'The First Omen' Is a Blessing for Religious Horror

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson

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

Photo: Moris Puccio

BY Josh KorngutPublished Apr 9, 2024


Several religious horror films have recently made an unholy splash at the box office. Indie releases Immaculate and Late Night with the Devil were both surprise hits that raked in unprecedented gains in the name of the good Lord this past month alone. And lest we forget The Nun II, the commercially successful follow-up to the wildly popular The Nun possessed audiences just last September.

All three of these titles may have energized the economy, but they failed to infuse an age-old subgenre with anything new or exciting. Now, from the shadows emerges The First Omen, a prequel to one of the most recognizable religious horror franchises ever produced.

Thankfully, this instalment arrives with a unique perspective and a fresh take on well-worn tropes. From its surprisingly mature visual styling to its exciting lead performance, this ungodly horror movie will satisfy demonic curiosities. While it's not perfect, it's leaps and bounds ahead of its peers, offering a unique experience that will leave audiences wanting more. 

With a nearly identical setup to Immaculate, The First Omen follows the journey of Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), a young American woman who moves to Italy to work at an orphanage before taking the veil and becoming a nun. At first, her new home is picturesque and inviting, but it doesn't take long before sinister glances and strange occurrences emerge. As the story unfolds, the shadowy and systematic workings of a malicious, power-hungry and corrupt religious cabal are revealed.

Dappling into the landscape of a long-running franchise, especially one as well known as The Omen, there are big expectations to meet. Take last year's much maligned Excorcist: Believer from filmmaker David Gordon Green, who felt emboldened enough to resurrect the Exorcist franchise. Almost en masse, audiences turned on the Blumhouse reimagining of this treasured property, and a planned trilogy with Green at the helm seems to have since crumbled down to the pits of hell. 

In the long shadow of this recent failure, director Arkasha Stevenson, in her directorial debut, thankfully delivers a solid and exciting work of classical horror that authentically evokes its source material's energy while crafting something new, scary and exciting. While the filmmaking can occasionally take itself too seriously, clearly all involved know how precious this series is to fans. 

The First Omen is a blessing partly due to the human story at its core: Margaret feels real and alive and she's worth rooting for, warts and all. Nell Tiger Free, known for her breakaway leading roles on Apple's daring M. Night Shyamalan series Servant or HBO's Game of Thrones, delivers a quiet, brooding strength that's hard to recognize in the first act of the film but impossible to overlook by its blazing finale. Her phenomenal performance, filled with excitement and intensity, elevates The First Omen from fun and forgettable fare to must-see horror, leaving me in anticipation for her future projects.

Stevenson, best known for directing the third season of the criminally underrated horror anthology series Channel Zero, showcases her deep understanding and affection for the genre with The First Omen. Following the familiar journey of a woman confronting good and evil, like every other film mentioned above, The First Omen is the only production with the forethought to actually hire a woman to write and direct. I'm not sure if that's a coincidence, but it's also the only film from this discussion to be a creative success.

(20th Century Studios)

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