The First Omen: There are no Catholic saviors here

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

I think it's fair to say that religious horror is having a moment. In the last two weeks, Immaculate, Late Night with the Devil, and now The First Omen have all hit theaters. The last of the bunch is a prequel to the 1976 classic that made the name Damien synonymous with the anti-Christ.

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson, The First Omen is indeed the story of Damien's birth, so it's likely most people know going into it where the film will wind up by the end credits. However, this prequel is much more the story of Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), a young American who moves to Rome to take her vows. She soon learns that something isn't quite right and the Catholic Church covers up some horrible crimes and heinous secrets. This is hinted at from the unsettling opening that foreshadows sexual assault and abuse at the hands of the Church. Stevenson has a knack for capturing truly nightmarish visuals that make her a horror director to watch. She also very much captures the look and feel of the 1970s. It's easy to get lost in the world she builds.

Once in Rome, Margaret befriends quite the cast of characters, including the strange and unruly Carlita (Nicole Sorace), who's often sent to the "bad room" and punished by the head nuns. She's certainly the outcast among the orphaned children, though she reminds Margaret of herself as a kid. In fact, more than once, Margaret mentions how she was considered a problem child. The two form an unlikely friendship, while the audience tries to suss out just who may become Damien's mom. There's also the overly sexual Luz (Maria Caballero), who encourages Margaret to dress in revealing clothing and join her for a night of clubbing and boozing. Luz insists they do so because once they take their vows, they'll be living under the habit forever.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

The film's strength lies in the friendships forged among the more rebellious women, which subvert the Catholic Church's iron fist. Luz wants to bring out Margaret's more subdued self, while Margaret wants to protect and save Carlita from her abusers. Meanwhile, Tiger Free really commands this film and gives one heck of a performance through and through. I can't wait to watch her career from here.

The prequel is not without its flaws, however. Because it's part of The Omen franchise, it struggles to fill in the gaps and connective tissue leading to the original film. In fact, the story surrounding Damien's birth is paper-thin at best and borderline absurd. There are also a few deaths that hit too close to the original. You simply can't top scenes that are iconic, and this film would have done better if it blazed its own path more often. There's even one sequence that's a not-so-subtle tribute to the infamous subway scene in Possession. Horror fans will immediately recognize it when they see it. It's also a nod to Sam Neill, who starred in Possession and The Omen III as the adult Damien.

Unlike, say The Exorcist, in The First Omen, there are no Catholic heroes, no priests coming to save the day. Instead, by the second half, there's one horrific sequence after the other and a shadowy conspiracy that involves shocking and brutal crimes committed against women's bodies. The First Omen is a fine enough prequel, but at times, it feels too shackled to the franchise's history, which causes some questionable narrative choices. Still, there's far more good here than not, including one heck of a performance by Tiger Free and a crowd-pleasing ending.

Immaculate: Religious horror for our troubling times. dark. Next. Immaculate review