The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE FIRST OMEN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE FIRST OMEN

The First Omen review
A young American nun uncovers a Satanic conspiracy in Rome.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Arkasha Stevenson

Starring: Nell Tiger Free, Bill Nighy, Tawfeek Barhom, Sonia Braga, Ralph Ineson

The First Omen poster

With Creed, the excellent reignition of the Rocky franchise, director Ryan Coogler and composer Ludwig Goransson made the wise choice to withhold Bill Conti's iconic Rocky theme until a pivotal moment in the climactic fight. For fans of the series it was an emotional moment that had them up off their seats, pumping their fists in the air. For their Omen prequel, The First Omen, director Arkasha Stevenson and composer Mark Korben similarly hold back on dropping Jerry Goldsmith's blood-curdling 'Ave Satani" until the climax. In this case however your reaction will probably be "Oh yeah, I forgot this was an Omen movie."

At some point in the last few years somebody pitched an Omen movie without Damien and rather than being laughed out of a Hollywood exec's office, they had a cheque for $30 million written. Prior to The First Omen, the worst entry in the series was the made for TV Omen IV: The Awakening, which didn't have Damien but did at least have an evil child substitute. Making an Omen movie without an evil nipper is like making an Exorcist movie without a possession. The 1976 movie was as much inspired by The Bad Seed as The Exorcist, something this prequel doesn't seem to understand. The crux of its appeal was seeing the Antichrist represented as a toddler. It's why the subsequent two sequels, while decent horror movies in their own right, just didn't have the same impact: a teenage and twentysomething Antichrist just aren't as creepy as a demonic rugrat.

The First Omen review

We don't get a Damien of any age here, as the movie takes place in 1971 and leads up to the birth of the Antichrist. Much like how JJ Abrams admitted he didn't want to make a Star Trek movie and so did his best to make a Star Wars movie in that franchise, it seems a lot like Stevenson wants to make several different horror movies here, none of which is an Omen movie. Without the presence of Damien, it's indistinguishable from the slew of recent Catholic horror movies, and might as well take place in the universe of The Pope's Exorcist, Deliver Us or Immaculate.

It shares more than a few elements with that recent Sydney Sweeney vehicle (I'm not accusing anyone of peeping over someone else's shoulder, although Immaculate's script has been knocking around Hollywood for over a decade!). Both movies have essentially the same setup: a young American novitiate nun is invited to take her vows at an Italian convent dedicated to caring for the sick, where she uncovers a conspiracy involving the birth of a child that will change the world. As with Immaculate, The First Omen features its own riff on Isabel Adjani's infamous miscarriage scene in Zulawski's Possession.

The First Omen review

Here the naive nun is Margaret (a gamey Nell Tiger Free), who is called to Rome at the behest of Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), who once ran the orphanage in which she grew up. She finds a rather relaxed convent where the nuns puff away on cigarettes and openly talk about their pre-vows desires for men. The children in their care seem a happy lot, all except for teenager Carlita (Nicole Sorace), who likes to draw creepy sketches and is often sent to "the bad room" for misbehaving. Margaret befriends Carlita, along with her roommate Luz (Maria Caballero), who is essentially the same rebellious nun played by Benedetta Porcaroli in Immaculate. Margaret is convinced by Luz to accompany her on a night of clubbing, during which they somehow dance to songs that wouldn't be released until at least half a decade after the film's 1971 setting. A drunken Margaret hooks up with a local lad and wakes up with a raging hangover and no recollection of what occurred the night before.

Margaret doesn't so much uncover a conspiracy as have it dropped in her lap. The movie is structured as a mystery concerning which young woman has been chosen to carry the Antichrist to term. There are three candidates but the twist is given away in the opening scene for anyone paying attention, so it has zero impact when it's eventually revealed (even if it wasn't revealed so early, it couldn't be more obvious). Margaret's "investigation" largely consists of her being told the plot by supporting characters. Ralph Ineson plays a priest with a dodgy Irish accent (I think his name is Father O'Men) who approaches Margaret at one point and tells her "I'll be explaining the plot to the audience tonight; come along if you want to keep up." The 1976 film drew heavily on the biblical Book of Revelations; this one is more indebted to the Book of Exposition.

The First Omen review

Whoever was responsible for the excellent backwards playing teaser trailer deserves a special award as they made this film look like some lost 1970s Italian horror, whereas the movie itself has all the bland competence of a modern American TV show. I wasn't expecting much from this if I'm honest, but that trailer made me hopeful that at best it might be deliriously bonkers in the manner of John Boorman's Exorcist II, the most Italian horror movie not made by an Italian.

Despite its setting, The First Omen shares nothing in common with 1970s Italian horror, unless you count some improbably sexy nuns. It takes most of its cues from Final Destination, but that wildly entertaining series is famously in on the joke whereas this is played with a very straight face. Ironically, my screening erupted in unintentional laughter at one hilariously misjudged gory set-piece that nods at David Warner's memorable demise in the 1976 film. Had the movie given us more ineptitude of this nature it would have been a lot more enjoyable than the plot-heavy slog we're left to endure for two hours. In the pantheon of pointless prequels, The First Omen might be the most redundant of them all.

The First Omen is in UK/ROI cinemas from April 5th.

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