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The First Omen review: A theoretically unnecessary prequel that is vicious, elegant and oddly beautiful

The First Omen review: A theoretically unnecessary prequel that is vicious, elegant and oddly beautiful

It’s a little unfortunate that two films have been released almost back-to-back in which a young American woman arrives in Italy to take up the veil, only to be haunted by malignant visions and whispers of an unnatural pregnancy. Immaculate, fronted by Sydney Sweeney, set its scene well, but felt thin in its engagement with ideas of bodily autonomy and religious hypocrisy.

Surprisingly, it’s The First Omen, a theoretically unnecessary prequel to Richard Donner’s 1979 classic, that’s served up the full communion here. It’s a statement debut from director Arkasha Stevenson, and a vicious, blood-slicked, coiled-up, oddly beautiful expulsion of horror, rooted in a distinctly Catholic expression of sexual turmoil.

Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) has been invited to take her final vows in Italy by her mentor Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy, made all the more sinister by the fact every line is delivered in that twinkly-eyed, mischievous Bill Nighy way). What Margaret discovers is an institution committed to cooking up the Antichrist.

The First Omen is really only held back by the fact it’s been ordained as a prequel. It’s set in 1971, and is forced to retcon a crucial revelation from the original film in order to rewrite the circumstances of the Antichrist aka Damien’s birth. Several key moments are recreated (so that we’re offered a repeated cry of, “It’s all for you!”), while the film brings back Father Brennan, the man who originally chased down Gregory Peck’s Richard, Damien’s father, to tell him his beloved boy is actually evil incarnate. He’s played here by Ralph Ineson, whose presence is a real reassurance. The actor’s earth-shaking timbre feels as suited to this genre as “Tubular Bells”.

But Stevenson and her co-writers Tim Smith and Keith Thomas have actually considered more deeply how their film links back to Donner’s work, both aesthetically and thematically. It’s richly lensed by cinematographer Aaron Morton, so that it’s a rare modern franchise extension that looks like it could actually take place in the same universe as the original – it’s merely traded fog-choked London for sunnier skies. There are no cheap scares here. Stevenson leans either into outright body horror or the shadowy power of suggestion.

The Omen was, at heart, about the violent intrusion of faith into secular life, released in an era where it had become clear how much the church had begun to lose its stranglehold on Western society. Peck’s character wasn’t a believer, and its settings were largely mundane – a garden party or a safari park. The First Omen, with its repeated references to student protests as a rejection of institutional authority, tackles the same ideas from the Catholic perspective. It’s about the church’s last ploy for control, as told from within the highly ritualised corridors of power.

Behind you!: Sonia Braga and Nell Tiger Free in ‘The First Omen’ (Moris Puccio)
Behind you!: Sonia Braga and Nell Tiger Free in ‘The First Omen’ (Moris Puccio)

It’s elegant, too, in its references. A Medusa-head doorknob aligns with the shots of Margaret in bed, her hair splayed out like the gorgon’s snakes – a reminder of a famous woman from myth who was punished for another’s abuse of her body. Free’s committed performance reaches its peak when she enacts her own version of Isabelle Adjani’s feral, thrashing frenzy in a Berlin subway in 1981’s Possession.

The film is also bold and clear cut about the way women’s bodies are made into objects of both reverence and shame – but its pièce de résistance is the shot of a vagina during birth, an entirely natural part of human existence that, in America, caused such a fuss that The First Omen was nearly slapped with an extreme NC-17 certificate. What a way to prove this film’s point.

Dir: Arkasha Stevenson. Starring: Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sônia Braga, Ralph Ineson, Bill Nighy. 15, 119 minutes.

‘The First Omen’ is in cinemas from 5 April