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film review

The First Omen

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson

Written by Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson, Keith Thomas, Ben Jacoby, David Seltzer

Starring Nell Tiger Free, Bill Nighy

Classification R; 120 minutes

Just two weeks after the release of the Sydney Sweeney nunsploitation horror vehicle Immaculate, the film-industry powers that be have blessed us with yet another story of sinister sisterly happenings. The First Omen is the feature debut of Arkasha Stevenson (Netflix’s Brand New Cherry Flavour), and this seventh entry in the Omen franchise serves as a sequel to the original 1976 film directed by Richard Donner, offering audiences an origin story to the series’ central villain, Damien.

Serving as co-writer alongside Tim Smith and Keith Thomas (of 2022′s Firestarter reboot), Arkasha’s Omen introduces us to Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free of Game of Thrones), a young American woman who, having been a ward of the state for her entire life, travels from Pittsfield, Mass. to Rome in order to work at a church-run orphanage and birthing facility before taking the veil.

Margaret is welcomed into the church in Italy with the understanding that the power and authority of the religious order as it stands is under attack by the current political and social climate. It’s 1971 and leftist protests are upending the city. While ostensibly offering itself as a safe haven for women and girls, this supposed religious sanctuary has its own radical motive: they hope to regain control over the nation’s populace through fear; more specifically, through birthing the Antichrist.

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It’s a refreshing return to the power struggle between the religious order and rising secularism that we were introduced to in the first Omen instalment. Here it is intensified within Rome’s specific cultural context and history. Whereas later films in the franchise thematically steered themselves toward the threat and potential destruction of American political and economic interests, The First Omen is content to refine its central conflict down to its original narrative bones: the clergy, its sisters, and, of course, the creation of a devil hellbent on destroying us all.

Fully convinced that a troubled young girl at the orphanage, Carlita, has been selected and bred by the church to serve as the new Antichrist, Margaret follows in the footsteps of The Omen’s Richard Thorne, the adoptive father of Damien – a boy soon discovered to be Satan reincarnate – in her quest for the truth. It’s a not insubstantial act of the film that sees Stevenson wedding the tonalities and pacing of the 1970s paranoid thriller with a woman-centred body-horror exercise; the director shows, often graphically, the ways in which Margaret is led to discount her own reality as well as relinquish control over her own physical faculties.

Unlike its box office sibling, Immaculate, The First Omen commits more to tone and atmosphere for its entire run and refuses to rush itself in its undertaking – it’s more Babadook than it is pulpy, exploitation romp.

While the film’s stylistic and thematic influences are both strong and clear (Roman Polanski and Alan J. Pakula, for starters), Stevenson’s entry falters in wrapping up its story in a satisfying way – especially for existing fans of the series.

Disappointingly, its final moments feel too obvious to be rewarding for viewers hoping for more substantial twists and turns; likewise, the final act lacks a fever pitch wherein we might see Margaret more powerfully (and perhaps even bloodily) regain her autonomy and power over the trusted figures of authority who exploited her body and mind.

While unable to fully deliver on the promise of its artistic potential, The First Omen remains, nonetheless, a fun, low stakes introduction for horror newbies to The Omen franchise and an enjoyable enough tribute to the original film (offering, also, a more contemporary take on visualizing the grotesque). Much like its Immaculate box office competition, it’s an uncomplicated genre outing that, for better or worse, conveys a deep familiarity as well as a fiery lust for the profane.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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