‘The First Omen’ Review: This Horror Prequel Suffers From an Extreme and Tedious Story

Nell Tiger Free stars in a grotesque yet uninteresting film about the birth of Damien Thorn

"The First Omen"
"The First Omen" (Credit: 20th Century)

Richard Donner’s “The Omen” began when Robert Thorn, played by Gregory Peck, replaced his wife’s dead baby with the literal son of the devil. But did you ever wonder how that baby was born in the first place? The producers of “The First Omen” are hoping the answer is yes and they’re hoping your standards aren’t high.

Let’s be frank: “The Omen” movies, love them or hate them, have never been subtle or classy. They’re known for Jerry Goldsmith’s throbbing choral score and their gory supernatural death scenes, which laid a Satanic foundation for the non-denominational “Final Destination” series decades later. Gregory Peck didn’t bring respectability to “The Omen;” “The Omen” took it from him. And the only reason we don’t say the same thing about William Holden in “Damien: Omen II” is because nobody seems to care very much about “Damien: Omen II” except for Meshach Taylor’s epic elevator death.

Director and co-writer Arkasha Stevenson’s prequel, “The First Omen,” is frustrating in the way many prequels are frustrating. The events of the original four films — the remake doesn’t seem to count — are sacrosanct and cannot be altered. So most of “The First Omen” is just about getting us where we know the plot has to go.

Stevenson seems painfully aware of how boring this path is, so she spruces “The First Omen” up with absurd goriness and a handful of revelations (all puns intended) that don’t add up to much because they can’t add up to much. The new movie’s twists can only exist if they don’t contradict the previous films, so only a few surprises are even possible and those surprises can only happen in unsurprising ways.

“The First Omen” begins with Margaret (Nell Tiger Free, “Game of Thrones”), an American who moves to Rome to become a nun. She’s living at a creepy orphanage full of creepy people, like a little girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who is kept separate from the other girls and draws creepy pictures. Another nun, who looks creepy, proceeds to act creepy and then creepily copies one of the creepier deaths in the original series, except now it’s completely on fire, which makes it less creepy and borderline ridiculous.

A rogue priest named Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson, “The Green Knight”) asks for Margaret’s help uncovering a sinister conspiracy inside the church. Believe it or not, the birth of the Antichrist might be involved. So Margaret starts poking around and eventually some very, very gross things happen.

It’s not surprising that a film about giving birth to the Antichrist in a nunnery has some hangups about pregnancy and, in particular, the Catholic church’s stance on abortion. In case you haven’t heard, they’re against it. Arkasha Stevenson’s “The First Omen” isn’t afraid to argue that having an abortion can be a good thing, but then again, it only says this in the context of the apocalypse getting involved.

And again, “The First Omen” is a prequel about how the Antichrist was born, so although the theme of abortion is an interesting direction for this movie to go, it doesn’t seem to have been allowed to get very far and that undermines most of what the movie has to say about the topic.

Then again, the “Omen” movies have never had particularly much to say, except that the apocalypse would probably be bad and should be avoided. These films have historically used religion and fanaticism as a backdrop for shocking kills, thematic depth be damned. Stevenson’s film has a much greater investment in its gore than in its characters and story, and when the movie gets grotesque it is, if nothing else, memorable.

It’s easy to imagine this film finding a cult audience, if only for its bizarre violent imagery and one scene in particular, where Nell Tiger Free gets to be completely emotionally and physically unhinged. But despite a few superficial overtures and ham-fisted twists — which are practically pre-ordained, given the prequel’s few narrative options — it has little to offer beyond that extreme mayhem, and even that’s mostly backloaded into the third act.

If you’re looking for gross nun pregnancy stuff you seem to have a lot of options lately. “The First Omen” is one of them. It’s a tired entry in a franchise that’s been tired for about 40 years, but Nell Tiger Free does her weird job well and Arkasha Stevenson proves she can turn brutality into artsiness and, with a more interesting story, probably into fascinating art.

“The First Omen,” for all its many flaws, could turn out to be an effective prelude for the careers of Free and Stevenson, but it’s an underwhelming prelude to “The Omen.”

“The First Omen” hits theaters April 5.

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