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The First Omen (2024)

Not many scary films make me feel barfy, but my guts churned with unease through the majority of this disturbingly well-done horror prequel.
Our Rating

Genre(s): Horror

Director: Arkasha Stevenson

Actors: Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson, Sonia Braga, Tawfeek Barhom, Maria Caballero, Charles Dance, Bill Nighy

Year: 2024

MPAA Rating: R

Country: USA / Italy / UK

From the mood-setting opening scene featuring Charles Dance’s guilt-ridden priest getting an efficient, bloody comeuppance, I felt like my face went through a progressive range of emotions during The First Omen, settling mainly between 😲 and 😱. As the plot involves a renegade Catholic cult’s goal of birthing the Antichrist in human form in order to bring the heathen masses running back to God and the Church, you know there is plenty of room for unspeakable body horror… unfortunately the vast majority of said horror focuses on women and girls. Let’s just say I watched much of this film holding my hand in front of my eyes with occasional peeks through my fingers.

It’s 1971, and fresh-faced novitiate Margaret (a terrific Nell Tiger Free), raised in an American convent, is going to the Catholic motherland of Italy to officially take her vows and become a nun. Welcomed warmly by the loving Cardinal (Bill Nighy) who guided her youth, she finds herself working with other nuns including the stern elder Sister Silva (Sonia Braga) in an orphanage seemingly from another century. Oil lamps light the dim, centuries-old hallways, and discipline is conducted by strapping girls’ arms and legs to their bedframes. The only seemingly modern space is the birthing room, where the nuns assist unwed mothers in giving birth, only to force them to give up their children to avoid public shame.

But it’s not just the harsh discipline and some strangely creepy nuns that are unsettling to Margaret. There is a young ward named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who is kept separate from the other children, who draws disturbing sketches on scratch paper, and often acts out at real or perceived threats. Margaret sees herself in Carlita, and it triggers in her a need to protect the girl. When Margaret is approached by a mysterious outcast priest, one Father Brennon (Ralph Ineson, who feels like he stepped right out of a 70s horror movie), he tells her of a conspiracy within the Church regarding Carlita: her disturbing origin, and the even more disturbing plan for the girl.

Though the film harkens back to 70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, director Arkasha Stevenson brings a female lens to religious horror. In the background, the streets of Rome are teeming with protestors, reminding the viewer that it was in this era that Roe v Wade became law in the U.S., giving women had autonomy over their own bodies. With those rights now slipping away, The First Omen becomes an illustration of an absolutely worst-case scenario of a woman having to carry to full term a forced and unwanted pregnancy. Sure, most women won’t birth the Antichrist, but to see a room full of religious elders cooing at a newborn child while ignoring the mother who cries, “I’m in pain… help me…” is absolutely chilling.

But a movie like this is only as good as the protagonist. Luckily for The First Omen, the film is completely grounded by Nell Tiger Free as Margaret, in a star-making, haunting performance. Though sympathetic and empathetic to those around her, Margaret seems to be the last one that knows what is going on (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to piece together the twist early on), making her plot arc all the more distressing. When all things go to Hell (quite literally), Free gives it her all, throwing in an impressive, physical performance (especially in one mind-boggling, single-shot scene). It’s a performance that I’m not going to be able to cleanse from my mind any time soon… and that’s a compliment.

Though this film is meant as an origin story of the original bad seed—that nasty little demon-child Damien of The Omen (1976) series—The First Omen works entirely on its own. Bits of info and visual homages are dropped into the story to tie it neatly-enough to the 1976 film, giving the viewers a few “a-ha!” moments. But there’s more than a tease that The First Omen may veer off into a whole separate branch of movie mythology… and I’m surprised to find myself thinking that, for once, a reboot may not be a bad thing.

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