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Review: THE FIRST OMEN Unleashes Fire and Brimstone

A poster for THE FIRST OMEN that is black and red showing a person standing in a doorway with a cross shadow ahead of her
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

By Shannon McGrew

In 2024, nunsploitation is experiencing a resurgence, marked by the release of Michael Mohan's Immaculate and Arkasha Stevenson's THE FIRST OMEN. Nuns are making a fiery comeback, confronting the power and influence of the Church with fire and brimstone. In THE FIRST OMEN, director Stevenson undertakes the daunting task of bringing the origin of evil incarnate to life, navigating the weighty responsibility and pressure that comes with it.

To keep spoilers to a minimum, I'll turn to the official synopsis: When a young American woman, Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), is sent to Rome to begin a life of service to the church, she encounters darkness that causes her to question her own faith and uncovers a terrifying conspiracy that hopes to bring about the birth of evil incarnate.

As a prequel to one of the most iconic horror films, The Omen, writer/director Arkasha Stevenson, along with co-writers Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, has done an impressive job of crafting this film to stand uniquely on its own while also paying homage to the original without resorting to shoehorning. While featuring enjoyable jump scares, the true horror stems from Margaret's circumstances and the ordeals faced by these women under the thumb of religious patriarchy. It even goes so far as to show how women are just as responsible for upholding patriarchy.

The film's location in Rome lends it a rich, lived-in ambiance. Complementing this is a grainy visual aesthetic reminiscent of the 1970s style of filmmaking. The juxtaposition of the stunning countryside scenery with the harrowing events within the Church creates a powerful image of false hope. This contrast is vividly depicted in a scene where the nuns and orphans visit a museum, only to find themselves evacuating shortly after amidst riots outside - an echo of the turmoil reminiscent of that time period in Italy.

Actor Nell Tiger Free breathes life into Margaret. Best recognized for her portrayal as Leanne Grayson in M. Night Shyamalan's "Servant," where she also confronts religious oppression, Free emerges as the ideal casting choice for this role. She delivers a remarkable performance, skillfully conveying Margaret's journey to the audience, culminating in a climactic moment filled with unbridled frenzy and chaos that stands out as one of my favorite performances of the year. Additionally, Stevenson looks into Margaret's transformation through abstract imagery of spiders to represent her breaking free from her chains.

A woman stands in a grand room surrounded by candles
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The cast also features an ensemble of well-known actors and newcomers, including Ralph Ineson, who portrays Father Brennan, a harbinger of doom for Margaret whose significance escalates at the 11th hour; Nicole Sorace gives us a memorable performance as Carlita, skillfully capturing both the innocence and fury of her experience; Sonia Brager as Sister Silva will send a chill down your spine; Maria Caballero surprises as Luz, a new nun who befriends Margaret and delivers one of the film's more unexpected moments. Additionally, Bill Nighy effortlessly exudes a snakish charm in his portrayal of Cardinal Lawrence.

Beneath the surface scares, the true horror of the film revolves around the Church's treatment, particularly towards women, and their exploitation for their own agendas. Set in a time when people were increasingly distancing themselves from the Church, the narrative underscores the desperate measures taken to regain their trust, even if it means resorting to something far more sinister. The film portrays a chilling commentary on the manipulation and coercion employed by institutions of power to maintain their influence, especially during times of societal upheaval.

One of the most memorable moments from the film, which is a direct homage to the original movie, takes place during a beautiful, sunny afternoon. Stevenson skillfully creates a space brimming with warmth and happiness as children frolic around and the nuns stand by, enjoying themselves. However, this idyllic scene lures you in with false pretense, only to abruptly shatter it, leaving the audience shocked, broken, and bruised. Nevertheless, several scenes are bound to shock movie-goers and leave them thoroughly unsettled. If you found watching the birth of a child difficult, brace yourself for what's to come.

THE FIRST OMEN gives us a compelling glimpse into the events leading up to the birth of Satan's child, Damien. However, one aspect I believe could have been improved on is the ending. Without revealing spoilers, the film would have been more impactful had it ended after a climactic moment reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky's controversial film, Mother. By prolonging the narrative, it somewhat diminished what had just come before. While the ending does tie directly into the 1976 film, it felt like a forced studio decision rather than a creative choice by the filmmaker.

THE FIRST OMEN is gnarly, vicious, and unforgiving. Director Arkasha Stevenson has created an unconventional nightmare that will push viewers to their limit while showcasing women's power and unwavering strength.

THE FIRST OMEN arrives in theaters April 5, 2024.


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