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The First Omen Film Review: Disney’s Immaculate

Nell Tiger Free is dressed as a nun as Margaret in the film THE FIRST OMEN

The First Omen has a few technically impressive scenes, but a predictable screenplay and frequent cheap jumpscares hamper its momentum.

The Omen franchise has always dealt with the central question of the Antichrist, and its latest installment, The First Omen, continues in that regard. More specifically, the main films asked its audience to imagine a scenario where the Antichrist lived among us and was slowly gathering disciples to protect him and spread his message. Even wilder, the Antichrist was raised in a rich family with strong ties to the highest levels of government. In Richard Donner’s The Omen, the Antichrist himself, Damien Thorn (Harvey Spencer Stephens), is raised in a politically active family, and after his parents are brutally slain, he ends up with the President of the United States. The final shot sees him holding hands with the President at his parents’ funeral and looking at the camera, teasing a rather sinister future at play for U.S. politics.

In Graham Baker’s The Final Conflict, Damien (now played by Sam Neill) attempts to stop the birth of the Nazarene while also working directly with the President as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. In a world where the highest levels aren’t as trusted as they once were (some will argue they never were), the Damien Thorn trilogy has asked incredibly thoughtful questions, not just on faith and the (slow) rise of the Antichrist, but on how power and politics will corrupt us all. The last shot of that movie is the franchise at its most spiritually charged – with the figure of Christ appearing on top of Damien as he succumbs from his wounds, reincarnating as “the King of Kings, to rule in power and glory forever!” It’s a full-circle moment that shows us the anti-Christ will always be defeated, no matter the shape he takes because He is always watching. 

Attempts were made to resurrect the franchise in 1991 with Dominique Othenin-Girard and Jorge Montesi’s ridiculously forgettable Omen IV: The Awakening (seriously, every time I mention the fourth film’s existence, everyone goes, “wait, there was a fourth one??”) and in 2006 with an official remake of Donner’s The Omen from John Moore

Even if Moore’s body of work is daring and often produces some of the most thrilling images of 2000s genre cinema (yes, even Max Payne and A Good Day to Die Hard), the film was unfairly demolished by critics upon its release, even though it’s far and away superior to the fourth installment and does a great job at expanding upon the Bible’s relation to contemporary politics through the figure of David Thewlis’ Keith Jennings, who looks for a connection between scripture and Damien’s relationship with Richard (Liev Schreiber) and Kate (Julia Stiles), the President’s daughter. 

Sonia Braga as Silvia and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in the film The First Omen
(L-R): Sonia Braga as Silvia and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios’ The First Omen (Moris Puccio, © 2024 20th Century Studios)

While its latest installment, The First Omen, doesn’t concern itself with U.S. politics, it’s still bathed in a climate of social tension as massive student protests clamor for the separation between Church and state in Italy. That’s a decent basis for the film’s sociopolitcal context, which each Omen installment is embedded in. However, writer/director Arkasha Stevenson, alongside co-writers Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, do absolutely nothing of note with such a richly-layered context (Italy only became a secular state in 1984) and instead retread a poorly developed and incredibly predictable story that has already been treated this year in Michael Mohan’s Immaculate

If you’ve seen Immaculate, there’s not much to differ from Mohan’s film and Stevenson’s prequel to Donner’s The Omen, other than the egregious key jangling that only serves as a reminder that this film is set in the world of Donner’s film. Were it not for those moments, both films would be indistinguishable. Literally, it tells the story of an American Nun. Sister Margaret (Nell Tiger Free, of Game of Thrones) is sent to Italy to work at an orphanage (the substitute for the convent) and…things aren’t what they seem. If you’ve not seen Immaculate, don’t worry; there will be no spoilers here (and no spoilers for The First Omen either). However, you should know that the film delivers a dark version of the Immaculate Conception, where the Virgin Mary (in Immaculate, it’s Sydney Sweeney’s Sister Cecilia) becomes pregnant with the Nazarene without sin. 

Of course, the Antichrist in The Omen twists the Immaculate Conception, with a jackal being at the origin of Damien’s (sinful) birth. Nothing about Damien’s conception is immaculate, and the film goes back in time, where Margaret slowly uncovers the orphanage’s conspiracy to breed the Antichrist. Who or what that entails will be up to you to find out, but suffice it to say it’s not hard to figure out exactly where the movie’s going as soon as everything is laid out in front of us. There’s nothing more dull in the horror landscape than being able to see everything a mile away, especially when Stevenson (and cinematographer Aaron Morton, who, credit where credit is due, crafts an array of evocative images) gives clear visual hints as to where the story’s going. Not even Omen IV was this blatantly obvious about its visual cues, even if its story was largely predictable. 

This immediately sinks the momentum given by its few genuinely terrifying scenes, where the atmosphere slowly creeps up on you as Margaret discovers more about the orphanage and the individuals who populate it. These sequences, particularly one near the film’s end, feel inspiring enough to gain our interest. However, most of the film’s major setpieces are filled with endlessly dull jumpscares, which the entire franchise had avoided thus far. Even Moore’s The Omen had the tendency to set up jumpscares, but they were never fully realized. No, the franchise has always been much smarter than this. Instead of relying on ‘gotcha!’ moments, each director would slowly intensify the dread by pitting the characters in intense situations that would always result in someone’s demise in the most gloriously over-the-top way. 

Sure, it was kitschy, but it worked. That’s part of what made The Omen movies so appealing – Damien slowly sending everyone he’s around to their doom, and by the time they realize he’s the Antichrist, it’s too late. Beyond one moment that’s a direct but elevated callback to The Omen’s birthday party scene, The First Omen offers none of what made the franchise a household name in horror and would rather revert to the lowest, most unengaging form of scares possible. How many times have we seen squeaking doors, side characters who suddenly appear out of nowhere to make the protagonist ‘jump,’ and dark rooms with one person in the background that’s for sure going to go “BOO!”? What’s exhilarating about this other than slowly making your heart beat a bit faster? Once you know it’s coming, it’s hard to get impressed by the film’s insistence to think this is the best they have to offer when Stevenson crafts up some fairly gnarly sequences that are far scarier than the bulk of the film, especially during its latter half. 

The First Omen: Trailer (20th Century Studios)

These parts are also where Nell Tiger Free seems to give a damn about her turn as Sister Margaret but doesn’t seem to care about her character for the rest of the film. It’s not her fault: the lines she’s given (especially while she’s bonding with the most ostracized child of the orphanage) are so haphazardly written that even the most skillful performer wouldn’t be able to make them feel credible. Turns from veteran character actors Charles Dance, Bill Nighy and Ralph Ineson add some energy to the proceedings, but Ineson’s performance as Father Bennan unfortunately can’t live up to the manic energy Pete Postlethwaite brought to the character in John Moore’s remake. However, these additions also follow the franchise’s tradition of using character actors for supporting roles, which include David Warner, Lance Henriksen, Robert Foxworth, Rossano Brazzi, and Leo McKern and the ever-graceful Michael Gambon as Bugenhagen. 

Beyond a few impassioned supporting turns and some striking sequences, The First Omen completely ignores the sociopolitical context it consistently alludes to and eventually bathes in, with a sequence set in the middle of a large protest, and would rather bore audiences with artificially constructed jumpscares instead of elevating the richest material on-screen. 

There’s so much material that Stevenson could have worked with to make her prequel the most memorable installment of The Omen since The Final Conflict, but she deliberately chooses the easy and most unmemorable way out.

And while The Final Conflict wasn’t initially well-received, its storytelling and thematic risks have only made it age more gracefully. Its scripture ending is divisive, but at least it was interested in examining faith and its relationship to politics. On the other hand, The First Omen is too busy key-jangling to remind audiences that The Omen is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. They don’t need to remember this fact when the original film speaks for itself. Maybe it is time for this franchise to join the Nazarene in the Eternal Rest after all. 

The First Omen will be released globally in theaters on April 5, 2024.

Immaculate Review: Praise be to Sydney Sweeney – Loud And Clear
Immaculate has the suspense and gore, but an unforgettable lead performance by Sydney Sweeney truly makes it a riveting horror film.
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