The First Omen (2024)

APRIL 10, 2024


In general, prequels rarely interest me. This goes double for horror, as the very nature of a prequel means filling in backstory, something few horror films/franchises benefit from. Even if I more or less like the movie, like TCM: The Beginning, the "prequelness" tends to drag the experience down (in that particular case: did I really need to know how Monty lost his legs?). So it's rather surprising that The First Omen works as well as it does, because not only is it telling the story of how Damien came to be conceived and thus keeping the series' marquee character out of it entirely, but it also kind of messes with established canon on top of it, which means it kind of fails at the one thing a prequel is supposed to do.

It's also surprising that it works considering it's essentially the same movie as Immaculate, and unlike other twin movies over the years (Volcano and Dante's Peak, Armageddon and Deep Impact, etc) I don't think it's just coincidence. As anyone who has listened to Immaculate's production history can attest, the script for the film has been around for years (Sidney Sweeney auditioned for an earlier incarnation that never got before cameras; when her star rose she remembered it and used her newfound clout to get it made) and thus very easily could have passed through the offices of the producers who made this movie. Not only does it have a generally similar plot (a very young American nun goes to a creepy religious group home in Italy and is impregnated with something unnatural), but a few scenes in this film are almost identical to ones we just saw in Immaculate (a nun's suicide in the courtyard of the building where the movie takes place, the heroine's roommate teasing her for being so conservative, etc.). It's enough to warrant looking into!

It also feels somewhat retrofitted into an Omen movie. The opening scene has a classic gory death like the older films offered, but this scene was added later after test screenings. And it also doesn't quite match up to what we learned of Damien's creation in the original movie, as if they skimmed a Wiki entry and fudged the details (I considered at first that they were actually just doing a reimagining from the ground up, but a picture of Gregory Peck as Damien's dad-in-waiting suggests it's meant to tie directly into Richard Donner's version of events). To be fair, I don't have any great affinity for the franchise; I don't think I've seen any of them except the original more than once, and even my rewatch of the OG was just to refresh for the one time I watched part 2. So I'm not gonna get all huffy about this or that change, just noting that it's kind of weird (and mildly suspicious) that it's so similar to an unrelated film already and then they bungle the things that could have set it further apart.

All that aside, it's another solid entry in the growing subgenre of body horror involving pregnancy, which smarter writers than me have already pointed out is probably the direct result of a government that seems so hellbent on rolling back certain medical rights of pregnant women. Our heroine Sr. Margaret (Nell Tiger Free, far more appealing and sympathetic than the actual Sr. Margaret I had in Catholic School, who was one of the absolute worst) comes to this Italian orphanage from America and almost instantly finds a kindred soul in Carlita, a young girl who is often isolated from the others there due to her sometimes disturbing behavior. As she digs deeper into Carlita's background, she also meets Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson in a rare non-villain role), the priest played by Patrick Troughton in the original movie. He suggests Carlita's behavior may be due to how she was born, and also that she may be targeted as the mother for the Antichrist.

More twists follow from there, so no sense getting into them (though if you think a major studio movie is going to let a 12 year old girl be the mother of a child, seek help and/or see more movies) except to say that the movie mostly works despite working toward a very obvious ending: the birth of Damien Thorn. The film's 1971 setting makes it very clear to those who remember the 1976 original that he will be born soon, though someone (my money is on producer David S. Goyer) felt we needed a moment where a character comes right out and says "They named the baby... Damien!" for audience members who hadn't made the connection yet, so maybe doing the "1971 plus five years" math IS indeed asking a lot of them.

But director Arkasha Stevenson (who also co-wrote) knows no one will wait until the end of the film for something scary to happen, so she gives us a few scares and deaths along the way; basically anyone trying to help Margaret discover the truth meets with a grisly end. One such death made me laugh out loud though, as the person is trapped by a crashed car at the waist and when someone tries to help them, they inadvertently rip the poor sod in half. And there's a little tribute to the "It's all for you" moment that adds a little fluorish (read: it's even more disturbing), so that was nice. Oh, there's also a Possession homage that comes at the tail end of Free performing an incredibly impressive/upsetting bit of physical acting, adding another highlight for those among us who know our horror of old.

Free is the highlight of what's already an impressive cast, including a trifecta of "Old UK guys who can make anything sound good" actors: Ineson, Charles Dance, and Bill Nighy. Dance is basically just a cameo (he's in that aforementioned tacked on opening), but Ineson and Nighy both get decently sized roles, offering some silly dialogue that still sounds good when it's coming out of their mouths (though the stupid "Damien" line is Ineson's, which puts that theory to its breaking point). It was also great to see Sonia Braga, as the head nun at the orphanage who may or may not be in on the Antichrist plans. Part of the fun of these movies, for me anyway, is that I believe anyone who wants to devote their life to the church must be unhinged and potentially evil, so when some kind of goofy villain plot is introduced, it's a joy to try to figure out which ones are part of it and which ones are just terrible in general.

Die hard aficionados of the franchise might be too annoyed by the minor changes to give the film a chance, and it's unfortunate that it's coming along so close after such a similar film (one that's a half hour shorter I might add!), but the tone here is pure horror, whereas Immaculate went for something a little more deranged/fun. I actually felt bad for laughing at that one part, as it was obviously not a film designed to get the crowd hooting and hollering (I just have a sick sense of humor!) and my outburst was not shared by anyone else in the room. But the point is, there's room for both right now, and we should consider ourselves lucky as genre fans to have two films in a not particularly common sub-genre in theaters at the same time. That they're both quite good and worth your time? That's some lottery level small odds.

What say you?


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