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April 5, 2024 / 20th Century Studio

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

Directed By: Arkasha Stevenson

When a young American woman is sent to Rome to begin a life of service to the church, she encounters a darkness that causes her to question her own faith and uncovers a terrifying conspiracy that hopes to bring about the birth of evil incarnate.

Written Darren Zakus

Rating 4.5 out of 5

The First Omen unleashes an unholy whirlwind of satanic horror in what is destined to be one of the most terrifying films of the decade, marking both an outstanding feature directorial debut from Arkasha Stevenson and a terrific performance from Nell Tiger Free that earns her a spot in the horror history books.

When it comes to the horror genre, The Omen is considered a classic, and for very good reason. It was a grand 1970s studio horror film, tapping into the same vein of religious horror of The Exorcist, that combined with Jerry Goldsmith’s only Academy Award winning score and one of the creepiest children in horror movie history, instantly earned its spot in cinema’s history book. Since the original released in 1976, we have seen three sequels and one reboot, all of which were disappointing to say the least, and an interesting television adaptation that sadly ended too soon. The latest film in the franchise was released without much promotion, and one would fear with its distribution by a Disney controlled 20th Century Studios, that it would be another lacklustre entry in the series. But within minutes of The First Omen starting, it became evidently clear that it was going to be a good horror film, and by the time it finished, one that you are shocked Disney would allow to be released. What ensued was a vicious and mean spirited directorial debut from Arkasha Stevenson that never held back nor was unafraid to scare viewers to death, pushing the boundaries of its R rating to create what is destined to be one of the most shocking and unforgettable horror films of the decade.

Even without having seen the trailer for the film, once the audience sees the time setting of the film being Rome in 1971, if you’ve seen the original film, you know what this film is building towards. And while that would seem to tell you everything you need to know about The First Omen, you are so wrong. Writer Ben Jacoby slowly strings the audience along, lulling them into a sense of slight comfort with many nods to The Omen, before unleashing some major twists and turns in the film’s second half that smartly integrates the social context of Rome to his new vision for the series. With grizzly and gruesome moments, utterly horrifying occurrences that are more than enough to rattle even a seasoned horror fan, and one crazy and unholy final act, you are not ready for what Jacoby is about to unleash. Not only does he weaponize religion against viewers in a serious abuse of trust that makes the events of last month’s Immaculate starring Sydney Sweeney look like a horror film with training wheels on that barely prepares you for this madness of this one, the story and way it plays out is a callback to the big budget studio horror films of 1970s in the best way imaginable. Even as he slightly changes The Omen lore and Damien’s origins which may ruffle some feathers, that humorous final scene that poorly setups up a future storyline (not because the story direction it is bad, but because it feels like a Marvel film post credit scene), and with one twist being fairly obvious, they never for a second distract from the nerve wracking, panic inducing ride that The First Omen becomes from the second Jacoby sets his twisted vision into motion.

Horror often allows directors to make a killer debut, and that barely scratches the surface of what Stevenson does with her feature directorial debut here. From the second the film begins, Stevenson conjures up an unsettling atmosphere to her film, from grand sweeping shots of Rome, shadow filled cinematography that constantly teases something just out of the audience’s vision to really get their hearts racing, and a keen eye for twisting religious practices into something unholy. While the nuns of the orphanage seem harmless at first, as Nell Tiger Free’s Margaret discovers the dark secret they are hiding, Stevenson shifts the tone of the imagery. Instead of concerned looking nuns, the camera makes them appear to be watching both Margaret and the audience with a malicious intent, and the sequence where Sister Luz is taking her vows becomes an unhinged moment of pure evil as the vow ceremony is portrayed to be something truly unholy. Beyond that, some of the shots she captures in this film are instantly burnt into your memory, creating unforgettable moments of absolute panic that will stay with you for a very long time. And instead of relying on jump scares, Stevenson uses the atmosphere of the film she has developed so you are sitting on pins and needles, ensuring every moment intended to scare you will send you flying out of your seat! It’s a strong direction, down to the small details such as the flowing design of the nun’s costumes that seems to make them float silently down the hallways of the orphanage, intense sound design that captures every sound of horror, the lack of CGI and impressive use of practical visual effects and prosthetics to create the horrors that Margaret encounters during the film, and a impactful musical score from Mark Korven that consistently nods back to Goldsmith’s iconic themes in the original film. Needless to say, horror fans should be closely watching Stevenson’s career going forward, as if The First Omen is any indication, she will be terrifying audiences for years to come.

Though, the most impressive part of The First Omen is the sensational lead performance of Free. If you have seen AppleTV+’s Servant, you know how talented Free is as an actress and her ability to instill a sense of dread and fear without uttering a word in a single shot, but she takes it to the next level in The First Omen. When we first meet Free as Margaret, there is a warmth, love and amazement to her performance that captures this young nun, excited to take her vows and devote her life to the church. As the story develops, Free adds unsettling moments to the film, teasing moments of demonic possession, total bewilderment and unhinged body horror that will take your breath away and make your eyes bulge out of their sockets. And by the time you enter the third act, Free is on a whole other level that should rightfully gain her major awards consideration for her performance as she is fierce, tenacious, fearless and absolutely dazzling in the almost unwatchable madness that unfolds on screen. And all that is before even considering THAT scene in which Free writes herself into the horror history books! But sadly, as horror often gets overlooked when it comes to awards, Free’s performance will join the legendary ranks of actors like Toni Collete in Hereditary, Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Jack Nicholson in The Shining. And while the supporting cast features some heavy hitters including Bill Nighy, Ralph Ineson, Charles Dance, and Sônia Braga who are all excellent, and one deeply unsettling performance from Maria Caballero as Luz, none of them come close to stealing the spotlight from Free who owns this film from start to finish.

As a horror fan, it is rare that a film rattles me to my core that I am left hyperventilating throughout, occasionally screaming and walking out of the cinema shocked and constantly looking over my shoulder at midnight. Not only did The First Omen do all that, it scared me in a way that very few horror movies have ever managed to do, delivering not only the best film in The Omen franchise since the first film, but the rare film in a series that manages to eclipse the original. Conjuring up an unholy experience from start to finish with gruesome and unforgettable imagery, an unsettling atmosphere thanks to the impeccable direction of Arkasha Stevenson and one of the year’s best performances so far from Nell Tiger Free, audiences are not ready for the terror that is about to be unleashed in The First Omen which rightfully earns its title as my favourite film in The Omen franchise.

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