‘The First Omen’ Is a Pointless Prequel Beyond Redemption

20th Century Studios
20th Century Studios

An entertainingly cheesy attempt to piggyback on the success of The Exorcist, 1976’s The Omen concerns a United States ambassador (Gregory Peck) and his wife (Lee Remick) who, following the untimely death of their child, adopt a baby boy named Damien—a boy they eventually learn is none other than the Antichrist. Since Damien is himself an infant at the start of Richard Donner’s franchise initiator, and his lineage is clearly spelled out by the conclusion of its tale, there’s seemingly little more to say about his earlier days. Nonetheless, the only thing more insidious than Beelzebub himself is pop culture’s endless strip-mining of easily marketable IP, and thus, The First Omen is here to reveal the true origins of the son of Satan—other than, you know, that he’s the son of Satan, which is the sole thing worth knowing about him in the first place.

Like last year’s The Nun II, The First Omen (in theaters April 5) is a period piece about an American woman of the cloth who relocates to an Italian convent beset by demonic forces. In this case, that figure is Margaret (Servant’s Nell Tiger Free), a former orphan whose devout path to the nunnery is overseen by Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy) and leads her to Rome. It’s 1971, and the city is plagued by strikes by both workers and students who no longer see value in traditional ways of life—including the Catholic Church. Lawrence hopes that, in her own small way, Margaret can help reverse that trend and lure people back to the light of God. This is a mission for which she’s well-equipped, although from the moment she arrives at her new residence, she’s drawn to Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace), a teenage girl who’s perpetually locked away in her room and greets Margaret by crawling under a bed, grabbing her face, and giving her cheek a big, wet lick.

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Carlita is a creepy weirdo, and The First Omen means for us to assume that she’s either Lucifer’s progeny or bride; a prologue depicts Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) receiving a photo of an infant in the church’s care with the name “Scianna” written on its backside, and then watching as the man who gifted him this picture, Father Harris (Charles Dance), meets a grisly fate. Strange machinations are afoot in and around Margaret’s home, but at least early on, the young woman is too naïve to suspect much, even if she is perturbed by Carlita’s drawings of nuns floating in the air and carrying creatures in their wombs. Mostly, she’s consumed with fitting into this enclave a process complicated by her roommate Luz (Maria Caballero)— a free-spirit who, before “taking the veil,” wants to have wild sexual fun in the city, given that as she tells Margaret, you have to know who you are before you can give yourself to God.

Bill Nighy in the film The First Omen

Bill Nighy as Lawrence

20th Century Studios

Director Arkasha Stevenson doesn’t skimp on reliable genre elements, from shadowy streets, carved faces, lantern-lit corridors, and screamy jump scares to a score that’s drowning in prayer-like whispers, strident strings and soaring choral singing. It’s every gimmick in the unholy-cinema playbook, and yet Stevenson knows how to strikingly frame a composition. Moreover, she can conjure up a few eerie images, such as Margaret watching an unwed mother writhe and shriek while giving birth at the convent, during which she has a vision of a monstrous hand emerging from where a baby’s head should. In this and other sporadic instances, the filmmaker exhibits a knack for embellishing her familiar material with arresting punctuation marks.

Alas, Stevenson, Tim Smith, and Keith Thomas’ screenplay struggles to manufacture drama from a prequel premise that’s at once unnecessary and derivative. It hits a dismal low point during a courtyard party in which a disturbed nun, after cooing mysteriously evil things in Carlita’s ear, takes to a balcony and proclaims, “It’s all for you” before committing performative suicide—a ho-hum duplication of the original The Omen’s signature scene. A slightly more successful “homage” (to be kind) comes later when, in the wake of a car accident, Margaret convulses and grunts for minutes on end in public à la Isabelle Adjani in Possession, complete with bodily fluids spewing from various orifices. It’s far from the equal of its predecessor, but then again, almost nothing is. And for a 2024 mainstream studio film, this tribute infuses the action with a measure of genuine wildness.

A still from the film The First Omen

A scene from The First Omen

20th Century Studios

The First Omen is too ham-fisted to mask its central twist, which most moviegoers will predict approximately fifteen minutes into the proceedings, so its main attractions are Stevenson’s occasionally inspired visuals and Tiger Free’s headlining performance. Once again playing a twentysomething in the crosshairs of religious fanatics (following Servant), the actress demonstrates a flair for masking demented volatility behind a cheerily wholesome façade, and her director does right by her, frequently framing her on bedspreads with her hair flaring outward like tendrils to suggest her explosive insanity. There’s no salvaging a role that’s been designed as a cheap device, and is ultimately undone by late incidents that barely make sense. Still, it reconfirms that Tiger Free may be a unique future scream queen, should she get better opportunities to strut her sinister stuff.

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Despite working hard to keep suspense high, The First Omen telegraphs its bombshells from the outset and dutifully shuffles toward a conclusion that tethers this saga to Donner’s The Omen. That objective is as enervating as it is inevitable, although Stevenson, Smith and Thomas do generate unintentional humor from a big [spoiler warning] shocker: The birth of the Antichrist is actually sought by the Catholic Church, which believes that his profane presence in the world will scare ’70s secularists back to the Old Testament. This is harebrained nonsense, even for a pulpy satanic thriller such as this, and unfortunately, it never crescendos in suitably delirious fashion; the best the director delivers is some closing fire and brimstone in which Hell’s master gets illogically hot under the collar, as well as a bit of groan-worthy tying-loose-ends-together exposition. The dark lord may have risen, but The First Omen is light on necessary or riveting revelation.

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