REVIEW – ‘The First Omen’ is that rare kind of horror prequel that completely justifies its existence

From Annabelle to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Insidious to The Exorcist, horror prequels are generally what occurs when studios run out of ideas for sequels and instead serve up an origin story no one really asked for. It’s why one approaches something like The First Omen with immense trepidation and dreadfully low expectations. Colour me wrong. Standing as one of the first big surprises of 2024 and that rare kind of horror prequel that completely justifies its existence, this unsettling, atmospheric, and beautifully crafted demonic thriller is actually pretty damn good.

Set in Rome in the early 1970s, the film is centred on Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free), a young American novitiate sent to work at Vizzardeli Orphanage before taking the veil. Under the caring guidance of lifelong friend and mentor Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), Margaret attempts to settle into her new life inside the walls of the archaic convent, which also doubles as a birthing hospital run by the nuns. The foreshadowing!

While Margaret enjoys learning Italian and playing games with the orphans, she’s struck by the plight of 12-year-old Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace), a problem child who is constantly sent to the “bad room” by the cantankerous Abbess of Vizzardeli (Sônia Braga) for supposedly unruly behaviour. When Margaret discovers nightmarish visions consistently plague Carlita, she attempts to bond with the repressed young girl, given she too experienced such issues in her youth.

But Margaret’s world is spun on its head when the mysterious Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) pulls her aside and warns of an outlandish conspiracy within the church. The priest believes there is a small but powerful faction within Vizzardeli whose desperation to restore humanity’s faith in God lies in creating fear by the birth of the Antichrist. And their sights are firmly set on Carlita as the unwilling vessel to enact this demonic plan.

Unlike many horror prequels, there is a genuinely intriguing origin tale to be told in The Omen franchise. Way back in 1976, little demonic baby Damien appeared in a Roman hospital and the events of the first film revealed the secrets behind his birth. What co-writer/director Arkasha Stevenson seeks to offer with a prequel pertains to how and why he came to be conceived in the first place. It’s a film that solves questions audiences actually want answers to; something most prequels fail to comprehend.

You’ve likely been assuming the masterminds behind Damien’s inception were devil-worshipping zealots who sought to bring an end to humanity with the Antichrist. Stevenson’s screenplay (co-written with Tim Smith and Keith Thomas) shrewdly flips this presumption around by crafting Damien’s creators as unshakeably devout Catholics whose intentions are born of fear over the rising threat of secularism and the waning popularity of religious beliefs. Dig beneath the surface of this outrageous conceit and it’s a fairly damning introspection on the dangers of religious dogma.

In the hands of a female filmmaker, The First Omen is also a biting but never preachy condemnation of the persecution, manipulation, and abuse women so often suffer at the hands of selfish men, particularly those hiding behind the protection of the cloth. Margaret and Carlita are pawns in a despicable game crafted by those who see them as nothing more than empty wombs ready to be utilised for their own benefit. Stevenson pulls few punches in her depiction of the sociopathy and victimisation at play that parallels the experiences of women across the globe. Seek out reviews from female film critics for their views on the analogy Stevenson is so adept at weaving.

With her hugely impressive directorial debut, Stevenson is also stamping her claim as a bold new voice in the horror world, particularly the body horror subgenre. She knows how to build palpable tension and the rising aura of dread while wisely only using minimal jump-scares that are all entirely earned. But when the confronting terrors truly begin, Stevenson’s work becomes something else entirely. With heavy influence from Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, Stevenson delivers several deeply unnerving scenes filled with the kind of grotesque imagery that will haunt you for days on end. This does not feel like an American studio film at all and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Free is terrific as a woman caught up in a conspiracy that consistently puts her in harm’s way. Watching Margaret evolve from the bright, effervescent young novitiate to the traumatised victim of a demonic plot is entirely compelling. It’s all the more satisfying to then witness Margaret find her strength in the closing act to finally fight back against the cruelty forced upon her. Nighy is typically solid but somewhat underused in a rather hollow role, while Braga steals focus as the creepily omnipresent Sister whose glaring gaze is seemingly never far away.

Shot on location in Italy, the production values of The First Omen are utterly impeccable. With rich, gothic-inspired production design by Maria Luigia Battani and perfect period costumes from Paco Delgadoit’s staggering this film only cost $30 million to produce. Elevated by lush cinematography from Aaron Morton, a haunting score by Mark Korven, and genuinely ingenious sound design that takes full advantage of the surround sound system inside your cinema (you’ll swear someone is whispering right behind you), it’s one of the most impressively constructed horror films in some time.

Perhaps The First Omen benefits from arriving after so many horror prequels have failed. The bar is low here but Stevenson refuses to create something that’s merely passable. This is an entirely terrifying and cleverly crafted horror film with a clear message to deliver. Stevenson has the confidence to shock with her imagery but the guile to hide something powerfully pertinent amongst the terror. This may initially seem like a prequel we didn’t need. Once the final credits roll, you’ll be surprisingly glad it exists.

Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Cast: Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sônia Braga, Ralph Ineson, Nicole Sorace, Bill Nighy
Director: Arkasha Stevenson
Producers: David S. Goyer, Keith Levine
Screenplay: Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson, Keith Thomas
Cinematography: Aaron Morton
Production Design: Maria Luigia Battani
Costume Design: Paco Delgado
Editors: Bob Murawski, Amy E. Duddleston
Music: Mark Korven

Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: 4th April 2024 (Australia)

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