Star Rating:

The First Omen

Director: Arkasha Stevenson

Actors: Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson, Sonia Braga

Release Date: Friday 5th April 2024

Genre(s): Horror

Running time: 119 minutes

Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free) arrives in Rome, welcomed by her guardian Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), in order to take her vows to become a nun and begin a life of service in a convent and religious school for young orphan girls. In the convent, Margaret meets Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace), a disturbed young woman who is one part of a conspiracy involving a secret sect of the Catholic Church that intends to bring about the birth of the Antichrist in order to turn humanity away from secularism...

The original 1976 movie, 'The Omen', was a box-office smash that came at a time of real malaise in the West and was firmly locked in with then-contemporary ideas. It was three years out from US President Jimmy Carter's famous speech about malaise in America, and how "an erosion of confidence in the future was threatening the social and political fabric" of that nation. Here in Ireland, the Troubles raged on with numerous murders and reprisal killings taking up the news between stories of high unemployment and mass emigration. In short, it was the perfect time to place a movie about the ensuing end of the world because people were in a bad enough place as it was.

'The First Omen' is set among this fertile ground for story and theme, coupled with the benefit of hindsight and modern audiences sensitive to all sorts of new ideas. Instead, there are oblique references to the Years of Lead, mass protests in Italy, but not much else. It's literally there for a single scene, and then completed ignored and never referenced again. More than that, what 'The First Omen' does is imagine a Catholic Church seemingly so aware of its own irrelevance in the world that it concocts a dizzying conspiracy in order to maintain its status. Sure, this is a cheap and gnarly exploitation horror movie that is not meant to be taken seriously, but there's something undeniably silly about it. For one, the Catholic Church was - in reality - already doing plenty of unspeakably evil things during the '70s in Italy, in Ireland, and around the world. Moreover, the Catholic Church's power and status was relatively unchallenged until the last thirty years, when the extent of their crimes was brought to light. Was it necessary to concoct a stupid plot about the Antichrist, just to make it fit grudgingly with the franchise it finds itself in?

Leave all that aside, 'The First Omen' just isn't a particularly thrilling or exciting horror movie to begin with. There are some gnarly, messed-up body horror moments, but they're so often kept in reserve and punctuated by cheap jumpscares meshed with dull atmospherics. Moreover, it feels as though director Arkasha Stevenson was more influenced by Andrzej Zulawski's disturbing 1981 Eurohorror classic, 'Possession' than anything even remotely related to 'The Omen' or its sequels. So much of it seems desperately trying to contort itself into a mystery when it all feels plainly obvious to anyone who's paying attention. While it does centre the story around female characters, it feels as though it has so little to say about them when compared to 'Immaculate', a recent horror movie involving a young nun wrapped up in a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and set in Italy.

It's a shame because Nell Tiger Free throws herself fully into the role, and gives a brutally visceral performance - particularly in the latter stages of the movie. Again, it would seem Isabelle Adjani's equally commited performance in 'Possession' was the touchstone for her and it works against the dramatic backdrop. The supporting cast, however, is decidedly less involved. Ralph Ineson, normally a welcome addition in any cast, grapples and falters with a ropey Irish accent while Bill Nighy seems as though he shot all of his scenes in a couple of days with no real zest for the character.

Ultimately, 'The First Omen' tries to force itself into the existing architecture of 'The Omen' and, in doing so, reminds us that some horrors are best left undisturbed as the comparison is always lesser than.