‘The First Omen’ review: Can this nun-centered prequel hold a candle to the original?

The First Omen has the grand misfortune of coming out hot on the heels of Immaculate, a nun-centered horror movie that bears more than a glancing resemblance to this prequel to 1976’s The Omen.

Both plots revolve around a young and beautiful American novitiate, new to an Italian convent, facing stern Catholic authority and penetrating forces of evil. Stylistically; however, they are quite different. Immaculate relishes in the sexy star power of Sydney Sweeney in its delve into nunsploitation, but shows a modern squeamishness when it comes to onscreen violence. The First Omen is a pastiche in 1970s style and pacing, but pulls no punches when it comes to gore.

If you’re after a movie about a tormented nun that really goes for the gusto, The First Omen should be your pick.

What is The First Omen about?

Bill Nighy as Lawrence.
Credit: Moris Puccio / 20th Century Studios

Set in 1969 Rome, The First Omen begins with Margaret (Servant‘s Nell Tiger Free), a doe-eyed young woman from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who grew up as a ward of the Catholic church. Invited by Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy) to join a convent, where the sisters care for orphaned girls and unwed mothers, Margaret is eager to contribute and to take her vows. But shortly after her arrival, this fish out of water begins to suspect something is off in the religious sanctum, and it seems to revolve around a problem child named Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace). 

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Where the other children have bright smiles, rosy cheeks, and flowers in their hair, Carlita carries bags under her dark eyes and a perpetually grim expression. She draws troubling images and is uncomfortably close to a creepy nun (a requisite of this subgenre), whose high-pitched giggle is like nails on a chalkboard.

While a fellow novitiate (a beguiling Maria Caballero) cajoles Margaret to focus on the positive and embrace her youth and body before signing herself over to the church for good, the harried heroine is plagued by dark visions of vicious nuns and a horrid clawed hand reaching out for her. Are these hallucinations of an overactive imagination? Or is Margaret getting omens of something awful to come? 

How does The First Omen tie to The Omen (1976)?

Ralph Ineson as Father Brennan in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.

Ralph Ineson as Father Brennan in “The First Omen.”
Credit: Moris Puccio / 20th Century Studios

There are some connective characters in common with the original, including Father Brennan. The priest played by the late Patrick Troughton in the 1976 version is portrayed by Game of Thrones‘ Ralph Ineson. Here, Brennan is an ally of Margaret’s who is researching rumors about a conspiracy to bring about the antiChrist. Other cryptic connections and callbacks will be made, including a grisly death that evokes the chilling catchphrase, “It’s all for you!” 

How else this prequel sets up its predecessor can likely be guessed by The First Omen‘s very existence. The point of this film is not too much the destination but the journey. To the credit of director and co-writer Arkasha Stevenson (Brand New Cherry Flavor), she imbues the film with atmospheric dread that feels true to the original. The score courses with choral singing distorted to turn the human voices into nightmarish squalls. The color scheme is fit for shadows, allowing creeping nuns to emerge as mighty and terrifyingly as Michael Myers in a suburban closet. 

At times, the scares are predictable, but in a smartly intentional way. Stevenson knows a horror savvy audiences will be hip to the beats of such tricks, and uses that to her advantage. For instance, as a character fearfully retreats to cross a street — we might rightly predict he’ll be hit by a car. This expectation pulls us to the edge of our seats in anxious anticipation. But when we’re proven right, Stevenson doesn’t let us off the hook with a jump scare and a quick demise — as was often the case in The Omen.

She lingers on the aftermath, the injury, the blood, the physical agony and emotional anguish, not allowing us the relief a jump scare often offers. However, the close-ups of such garish graphic violence can offer diminishing returns. Sometimes the prolonged exposure to such intense imagery is affecting, as if we are stuck in a nightmare from which we can’t look away. But other times Stevenson’s generosity in displaying such graphic violence sours to silly, as some practical effects look better in glimpses than long gazes. (See the editing of Jaws for a classic example.) 

Nell Tiger Free gives her all in The First Omen. 

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret  and María Caballero as Luz in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret and María Caballero as Luz.
Credit: Moris Puccio / 20th Century Studios

While this perturbing prequel delivers on graphic violence in a way Immaculate willfully avoids, it falls prey to the same pitfall of characterization.

Make no mistake, Free is devoted in her performance. Playing a heroine who is put through the ringer, emotionally, physically, and psychologically, — hell, even ideologically — Free is pushed to express herself not only through bulging eyes, panicked screams, and full-body shivers, but also physical contortions that could veer into goofy in a lesser actor’s hands. However, her efforts are undermined by the screenplay, penned by Stevenson, Tim Smith, and Keith Thomas. 

Chockful of twists, turns, and Omen lore (new and old), the film has so many hoops to jump through in its runtime that what is shortchanged is establishing Margaret. Like Immaculate, the nun heroine is introduced upon her arrival to Italy, fresh-faced and eager to serve Jesus. Sure, a tragic backstory is plopped down in dialogue to give her some context. But Margaret is clumsily defined as sweet and innocent, and not much else.

These traits make her a suitably angelic archetype for the horror story that will follow, which delves into how religious authority dehumanizes women, reducing them to Madonna, whore, or vessel. But the lack of depth in the protagonist’s personality deadens the impact of her pain. Margaret feels more like a caricature than a person, and so, while the metaphor works, the emotional follow through does not.

Is The First Omen scary? 

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret and Nicole Sorace as Carlita in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret and Nicole Sorace as Carlita.
Credit: Moris Puccio / 20th Century Studios

Moderately.

Admittedly, growing up Catholic I am a particularly hard critic on horror films around Christian ideology. Any given Sunday a priest might say something on the pulpit more horrifying than the things I’ve seen in dozens of these films. Still, I respect this Stevenson’s dedication to striving for the tone and the original. Too often in reboots and prequels and whatever the Scream franchise has devolved into, the aim to achieve the tone of the original feels like winking set dressing intended as fan service. Here, the mood brings us back to 1976 and the unique terror of Richard Donner’s classic film, but without feeling hollow in its admiration.

By mimicking the pacing of the original, Stevenson neatly folds in the classic and the contemporary, bringing in a post-torture porn era thirst for blood that leads to some genuinely alarming on screen violence. While overall the film left me a bit underwhelmed, Stevenson’s depiction of demons is undeniably nightmare fuel and will assure The First Omen a place of honor in the maternity horror canon for one snatching shot in particular. However, Stevenson’s lust for carnage leads to indulgence, and being thin on character development makes the film’s emotional terror more frail than fraught. 

In the end,The First Omen offers generous splashes of gore, jump scared, and dread. So if you’re seeing something more spooky than scary, or more haunting than horrifying, this religious thriller will scratch that itch with a long, putrid claw.

The First Omen opens in theaters April 5.