The First Omen – movie review

The First Omen is a prequel to the classic horror film franchise that began with Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. That film introduced audiences to Damien, the Antichrist.

Director Arkasha Stevenson’s prequel opens in 1971, five years before the events of The Omen. A young American woman, Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free), moves from America to Rome to become a nun. Daino was a wayward child, an orphan, who saw the way forward when she was mentored by Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy). The Cardinal is there to meet and encourage the woman who loves life and the church when she arrives at the centre of Catholicism. Daino is in the novitiate phase (the probationary period) of her spiritual journey.

She’s housed in an orphanage for girls run by the Abbess, Sister Silva (Sonia Braga). Sister Silva also oversees the nuns and novitiates who live there. Daino though finds it’s hardly what she expected. First, her roommate Luz Valez (Maria Caballero), who has had much less of a sheltered upbringing, encourages Daino to let her hair down. A big night on the town follows. At the orphanage, Daino is intrigued by and takes to the oldest girl there, Carlita Skianna (Nicole Sorace), who is ostracised by her peers. Sister Silva warns Daino about Skianna; but Skianna has witnessed horrors at the orphanage, which she confides to Daino. Then Irish priest Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) seeks out Daino to warn her of a terrifying conspiracy within the church, one that will envelope her.

The First Omen was co-written and directed by Stevenson, who cut her teeth on TV series. This marks her feature film debut. The film concerns the lengths the church will go to in order to maintain power and control. Thanks partly to lighting and sound and some eye-opening close-up photography, it has shock value. It bites – before the story becomes preposterous.

I appreciated the wide-eyed innocence and journey to realisation conveyed by Nell Tiger Free’s performance. So, too, the characterisation by Sonia Braga as the head of the orphanage, who is privy to much more than she lets on. Maria Caballero adds spice as the party girl/nun in the making. Ralph Ineson leans into his role as the troubled Brennan, who fears the worst. Nicole Sorace provides an edginess as Carlita, the orphan surrounded by a sinister darkness.

Before the film is over, the filmmakers angle for a sequel; presumably with The First Omen as a vehicle to reboot the franchise. So how best to enjoy this one? Suspend belief and allow the jump scares and creepiness to take over.

Alex First

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