The HoloFiles

REVIEW: The First Omen

By George & Josh Bate

The First Omen review

“Look at me, Damian. It’s all for you.” These two seemingly innocuous sentences will send shivers down one’s spine if they have ever seen the 1976 horror classic The Omen. Directed by Richard Donner from a script written by David Seltzer, The Omen evokes a sense of dread and terror few horror films in history have achieved. And, like many of the great horror films of all time, attempts to extrapolate beyond The Omen with sequels, television shows, and remakes have been mixed at best. Now, nearly 50 years after the original released, a prequel film exploring the origins of Damian has arrived.

The First Omen takes place in the 1970s leading up to the events of The Omen. The film follows Margaret Daino (played by Servant’s Nell Tiger Free), a young American woman sent to Rome to work at an orphanage as she will soon become a nun. While at this orphanage, unusual things begin to occur surrounding a particularly disturbed orphan named Carlita (played by Nicole Sorace). As Margaret grows closer to Carlita and begins to investigate these unusual occurrences at the orphanage alongside a seasoned priest (played by The Witch‘s Ralph Ineson), she uncovers a terrifying conspiracy to bring about the birth of the Antichrist.

The First Omen review

Like other prequels, The First Omen finds itself with two standards to aim for: 1) to serve as a worthy precursor and companion piece to the original film and 2) work individually as a standalone film. Ultimately, The First Omen achieves moderate success with both of these aims. 

As a standalone film, director Arkasha Stevenson’s movie largely unfolds as a conventional yet effective religious horror story. Moving from the U.S. to Italy, the lead character Margaret is a fish-out-of-water who finds herself working at an unfamiliar Italian orphanage. While here, Margaret begins to notice a series of unusual occurrences, most of which surround the disturbed orphan Carlita. The initially innocent and naive lead character grows gradually suspicious of her surroundings before eventually getting the sense that something isn’t right. As one may notice from this description, narratively, the film progresses like many religiously themed horror films that have come before it. 

Without much novelty in its narrative to stand out from Immaculate and many other similar religious horror films, The FIrst Omen is left to distinguish itself with its filmmaking craft, something it finds great success with. Containing the story mostly within the walls of the orphanage creates an intriguing and atmospheric setting. As a period piece, the film feels authentic to the time (i.e., 1970s Rome) and has a setting that contributes to its exploration of various religious themes and demonic undercurrents.

The First Omen review

More striking than its atmospheric setting is the film’s propensity for strong scares and an unsettling tone. Jump scares have often been labeled as a quick and easy way to generate a scare out of an audience, with some of the worst horror films in recent years relying far too heavily on this technique. It’s a testament then to Stevenson’s directing that The First Omen features some genuinely startling and well-crafted jump scares. These scares are enhanced by fantastic sound design and an unsettling score by Mark Korven, who strongly evokes his use of high-pitched tunes from his work on Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Much like The Omen (1976), Stevenson’s film manages to foster an unsettling tone without overly relying on blood and guts.

Other references and similarities to the original film help The First Omen rise somewhat above being yet another conventional religious horror film. Director Stevenson pays homage to Richard Donner’s directorial approach to The Omen with a number of neat visual callbacks. Intelligently, however, Stevenson avoids indulgently leaning into its Donner influences, instead featuring cleverly constructed shots that only keen observers will note. The most interesting of these is Stevenson’s tendency to use zoom-in shots from a static camera positioning, a technique frequently employed by Donner in the 1976 original. Even when the film does become more heavy-handed with its references to The Omen in a scene that directly mirrors the aforementioned “It’s all for you” moment, the film never feels like it is pandering to fans of the original and, instead, pays respectful and intelligent homage to a horror classic.

And it’s in the film’s third act that it truly becomes a prequel to The Omen. As many great prequels do, The First Omen deepens the lore of the original film by providing unexpected context to the film’s events and characters, although this is not necessarily for the better. The central mystery in The First Omen intrigues as Margaret receives warnings from Father Brennan (played by Ralph Ineson) that there is an insidious plot to bring about the birth of the Antichrist. In the film’s final act, the mechanics of the plot click into place for an ending that doesn’t disrespect or neglect the iconic film it serves as a prequel for. That being said, the explanation provided for why the antagonists are doing what they’re doing is comically absurd. This explanation is not bad enough to render everything that came before it unenjoyable or unnecessary, although the narrative implications The First Omen’s twists and turns have for the events of The Omen are a tad surprising. Despite this shaky foundation of The First Omen’s big plot twist, the film certainly gets better as it goes along, culminating in a riveting and intense finale.

Gregory Peck was an immensely compelling lead in The Omen, creating quite the shoes to step in for any subsequent lead for this franchise. Thankfully, the filmmakers’ decision to cast Nell Tiger Free as the lead pays off as she carries the film with a disturbed and raw performance. Free is perhaps best known for her role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant in which she played a live-in nanny for a grieving couple. In both Servant and The First Omen, Free plays a character with a mysterious and dark background navigating a new surrounding. However, in The First Omen, Free takes on a role that sees her attempt to uncover a broader conspiracy, as opposed to Servant in which her character is the one holding the secrets. Free portrays Margaret with a palpable and almost contagious anxiety that make an already unnerving film that much more unsettling. With a third act demanding some grand moments for Margaret, Free takes the challenge in her stride in delivering a performance exhibiting a full spectrum of emotions.

In reviewing The First Omen, it is difficult to overlook the film’s glaring similarities to the recently released Immaculate. Both films follow an American woman in her mid-twenties moving to Italy as they take the veil. Both films are mostly contained to a single, religious setting and sees the lead character surrounded by other nuns. And both films involve a sinister conspiracy surrounding a pregnancy with ties to the devil. These similarities inevitably invite comparison, which reveal that The First Omen is, by far, the better film in virtually every department. The First Omen’s story, while problematic, proves more intriguing and investing than that of Immaculate. The filmmaking on display here – from production design to sound design to cinematography – impresses relative to its eerily similar theatrical partner in the spring of 2024, which struggled to be much more than a conventional installment in the long-running series of religiously-themed horror films. Immaculate may have the grander and bolder ending of the two, but it’s The First Omen that better comes together as a cohesive and unsettling fright fest.

VERDICT: 6.5/10

The latest in a long run of religiously themed horror films, The First Omen proves to be a moderate success both as a standalone horror film and as a precursor to one of the greatest horror films of all time. A largely conventional story that leans into many tropes of the horror sub-genre is elevated by a genuinely unnerving tone and some extremely well-crafted jump scares. Third act reveals make for a finale with great twists and turns, although their explanation is absurd and their implications for the story of The Omen are questionable. The First Omen might not possess anything close to the iconic status of the “It’s all for you” moment from the original classic, but there’s enough craft here to make it the franchise’s best installment since 1976.

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