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The First Omen is the Rare Franchise Entry That Surpasses The Original

The Omen’s status is undeniable in the religious horror canon. Even when its storytelling often falters under its bloated pace and doesn’t fully exploit its premise, it is directed with class and style, and its horror still resonates today. Even though The Omen works well as a standalone horror film, its admittedly brilliant setup paves the way for a trilogy that was unfortunately messy in execution. Damien: Omen II may be an inferior sequel, but it cleverly shifted its tonal approach, leading to a satisfyingly silly and ruthlessly violent sequel that lets itself having some morbid fun. And yet, it ended on a weak note with the underwhelming Omen III: The Final Conflict, where the apocalyptic conflict between good and evil is reduced to a bunch of unwise Italian priests trying to stab the older Antichrist (played by a committed Sam Neill) in the back. Not even a perverse narrative development fulfilled the exploitation horror element that it set itself up for. And the less said about Omen IV: The Awakening, the better.


In comes The First Omen, a prequel that shows us how it all began. To provide an origin story for something better left unexplained (and much scarier) is an incredible risk. One would even question the purpose of such a movie when it could be capable of diminishing the value of the original. Luckily, Arkasha Stevenson avoids this pitfall. Her creative vision for The First Omen is fully unrestrained and terrifying, where she is more interested in exploring her themes than relying on call-backs to the original. Not only does The First Omen revitalise the franchise back to its former glory, but it even surpasses the original.


In 1971, a young American novitiate, Margaret (Neil Tiger Free), is sent to Rome to work at an orphanage before taking her vows and committing to a life of service at the church. She meets the young, isolated Carlita (Nicole Sorace), whom Margaret easily bonds with as she sees her younger self in her – and continues to be haunted by her past. However, she notices the increasing political violence (in response to the prominent power of the Catholic Church) and a series of disturbing incidents that leaves her faith shaken. When encountering Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), who warns her that a religious conspiracy within the church is planning to use Carlita’s body as a vessel for the birth of the Antichrist, she realises his words may be true. And it’s almost about to be the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month – the birth of the Antichrist.


Paying tribute to the franchise without steering clear of Arkasha’s confident vision, The First Omen pursues compelling ideas and expands upon its mythology in satisfying ways, all without negating its horror. It builds its narrative to an unsettling effect and recognises that an emphasis on characters is what enhances audience investment. By familiarising you with its characters, it becomes easier to empathise with their traumas and their ordeals before The First Omen gut-punches you with its shocking turns and grisly, unholy imagery that you wouldn’t expect from a Disney/20th Century Studios-produced horror film. It all pays off with a strong third act that lets loose with its body horror elements and even a Possession homage that is perfectly fitting in the horrifying context it’s presented under. It’s the type of sickening material that would make Andrzej Żuławski smile.


But crafted with the utmost precision, The First Omen gnaws at a deeper horror. The horror doesn’t lie in its well-executed jump-scares. The horror doesn’t just lie in the grotesque imagery or the darker, claustrophobic areas in Rome. The horror lies in finding out how your innocence can already be imprinted with the mark of evil. The circumstances came to be and you happened to be part of them. That horror lies in how you have been selected for a mortifying purpose and that your body is to birth evil incarnate. What is truly terrifying about that scenario is that there is no escape and you are doomed to fulfil the unholy prophecy that has been set out. The hopelessness of The First Omen’s horror sticks out further because its resonating female-driven perspective reflects our current reality. In a post-Roe v. Wade world, state governments criminalise abortion and believe it to be a grave sin when it is a necessary right for women to have. By stripping women of their bodily autonomy and choices, it places them in scarier situations and forces them to navigate a world that still belongs to men. We still live in the past, a thoughtful observation that The First Omen makes.


When The First Omen ties to the original, it’s already hard to ignore the partial predictability. Given its status as a prequel, it feels inevitable, even when it could smoothen the bumps of its storytelling. But it works because of how screenwriters Keith Thomas, Tim Smith and Arkasha Stevenson are willing to explore their circumstances. The First Omen is about the abuse of power under religious institutions and how acts of evil can be justified for the purpose of a seemingly greater good. Such cruelty leads to sexual assault and the loss of bodily autonomy from women. Even the prophecies do more harm than good. Trying to create something to fear and to control those who don’t understand only allows for more evil. Its third-act thematic implications are scary enough, but because The First Omen’s screenplay probes into its ideas, its outcome becomes much more harrowing in retrospect.


Even driving the female-led horror home is Neil Tiger Free’s performance. With her soft-spoke nature and calmer instincts, she embodies the role of Margaret with ease, making her a hypnotic screen presence, and as more disturbing set-pieces take place, she sells the fear, the uncertainty and the increasing loss of control her character faces. She is given particularly difficult material to act out, which is best experienced without spoilers, but she is fiercely committed, physically and mentally, and it results in a mesmerising performance.


 Satisfying in style and substance, The First Omen feels like a true Omen film before being a fully committed homage to 70s Italian exploitation horror. With Aaron Morton’s artful use of tracking shots and zoom-ins, further aided by tightly controlled lighting, richly detailed production design and a striking colour palette, The First Omen employs old-school horror aesthetics in its visual style. It offers surrealistic, disturbing imagery without delving into unnecessary shock value, and its shots are thoughtfully framed and even symbolic in design, all of which serve to craft The First Omen’s vintage nature. Even in the age of modern genre filmmaking, it successfully captures the look and feel of a 70s horror film to immerse audiences into its gorgeous yet sinister settings of Rome. It’s the closest – and rarest - that studio horror has come into entering arthouse territory.


Wherever The First Omen falters isn’t common, but it’s still questionable. While its 119-minute runtime feels slightly bloated, its narrative build-up feels mostly effortless and consistently serves its purpose. Its most prominent weakness lies with its coda, which feels out-of-place in comparison to the film’s unnerving bleakness. Especially given the hard-hitting nature of its ties to the original, the final scene feels more like an excuse to drop another franchise reference, which The First Omen has avoided relying on to craft its identity, and the effect is jarring.


Nevertheless, The First Omen is the most surprising entry of The Omen franchise. It operates on a terrifying vision and it is not afraid to take risks or disgust its audiences. Arkasha is given full rein to expand the mythology of The Omen, and she succeeds largely without having to sacrifice her artistic touch. The result is a visually impressive and narratively bold work of art, resembling the uncommon type of sicko, old-school studio horror that feels abandoned today. Refreshing doesn’t cover the beauty of seeing something as audacious, relentless and unsafe as The First Omen in mainstream theatres. What an unholy, glorious nightmare.


Rating: ★★★★☆


The First Omen is currently playing in Australian cinemas


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