Review: THE FIRST OMEN, A Prequel to a Horror Classic That Fails More Often Than It Succeeds

Fifty years ago, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling 1971 novel, The Exorcist, not only broke box-office records while receiving critical acclaim, it also kickstarted a minor boom in religious-themed supernatural horror from major Hollywood studios. Many tried to duplicate The Exorcist’s commercial and critical success. Many tried and failed, but one of those studio-financed attempts, Richard Donner’s The Omen, capitalized on pre-millennial fears involving a rapidly changing, destabilizing world, the end times prophesied in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, and the final battle between the Antichrist and a reborn and/or resurrected Christ.

Focusing primarily on a preteen Antichrist, The Omen postponed the promised apocalypse, leaving it to another, later film, The Omen: The Final Conflict. The second sequel after the time-wasting, water-treading Damien: Omen IIThe Omen: The Final Conflict failed to deliver on the series’ promise of world-shattering battles for control of the Earth’s resources and humanity itself, instead telling a small-scale, no-budget story about a corporate CEO played by Sam Neill as a smug, self-entitled, ruthlessly efficient businessman with delusions of grandeur.

Somehow, though, the series didn’t end there. Even as audience interest dwindled, the series’ producers moved forward with a TV sequel almost no one saw, and a full-fledged series focused on Damien before he fully embraces his destiny as the Antichrist and all that implies. It was canceled after one season. But where corporate-owned and controlled IP (Intellectual Property) is involved, a reboot, remake, or prequel will follow. Eventually.

All of which brings us to The First Omen, a prequel set in 1971 Rome as a secret cabal within the Catholic Church itself, unhappy with the secular turn of the late 20th-century Western world, allies itself with the darkest of Satanic forces to usher in the Apocalypse (belief in the Catholic Church and its teachings, they think, will follow actual evidence of the Antichrist). At least in part, they’re inspired by current-day extremists (left or right) who only see a corrupt, irredeemable system with either revolution or complete abstention from participation (e.g., let fascism and its brutal policies take over, revolt later, and somehow help bring a more just world into existence).

It’s nothing short of dangerously naïve, but it’s that worldview, more than those who believe in that worldview, who ultimately threaten the safety and sanity of The First Omen’s central character, Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free), an orphan and novitiate in the Catholic Church. She arrives in Italy both to work at a church-run orphanage and to prepare to take holy orders under the guidance of the orphanage’s abbess, Sister Silva (Sônia Braga), and the watchful eye of her longtime mentor, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy).

Despite getting a taste of Rome’s hedonistic nightlife thanks to another novitiate, Luz (Maria Caballero), Margaret doesn’t stray from her ideals or the desire to become a nun. Unfortunately for Margaret, it’s not that simple. Far from it. The same dark forces have a plan already in motion and Margaret’s natural curiosity, plus the usual assortment of strange goings-on, bizarre behavior, and at least one premature death, put her squarely in the center of the supernatural action.

What starts promisingly enough with Margaret, a supernatural mystery, and jolts of the supernatural or the Satanic, however, quickly devolves into an increasingly wearying assemblage of barely related scenes, ideas, and themes, made all the worse by the decision to connect The First Omen with The Omen itself through repeatedly unnecessary shout-outs to the 1976 original. Subtract the predetermined outcome (Damien’s birth) and The First Omen ultimately fails to justify its existence as either a standalone film or a prequel worthy of Donner’s film.

Still, The First Omen isn’t without some positives, beginning with a cast willing to put body and soul into their performances, no matter how underdeveloped and one-dimensional their respective characters might be or where their characters’ untethered motivations might lie. As Margaret, Free makes for a suitably forward-thinking protagonist, believably playing a character-driven first by natural curiosity, then by compassion for an ill-treated orphan, and lastly by a strong sense of morality, to overcome the natural and supernatural obstacles in her way. 

Like the recently released Immaculate, The First Omen veers into deliberately discomfiting, Cronenberg-inspired body horror, focusing, both narratively and thematically, on issues of consent, bodily autonomy, and forced births. The periodic splashes of blood and gore when a particular character expires onscreen are nothing compared to two pivotal birthing scenes, each one showed in cringe-inducing explicitness. (A wary MPAA repeatedly balked, forcing the studio to edit the birthing scenes several times before giving The First Omen an R rating.)

First-time feature director Arkasha Stevenson occasionally over-emphasizes jump scares over steadily rising tension and suspense, but ultimately acquits herself well, especially during a first half that’s mostly free of the fan service that mars the second half. She’s freer during that first half to focus on story, character, and atmosphere. Taking an unobtrusive approach to the material, Stevenson rarely calls attention to the camera and its movements in and around the Italian orphanage where most of the action unfolds. That much, at least, suggests Stevenson will fare better when she’s not hamstrung with studio-owned IP and can make a film more in line with her tastes, interests, and style.

The First Omen opens Friday, April 5th, via 20th Century Studios.

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