The First Omen (2024)

More than anything else, The First Omen is a prime example of the flexibility and creative versatility of the horror genre. Whether it be with an established IP or a shiny new and grotesque idea, horror has and will always allow new and established voices an avenue to project and exemplify even the most out there of ideas (I’m looking at you, Malignant). With The First Omen director Arkasha Stevenson further demonstrates that it’s possible to breathe new life into a long running franchise, hit those familiar beats, sprinkle a few easter eggs in for good measure, but give audiences something new to be horrified and – dare I say it – disgusted by. 

Margaret is a young American woman newly arrived amidst civil turmoil in Rome, 1971. Set to take her vows and begin her life long service to God and the church, she arrives at the Vizzardelli Orphanage, where she’s introduced to a host of fellow sisters of the cloth and the young children entrusted into their care. Margaret meets an older child, Carlita (Nicole Sorace), deeply reserved and isolated, whom she takes a shining to.  It’s not long, however, that she encounters unspeakable and unexplainable horrors that shake her faith and uncovers a conspiracy to bring the Antichrist into the world. 

If you’ve taken a casual stroll through the reactions of this film, one may notice a variation of the word “surprising” coming up time and again. And I have to concur – it’s surprising how good this film is. By no means do I mean it as a slight to the capabilities of Stevenson, who, by and large possesses a deep well of talent. Moreso, given that a prequel to a beloved cult classic often results in a shallow and hollow retread of its predecessor, by a studio or studios milking the story for every ounce of nostalgia possible, The First Omen manages to avoid that fate, standing firmly on its own two very terrifying feet (or hooves). 

Rather than falling on “remember this”-isms like past films of similar ilk, Stevenson and fellow co-writers, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, understand the previously mentioned versatility that the genre they’re playing in affords them, and take full advantage. While we may know where the story’s final destination lands, The First Omen manages to ramp up tensions to its maximum pitch, completely immersing the viewer in its truly unnerving visuals and score. It’s a film that’s only ever interested in crawling under your skin and making a home there. And as spines tingle and hairs stand on end, the film pulls the rug out from under you, completely throwing you into the deep end of body horror, and making you awe-struck that the filmmakers go there.

The craftsmanship is achingly stunning. Aaron Morton’s cinematography transports you back to prime 1970’s Italian horror, and one could be mistaken for thinking they’re watching a reprint of the original Suspiria. Mark Korven’s score is still ringing in my ears, balletic whirrings of angelic evil echoing out in the dark as Eve Stewart’s production design whisks us onto the streets of a city in chaos and into the bowels of an orphanage holding in all manner of horrors. 

Nell Tiger Free is giving the performance of her life. While Margaret’s arc may feel a little predictable, Free is completely believable in her horror and naivety. At first softly spoken and repressed, to righteous anger and sheer terror, the British actress seldom misses a beat and is completely transcended, so much so that one hopes for a swell of grassroots support and a shouting from the rooftops come next awards season. 

The First Omen doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it doesn’t need to. Instead, it’s a wonderful and terrifying companion piece that understands the sandbox it’s playing in and chooses to dig deeper into the possibilities and potential the world offers. It refuses the cheap thrills and works hard to elevate the heart rate and imprint fresh nightmare fuel at the front of the brain that will fill your dreams and have you checking the darker corners of your bedroom. 

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