runtime the film is only lightly concerned with callbacks, easter eggs, slavish devotion to canon, and all around contorting itself around immovable IP. When the film does refer back to something from one of the earlier films — say an especially gnarly kill scene or stray bit of mythology — it usually subverts expectations often in some sort of ghoulish way. That could be because first-time feature-director Arkasha Stevenson brings to the film the patience and instincts of a more seasoned filmmaker, as well as a genuine perspective, seemingly smuggled without detection into what should by all rights be a cash grab. Or perhaps it’s because “Ave Satani” is prominent enough on the soundtrack and we’re getting the requisite mentions of the “sign of the beast” to pacify the convention crowd.

That all may sound condescending, but then these are dark days for franchise horror films and the benefit of the doubt should not be granted as a given. Recent installments of the Halloween and The Exorcist franchises haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory, while The Evil Dead movies keep revisiting the same basic setup, doubling down on icky kills and barrels of blood while sailing squarely past the point. The First Omen is, in a literal sense, an immediate prequel to the Donner film. Its purpose is to establish the mysterious lineage of Damien (aka the Antichrist) who allegedly was born to a jackal, psychically commands animals, and who we’re told will someday hasten the spread of evil around the globe after being placed in the home of wealthy U.S. diplomats. However, it goes about this in a rather circuitous way, and it’s a better film for it. The First Omen features all the trappings one might expect of an “Omen film,” including hidden chambers containing secret files that lay bare an insidious conspiracy, religious iconography and ceremonies distorted to emphasize their more ominous qualities, severe-looking matronly women pulling the strings, and searching the body of a child for three small sixes discretely located on their person and signaling their inhuman provenance. However, they also feel incidental to what the film actually does well. One may be hard pressed to recall the plot machinations and exactly how the events of this film align with the one it’s meant to lead directly into — the most obligatory stretch of the film comes in its last five minutes, which attempts to hastily connect the dangling story threads of this Omen to the opening moments of the ‘76 one — but that’s almost beside the point when you have a film making such exceptional use of its Italian locations, period production details, thoughtful direction, and a gift for the uncanny. Some of the most effective moments here are its quietest or its stillest: a barely perceptible sense that something is off or only just visible amidst the impenetrable shadows or detected in a crooked smile.

The year is 1971, and American novitiate and reformed wild child Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) has arrived in Rome at the behest of the kindly Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), who’s watched over her since she was made a ward of the Catholic church as a small child. Working out of a girls orphanage and birthing hospital while preparing to take the veil, Margaret is haunted by nightmarish visions (functioning as both premonitions and memories) of the harsh discipline she received as a child, which leads to her developing an attachment to Carlita (Nicole Sorace), one of the young girls in her care. Locked away as punishment in “the bad room” and lashed to the bed at night “for her own safety,” Carlita is an intense tween prone to supposedly attacking the other children — not that we ever witness it — and making foreboding drawings that have attracted the scrutiny of Sister Silvia (Sônia Braga), the most intimidating of the orphanage’s nuns. Yet as Margaret prepares to take her vows, she is, in actuality, experiencing the world for the first time; briefly casting aside her monastic upbringing and allowing herself to get drunk at discos, dance with strange men, and come face to face with youth protesters flooding the streets of Rome who, we’re pointedly told, have turned away from the church for salvation.

It’s not all fun, sexy times in swinging Rome, however. Margaret’s visions grow increasingly more intense, many of which take on overtly sexual overtones, some of which seem to involve a monstrous figure mounting her (fans of Rosemary’s Baby will probably recognize the influence of these scenes). Also, one of the nuns at the orphanage commits ritual suicide in the presence of Carlita (fans of the Donner film will definitely recognize this scene). So when excommunicated priest Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson, taking on the role originated by the late Patrick Troughton) approaches Margaret out of the blue, claiming Carlita is the end result of a years-in-the-making eugenics ploy orchestrated by a faction of the church to impregnate the spawn of Satan and give birth to the Antichrist… well, it may sound crazy, but then there’s been more of that going around than usual lately.

The First Omen has either the extraordinary bad luck or possibly good fortune of opening less than a month after the Sydney Sweeney staring Immaculate, as the two films quite coincidentally share not only the same setting and genre, but broadly speaking have similar premises, explore comparable cultural anxieties and feelings of violation, and even have a handful of scenes that seem to be cribbing from one another (for example, both feature a showcase moment for their leading ladies where they’re asked to physically exert themselves in a long unbroken take that could be considered homages to Possession). Immaculate got in front of audiences first, but The First Omen is the more successful film, and the ways in which that’s the case are instructive. Neither film is breaking much ground or are especially strong on character or plotting — that it’s ambiguous for much of its duration whether Margaret should be protecting Carlita or be terrified of her allows The First Omen to sputter during its middle section — but strictly as a work of visual storytelling, there’s a richness to Stevenson’s imagery and a knack for toying with the audience that makes for a more rewarding experience than the diminishing returns of a jump scare factory like Immaculate.

The film adroitly shifts tempos, allowing disquieting moments to linger in pin-drop silence or play out at queasy length; the film does a variation on David Warner’s infamous death scene, and dismemberment is without a doubt even more upsetting as something gradually realized versus a quick shock effect. At the same time, the film functions as a full-on creature feature complete with slimy appendages, deformed half-Satanic offspring, nods at bestiality, and what one can assume is the first explicit crowning shot in a film released by Disney. And then there’s even some post-Dobbs anxiety about bodily autonomy, with women being literally groomed from a young age strictly for the purposes of breeding (although as a metaphor for the extremes some will go to secure an abortion in a restrictive culture, Immaculate probably has the edge, if only from a shock value standpoint).

In short, Stevenson feels like the real deal, and if she’s above the material, the film never comes across as slumming. There’s a noticeable texture to the shot compositions, with Stevenson and cinematographer Aaron Morton favoring warm, natural light, lived-in production design, and a sort of dreamy diffuseness that grounds the film in reality while lending it an outside-of-time quality. The First Omen is even being exhibited on 35mm prints in select markets, which is the kind of distribution gimmick typically reserved for A-list directors but in this instance speaks to the level of craft and old-fashioned showmanship the filmmakers are here trying for. The film may ultimately be susceptible to franchise maintenance — the denouement not only clumsily leads into the original The Omen, but appears to be setting up further installments featuring these characters as well — but for long stretches it does a fine job of disguising its intentions entirely through confident, stylish formal choices. The selling point here might be outré violence and creature FX, but the thrilling bit is the discovery of, potentially, an honest-to-goodness filmmaker.

DIRECTOR: Arkasha Stevenson;  CAST: Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sonia Braga, Ralph Ineson, Bill Nighy;  DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Studios;  IN THEATERS: April 5;  RUNTIME: 2 hr.