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OMEN_Candles_First_Look_FINAL.jpg

Finally, Our First Great Studio Horror Film of the Year

By Sara Clements | Film | April 8, 2024 |

By Sara Clements | Film | April 8, 2024 |


OMEN_Candles_First_Look_FINAL.jpg

Surprisingly, it has taken 48 years to release the origin story of horror’s favorite Antichrist. In The Omen, Richard Donner first introduced us to the child, Damien. Two sequels later, we see Damien grow into his teenage and adult years. In Arkasha Stevenson’s feature film directorial debut, The First Omen, we finally see the birth of the Devil’s child - and it signals changing times. Set in Rome in the 1970s, this era of Italy was marked by violence, protests, and the Church losing its grip on young people. Secularism became a threat, and The First Omen details the lengths to which religious groups could go to maintain their power.

Another film recently spoke on the morally rotten truths of the Church. Immaculate would make a good double feature with The First Omen in that they both speak on what it means when doing “God’s work” loses all meaning and show the rape of the female body by the institution. However, what Immaculate does that many modern horror films do is focus too much on how to scare its audience that it fails to craft a strong story. This isn’t the case for The First Omen. In that vein, it’s reminiscent of classic horror more than most, which fits well for a prequel like this. As a result, it becomes not only one of the best horror prequels but simply a well-made horror film that can stand on its own.

Like Immaculate, The First Omen sees a young American nun, Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), arriving in Italy with anticipation of life in the Church. However, unlike the former, this film isn’t set in a convent but in an orphanage for girls. Much like nunsploitation films, it becomes clear that this is another house of God full of insane nuns, priests, and even a Cardinal (Bill Nighy) who are about to unleash unholy chaos. Margaret quickly begins to encounter a darkness that causes her to question her own faith. She’s framed, at first, to have a fractured psyche. The horrors that she begins to witness are brushed off by her and others as simply a wild imagination or hallucinations. But as the story dives deeper into her history and how it ties to the overall story, we learn that this isn’t the case. We are provided with an excellent backstory that details her troubles as a child. The film is a strong character study, with all the horror being character-driven as opposed to just filling the space as jump scares without a deeper significance.

Margaret was once a problem child, as she explains, and this leads to her growing close to Carlita (Nicole Sorace), the oldest child at the orphanage who is often kept locked away from the other girls. They easily connect because of how much they can relate to each other, but this closeness goes much deeper and poses a threat to the Church’s nefarious plan. Not only is she met with a warning to stay away from Carlita, but a warning also comes from an outside party. Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) has been suspicious of what has been going on at the orphanage for years and meets with Margaret to help him prove his suspicions and uncover the darkness within.

The First Omen has one of the best opening few minutes of any horror film in recent memory. It establishes right away what a grounded experience we’re in for, while also hitting us with a tone full of dread that will linger until the film’s final minutes. It’s also brilliantly shot. There are so many shots of note in this film, from the slow fall of a broken stained glass window to an image of a woman with a cloth over her face and desperately gasping for air to another with Margaret standing between candles that line the top and bottom of the frame to resemble demonic teeth. Every shot seems composed in a way to elicit a reaction from the audience, just like how a good jump scare delivers genuine fright. There’s also a reason why The First Omen is rated R; there’s a scene that hits the horror of birth on its head - like Dead Ringersx 10 and absolutely diabolical.

A dim, foggy alleyway lit by one lantern echoes the atmosphere of The Exorcist. Free’s transformative performance, both shocking and affecting in its intensity, echoes the feverish mania of Isabelle Adjani in Possession. A sense of claustrophobic distrust erupts and permeates throughout like Repulsion. The First Omen isn’t perfect by any means; it ends with unanswered questions, but it contains the strength and spirit of the classic horror films that came before it. It’s a dreadful, cursed mystery that harbors in the psychological and exposes the cracks of a putrid and decaying institution.