Monday, April 15, 2024

“THE FIRST OMEN”

THE STORY – A woman starts to question her own faith when she uncovers a terrifying conspiracy to bring about the birth of evil incarnate in Rome.

THE CAST – Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sônia Braga, Ralph Ineson, Bill Nighy, Maria Caballero, Nicole Sorace & Charles Dance

THE TEAM – Arkasha Stevenson (Director/Writer), Tim Smith & Keith Thomas (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes


Woe to the non-believer! The devil is everywhere, and he comes for you when you least expect it…although modern moviegoers may be pretty accustomed to encounters with the Prince of Darkness if the recent crop of horror films is any indication. 2023 brought us “The Pope’s Exorcist,” “The Nun II,” and “The Exorcist: Believer,” and religious-based horror hasn’t slowed down in 2024. Right now, you can buy a ticket to “Late Night with the Devil,” “Immaculate,” and the newest Satanic piece of cinema – “The First Omen.” And thank God, it’s the best of the devilish bunch. “The First Omen” is well-directed and exceptionally crafted, with enough unsettling imagery and creepy vibes to make it a worthy successor to the legendary 1976 original.

This prequel to “The Omen” is set in Rome in 1971 (horror fans will note the significance of this film taking place five years before the original). Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is a young novitiate on the verge of taking her vows. She’s sent from her Massachusetts home to a church-run orphanage in Rome led by Sister Silva (Sônia Braga). There, she’s put to work as a teacher to the girls who call the convent home. One of the older girls, Carlita (Nicole Sorace), is considered a problem child by the nuns, who constantly lock her up in “the bad room” as punishment for her violent outbursts. But Margaret takes pity on her and even begins to suspect that more sinister church members may be conspiring to harm Carlita. Margaret takes it upon herself to save Carlita and uncover the fiendish plot the church is covering up.

Incredibly, this is director Arkasha Stevenson’s feature film debut. From the dread-filled opening to the hellish finale, she has such an obvious grasp of tone, confidently guiding the audience in a way that makes her intentions from scene to scene clear and straightforward. The film is stuffed full of beautiful compositions; even the more upsetting images are captured in a way that’s impressive to look at. Stevenson’s vision is aided by Aaron Morton’s outstanding cinematography, which makes particularly effective use of lighting. One scene of Margaret walking down a darkened Roman alley, only visible in silhouette, is gorgeous. Another instance frames Margaret and Carlita on a museum bench, illuminated by a circle of sunlight in a way that calls to mind classic religious artwork. In a time when so many new films – horror or otherwise – simply plunge scenes in darkness to set the mood, “The First Omen’s” carefully constructed visuals are refreshing. Even the costumes are spectacular. Being set in the world of nuns, it would be easy and even excusable for the outfits to be drab and uniform. However, there is surprising excess in the apparel of the higher-up nuns that could even be seen as thematically relevant, given how the film comments on the excesses and hypocrisies of the church. Sister Silva’s costume is stunning, cloaking Braga in ornate layers with eye-catching pleating and other details.

In fact, the film is so focused on being a visual feast that the plot sometimes feels like it’s playing catch-up to what we’re being shown. Some of the specifics of the evil plan being uncovered lack clarity, leading to a strangely rushed conclusion compared to the carefully curated film that came before it. Still, there are enough tension-soaked moments and harrowing images to make up for it. And the story makes clever use of the period setting. Set in the 1970s, one of modern history’s most permissibly secular eras, the film shows the church turning to drastic measures to obtain and retain followers.

Like her director, this is lead actress Nell Tiger Free’s first significant venture on the big screen. She carries the film with all the authority of a seasoned performer, serving as a sympathetic yet powerful audience surrogate. One scene of hers even calls to mind Isabelle Adjani’s legendary performance in “Possession.” After seeing “The First Omen,” audiences will remember Free’s name. Braga is on hand as the requisite veteran typically found in most horror movies, and she’s a welcome addition to every scene she’s in. She’s both compassionate and terrifying in equal measure.

To the filmgoers who’ve been waiting for a horror franchise reboot that doesn’t feel like a cheap cash grab, your prayers have been answered. Arkasha Stevenson has made an impressive first feature with “The First Omen,” which manages to be both frighteningly beautiful and beautifully frightening.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Director Arkasha Stevenson's film debut is a beautiful, dread-soaked experience. Gorgeous cinematography, a chilling tone, and an extremely committed lead performance from Nell Tiger Free make this a must-see for horror fans.

THE BAD - The plot feels subservient to the impressive visuals, and some of the specifics of the villainous plan are unclear. The film's conclusion is disappointingly rushed.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Cody Dericks
Cody Dericks
Actor, awards & musical theatre buff. Co-host of the horror film podcast Halloweeners.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Director Arkasha Stevenson's film debut is a beautiful, dread-soaked experience. Gorgeous cinematography, a chilling tone, and an extremely committed lead performance from Nell Tiger Free make this a must-see for horror fans.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The plot feels subservient to the impressive visuals, and some of the specifics of the villainous plan are unclear. The film's conclusion is disappointingly rushed.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE FIRST OMEN"