4 out of 5 stars

The sixth film in The Omen franchise, The First Omen, is a return to form for the patchy horror series. The debut feature from director Arkasha Stevenson (Channel Zero), it reveals the events that led to the demonic infant Damien entering the lives of US Ambassador Robert Thorn and his wife in Richard Donner’s 1976 horror classic.

Set in the early-1970s, a young American noviciate called Margaret (Servant’s Nell Tiger Free) arrives in Rome to live and work at a Catholic-run orphanage. She’s warmly greeted by her old mentor, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy, in a fleeting but memorable role), but eyed suspiciously by the other nuns. Rome is in turmoil, with student protests turning violent as they demonstrate against authoritarianism, and the Catholic Church losing its grip on Italy. Margaret, it seems, hasn’t chosen the most peaceful place to seek sanctuary and begin her journey to becoming a nun.

Margaret is pious and naïve, but she soon comes out of her shell when her flatmate Liz (Maria Caballero) whisks off her habit and replaces it with a sparkly dress and platform heels. The scenes of the pair in a nightclub feel like a fever dream of neon lighting and Boney M, effectively disorientating audiences before the true horror of the story can kick in. There’s always an undercurrent of tension, even in the most mundane scenes, like two women sharing shots.

Her role at the orphanage is to help with the children, but she forms a particularly strong bond with the troubled Carlita (Nicole Sorace). Margaret herself has a troubled past and has struggled with her mental health. This shared experience fosters a connection with young Carlita, whose dark drawings depict demons and otherworldly creatures.

Stevenson respects The Omen series but never dwells upon it. The disconcerting choral score and the death of a key secondary character echo The Omen, but The First Omen never tries to recreate the atmosphere of the 1976 film. The film does bring back Patrick Troughton’s Father Brennan (now played by The Northman’s Ralph Ineson), who didn’t survive Donner’s original film, as a priest investigating a plot to create demonic children within the Church.

Shot by cinematographer Aaron Morton, The First Omen looks stunning, seeking inspiration from the destabilizing Italian gialli. The opening scene between Ralph Ineson and Charles Dances, which leads to a cracked church windowpane, sets the tone for the movie early. While The Omen franchise is very much steeped in reality, this prequel plays around more with visions and mysticism, overlapping reality and dreams to the point the audience won’t know what is mental illness and what is a religious conspiracy.

The First Omen is light on blood splatter and violence for a modern horror film. Instead, it focuses more on building paranoia and atmosphere. Despite the lack of gore, the two birth scenes don’t shy away from their body horror. But much of the film relies on suggestion and score to create dread, rather than cheap jump scares and spilled guts.

Nell Tiger Free is simply magnificent. Her performance as Margaret captures the conflict between a virginal young woman who enters the orphanage and the toughened woman she becomes to survive the experience. There are moments where her performance echoes Isabelle Adjani’s performances in Possession (1981).

Maria Caballero is mesmerising as her tempting roommate. However, it’s never entirely clear why a woman with such a lust for life is choosing God over nights out at nightclubs with attractive boys. Nicole Sorace, in her feature film debut, tells Carlita’s story exclusively through her dark eyes, which are constantly peering cautiously from under her black hair. Sorace creates a nervous on-screen presence, unsure of herself and her surroundings throughout the film. Mia Goth lookalike Ishtar Currie Wilson, despite her smaller role as the troubled nun Angelica, also leaves a lasting impression with her manic smile and darting eyes.

The plot doesn’t deliver anything unexpected for the genre, nor anything not already explored in the recent Immaculate (2024). However, it does find a contemporary pro-choice angle that shines a light on the treatment of women and pregnancy within the Catholic Church, without ever feeling preachy. It also addresses the grip Catholicism had on Italy and how it struggled to maintain its hold in post-World War II Europe.

The film suffers from older characters who are overly wise, often explaining plot details. The writing shuns ambiguity, particularly in the climax. The need to link up the plot of The First Omen and its well-known sequel slightly compromises the film’s final act. The movie also doesn’t handle mental health topics with a particularly compassionate touch, exploiting the character’s possible schizophrenic visions for cheap scares.

The First Omen is so good that it doesn’t need to be connected to the other films in the franchise. The film does enough to stand on its own two feet until the final section, which clumsily shows a photograph of the late Gregory Peck. Co-writers Tim Smith and Keith Thomas have crafted something far more than just another legacy instalment banking on nostalgia.


frame rated divider - 20th century studios

Cast & Crew

director: Arkasha Stevenson.
writers: Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson & Keith Thomas (story by Ben Jacoby; based on characters created by David Seltzer).
starring: Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sônia Braga, Ralph Ineson & Bill Nighy.