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The First Omen

Star-studded, elegant prequel of 1976 classic pays tribute to several horror movies, but not without some clumsy twists and turns - in cinemas on Friday, April 5th

We all have to grapple with a broad selection of inner demons. In this prequel of horror classic The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), our protagonist Margaret (in a very energetic performance by Nell Tiger Free) is hellbent on helping fellow novice Carlita (Nicole Sorace) to purge the literal Antichrist, which is allegedly residing inside her. Margaret is convinced that the hapless young woman has been impregnated by the devil, and is expecting a half-human, half-demon child that will grow up to become the young Damian (of the original movie) and take over the world.

A cryptic death scene featuring Charles Dance in the film opening, devilish iconography and foreboding music make it abundant clear from the outset that this is a traditional horror movie unabashed of the all-familiar tropes. You wouldn’t expect otherwise from a story that precedes the horrifying demonic child world domination tale exquisitely told by Donner nearly half a century ago. This is a deserving prequel that remains mostly loyal to the aesthetics of the original, even if sometimes it overdoes the orgiastic CGI.

The action takes place in Rome during the year of 1971. The impeccable mise-en-scene, the computer antics and the vaguely washed-out colour palette give the impression that the film was indeed made five decades ago. Margaret arrives in an orphanage, presumably coming from the United States (given her accent, even if the film fails to provide any information about her origins). She is welcomed by the woman in charge, a menacing nun called Sister Silva (played by a wrinkly Sonia Braga, an often overlooked Brazilian super actress; pictured below), who works under the purview of the equally foreboding Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy). The environment is tense. The sisters torture the non-conforming girls physically and psychologically, with the existence of a “bad room” being of particular concern to our protagonist.

These developments take place against a backdrop of social unrest, three years after the 1968 Revolts that shook Italy, France and much of Europe. Students were still up in arms on the streets of the Italian capital. Cardinal Lawrence and Sister Silva want to Antichrist to reserve this political phenomenon and bring people back to church (the contradiction of using “evil” in order to restore “good” is briefly acknowledged).

The First Omen boasts countless twists and turns as Margaret seeks to fit in, while also caring for poor little Carlota, and ensuring that her actions do not raise any suspicions amongst her formidable superiors. A mysterious priest called Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), who Margaret shunned at first, helps her to put the puzzles pieces together. Creepy deaths take place, presumably because the Antichrist is around (inside Carlita’s womb). The first one is a repeat of the very first suicide in the 1976 classic, with an extra inflammatory flavour. The number of the beast (“666”) MacGuffin and demonic creatures of various sorts are also an integral part of the story, as in the rest of the franchise (in total, there are six films: the original, three sequels, one remake and now the prequel). In addition, first-time director Arkasha Stevenson seems to pay respects to at least two horror classics: one of the final scenes, after Margaret survives a car crash, mirrors Isabelle Adjani’s iconic subway performance in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), while a hallucinatory rape scene has Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) written all over it. These tributes are subtle and stylish.

With a duration of 120 minutes, The First Omen is mostly enjoyable to watch, with a few redundant elements hampering the narrative. Margaret befriends the rebellious Luz (Maria Caballero), and the two go out partying, in a subplot that never comes full circle. The movie boasts just too many red herrings. The surprise ending is too ambitious, and also a little awkward. In the final scenes, CGI is favoured at the expense of the performances. This is a satisfactory debut that would have benefitted from a little paring down. Less towering infernos and more facial expressions from hell. Less epic twists and more subtle turns. After all, the devil is in the detail.

The First Omen is in cinemas on Friday, April 5th.

By Victor Fraga - 09-04-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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