The Austin Chronicle

The First Omen

Rated R, 120 min. Directed by Arkasha Stevenson. Starring Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson, Bill Nighy, Maria Caballero, Nicole Sorace, Sonia Braga, Tawfeek Barhom.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 5, 2024

There’s already a prequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 satanic masterpiece, The Omen, and it’s called the Bible. OK, glib jokes aside, there’s an overwhelming question when it comes to The First Omen and that is simply – what? What possible story can there be left to tell about the birth of the Antichrist? The conception?

Well, that’s the exact answer in the grisly, fetid, and devilishly horny debut feature from Arkasha Stevenson. Even though she proved her hardcore horror credentials with “Butcher's Block,” the macabre third season of the Channel Zero horror anthology, this project seems damned. It’s not her: Horror franchise revivals seem cursed. Every other legacy relaunch – including the diminishing returns of David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy and his dismal The Exorcist: Believer) – and reboot (the pretty but vacuous new Hellraiser and the unforgivable Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich) has ended up a catastrophe.

So hopes were inevitably low for a revamped take on the story of Damien Thorn under the aegis of 20th Century Studios under Disney ownership.

But what Stevenson has created as director and co-writer isn’t simply a worthy precursor to the series. It’s quite possibly the most gruesome horror to be released by a major studio in decades. This isn’t just blood or some entrails (although there is plenty of both), but some astonishingly shocking and graphic imagery. This feels like something crafted by the stronger stomachs at one of the more underground production houses, given a studio budget, and blessed with an aggressively cunning and disturbing script. Take away the effects, and The First Omen is still an extraordinary piece of black magic horror. Add them in, and you may have the most unexpectedly pleasing horror film of the year.

And so to that “what?” that was seemingly so pressing that it had to be resolved. It turns out it’s more of a “how?” As in, “How did the power hungry blood cult known as the Roman Catholic Church come to kill the baby of the American ambassador to Rome and have him adopt the antichrist who would grow up to be Sam Neill by the third film?”

What Stevenson brings is gynohorror, and she’s not afraid to play with both perturbing imagery and graphic metaphor. The original was built around Gregory Peck as the ambassador as a father, watching this evil seed dismantle his family. Here, novitiate Margaret (Servant’s Free) has been sent to Rome by fatherly Cardinal Lawrence (Nighy) to work in an orphanage until she joins holy orders. Only these children are not orphans, but unwanted kids given up by single mothers who are subjected to the agonizing indignities of the nunnery's primitive birthing chair. Not that the children do much better, especially teenager Carlita (Sorace), who is often sent to the Bad Room – a place Margaret knows well, having been a sinful child in such a place herself. There's a terror of parenthood that's balanced by the raw fear of childhood abandonment.

There's also the fug of raw carnality in the air. Her roommate (Caballero) prowls back to their apartment like she’s spent a long shift on the Via delle Belle Donne, and encourages her to go for a night out like it’s a Catholic Rumspringa. Everything feels dangerous, and then Stevenson justifies our fears by delivering fiendish brutality and sweaty perversion. Even her jump scares are doomladen, unsettling rather than cathartic. Behind it all is an undertow of Catholic domination of women’s bodies for its own ends and how complicit nuns have been in that abuse. Indeed, the only people in vestments who seem interested in Margaret’s health and autonomy are Tawfeek Barhom as Father Gabriel, a young and questioning priest, and the magnificent Ralph Ineson, who steps into Patrick Troughton’s black brogues from the original film as the excommunicant Father Brennan.

The gore isn’t a new addition to The Omen either, as it was doing Rube Goldberg murder machines over two decades before Jigsaw started stockpiling rusty metal. But it’s not just the gore. Stevenson recaptures that sense of sickly dread that was a key component of the best of Seventies horror (there’s one scene that’s just a camera zipping above the rooftops of Rome above a warped choir, and it’s genuinely upsetting). There are more overt nods to classics of the era, including what feels like a very clear homage to Sam Neill’s other great psychosexual satanic classic, Possession. It’s a standout moment for Free, who brings a shattered complexity to Margaret.

The First Omen does falter a little toward the end, because if there’s any mark of the beast (better known as studio interference) it’s in a coda seemingly constructed to set up sequels. Plus, diehard fans of the originals may blanch at one particular narrative shift with which any follow-ups would have to contend. At the same time, kudos to the suits for backing a horror film this provocative and spine-chilling.

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