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The First Omen

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photographer: 20th Century Studios

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Eschewing gimmicky callbacks, this horror prequel is thoughtful and engaging – but still unsettling

Let’s be honest, not many of us had ‘Rome-set nunsploitation’ on our movie bingo cards for the piping hot genres of 2024. But hot on the habit of Sydney Sweeney’s hit Immaculate, The First Omen, a prequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 the-Antichrist-is-a-kid classic, sends another American nun on the run through effective scaremongering scenarios in another religious retreat in Italy.

It’s 1971 in the Eternal City. Servant’s Nell Tiger Free is Margaret Daino, a young sister-in-waiting, who is sent to work at an orphanage at the behest of kindly Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy, redefining avuncular). In a patient opening, Margaret learns the orphanage ropes, meeting the severe Abbess (Sonia Braga, channelling Billie Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock from the first film), going dancing with her worldly-wise roomie (Maria Caballero) and forming a bond with Carlita Skianna (Nicole Sorace), a problem kid at the orphanage who has been put in the ‘bad room’ for biting a sister and does a creepy AF line in charcoal drawings. 

Director and co-screenwriter Arkasha Stevenson opens the film in the Democratic Republic of Tired Horror Clichés, kicking off with a tolling bell in a misty graveyard. Happily, this isn’t a portent of things to come. Stevenson does a sterling job of running through the scary movie playbook, creating a hinterland between the real and the imagined. 

It’s horror hokum told with unswerving commitment

She gives us perfect jump scares, wince-worthy Cronenbergian terrors (be warned if you are expectant parents), a startling suicide (a riff on the original) and the surreal sight of slow-motion trampolining nuns smoking. She also centres the horror on a woman’s body without making it exploitative, always giving her female protagonist agency.

The story goes harder when Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), the Oirish priest played by Patrick Troughton in the original, turns up with the unenviable mandate of trying to prevent the birth of the Antichrist. Ineson might as well be playing Father Exposition. His main task is to deliver the Church conspiracy at the heart of the plot, a mad-as-a bag-of-snakes scheme which involves birthing Beelzebub as a way to send people back to religion in the face of the ‘60s/’70s counter culture. 

All roads, of course, lead to the birth of Damien. To Stevenson’s credit she makes the last act both believable and intense, full of fizzing imagery and choral fireworks. She has a strong ally in Free, who perfectly charts Margaret’s arc from blind believer to doubting warrior woman. A moment where she channels Isabelle Adjani’s spasmodic shaking in Possession is The First Omen in a nutshell: horror hokum told with unswerving commitment. 

In cinemas worldwide Friday April 5

Ian Freer
Written by
Ian Freer

Cast and crew

  • Director:Arkasha Stevenson
  • Screenwriter:Arkasha Stevenson, Keith Thomas, Tim Smith
  • Cast:
    • Nell Tiger Free
    • Sonia Braga
    • Ralph Ineson
    • Bill Nighy
    • Charles Dance
    • Nicole Sorace
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