Another one. Freaking seriously.

As I type this, Immaculate is still in some theaters. That’s the horror movie about a nun who gets involved with a conspiracy within the Catholic Church to bring about the modern birth of (Anti)Christ through forced impregnation. And now we’ve got The First Omen, a direct prequel to the classic 1976 The Omen and its subsequent films. Which means we’ve got another movie about a nun who gets involved with a conspiracy within the Catholic Church to bring about the modern birth of the antichrist through forced impregnation. Though there are a few differences worth mentioning.

First up, it bears mentioning that this one is directed and co-written by a woman: Arkasha Stevenson, a respectable photojournalist and TV director here making her feature debut. Secondly, there’s the obvious factor that this is a prequel to a landmark horror film, so we already know where this is going. Which brings me to the third major point: Far less ambiguity regarding the central threat.

With Immaculate, it was an open question as to whether the impregnation was supernatural or scientific in origin. (Except not really, as the answer to that was telegraphed within the opening fifteen minutes, but work with me here.) Moreover, nobody knew whether this miracle baby was destined to be the second coming of Christ, the harbinger of Apocalypse, or anything in between. But with First Omen, we already know by virtue of the franchise that Satan is explicitly and literally at work here, and this child is the intended antichrist.

As a direct result, the filmmakers lean a lot harder into the twisted imagery and supernatural terror. There are some genuinely fucked-up shots in this movie, and Stevenson shows a preternatural skill for dazzling photography. Even the jump scares are shot and edited in memorably haunting ways.

That said, it bears mentioning that by virtue of story contrivance, the film doesn’t go through the full term of pregnancy like Immaculate did. Instead, the film pulls its “body horror” material from the event of childbirth itself. Thusly, the body horror scenes are limited to two or three horribly gruesome scenes, as opposed to a constant underlying bodily transformation throughout the runtime. Come to think of it, the actual childbirth of Immaculate was shot entirely in extreme close-up on Sydney Sweeney’s face, while The First Omen puts a much greater emphasis on the blood and viscera involved.

That said, Immaculate was much more potent as an allegory for the evils and hypocrisies of organized religion and of the Catholic Church in general. By contrast, The First Omen spends so much more time on jump scares and horror with less time on thematic ruminations. There is a bit about how younger generations are turning away from the Church in greater numbers, but that’s about it. I suppose both movies are about misogyny and abuse of bodily autonomy within the Catholic Church, but The First Omen makes you squint harder to see it.

The supernatural angle makes another huge difference here. Because we know there’s a supernatural cause to all this, it’s entirely possible — maybe even probable — that the cuplrits have been tricked or coerced by Satan into doing his dirty work, as opposed to making corrupt decisions of their own accord. And of course we can’t forget the sequel factor — how many of these characters are making their own decisions, and how many are acting as they do because everything has to line up just so for the next movie? All of this has a direct impact on any kind of thematic discussion regarding corruption and violation of autonomy — it’s harder for a film to carry any kind of real-world thematic significance when everything evil is done by fictional causes rather than flesh-and-blood people.

Oh, and we haven’t even started on the cast, have we?

Nell Tiger Free stars as Sister Margaret Daino, an American orphan who grew up in the Catholic Church, sent to take up work at a girls’ orphanage in Italy before taking her vows. So she’s not technically a full nun quite yet, which means we can go to some interesting places with her.

For instance, there’s a point in the story when Margaret gets dressed up for a night out. Try and picture a lifelong aspiring nun who tries on makeup and heels, wearing a short dress with exposed cleavage, finding the courage to get a drink and meet ordinary people with the potential to do something she’ll regret in the morning. It’s a fascinating moment of growth for the character, and I almost wish more had been done with it.

Speaking of territory that Immaculate never got around to exploring, there’s the issue of Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace). She’s a teenage girl at the orphanage who keeps getting locked away for everyone’s safety. This is mostly because she has hallucinations, she has violent temper tantrums, everyone else thinks she’s mentally disturbed in ways that nobody knows what to do with, and so on and so forth. Coincidentally… excuse me, I seem to have cut my tongue from biting on it so hard.

Anyway, Margaret does her best to befriend Carlita because the two came up from similar childhoods. For strange reasons, the higher-ups don’t seem to like this and they’re determined to keep Margaret and Carlita separated at all costs. All of this makes for a sweet development arc between the two, with Carlita reaching out to the only adult who might be willing and able to help her, while Margaret works through her own traumatic childhood by mentoring this poor troubled girl. It’s a genuinely moving relationship, greatly augmented by all the systemic obstacles that get put in between them for strange and possibly sinister reasons.

The plot thickens even further with the arrival of Father Brennan — almost certainly the same character played by Patrick Troughton in the original film — here capably played by Ralph Ineson. So now we’ve got a half-crazed excommunicated priest throwing around conspiracy theories claiming that Carlita is destined to be the mother of the Antichrist.

To recap, we’ve got a character in a prequel to a well-known story, working through events ordained by supernatural prophecy, against the oppressive all-encompassing system of the Catholic Church working in lockstep with the literal Devil. All of this brings up serious questions about how much autonomy our protagonist actually has. Surprisingly, the filmmakers come up with quite a few clever ways to keep Margaret proactive. In fact, the ending opens up a few intriguing possibilities for a series of films running on a parallel track to reframe the original film trilogy. They might even create a branching timeline and write off all the other movies (except the original) as non-canon. I’m good with that.

Getting into detail with the rest of the cast, Charles Dance starts the movie strong with a memorable speaking cameo, and Bill Nighy elevates a thankless supporting role like only he can. Maria Caballero sells what might be the most diabolically subtle heel-turn I’ve seen in recent memory. Ishtar Currie Wilson plays a nun whose character doesn’t make a lot of sense, but hers is one of many spectacularly brutal kills in the film. A significant weak point is Luca (Michelangelo Dalisi) — you’d think he’d be invaluable in the role of Margaret’s chauffeur, but he barely gets a line and has no direct role in the plot whatsoever. The filmmakers would’ve been better off merging the character with Father Gabriel (Tawfeek Barhom), another paper-thin support player.

On a miscellaneous note, I have to give a shout-out to Mark Korven for the original music. I love how the score used Latin chants in new and creepy ways, deliberately withholding the iconic “Ave Satani” until that triumphant quotation at the most chilling possible time. Oh, and did I mention that the photography is beautiful? Because the shots in this movie are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

Overall, there’s no question that The First Omen works better as a horror film while Immaculate works better as an indictment of organized religion. And in a strange way, that’s a significant reason why Immaculate does so much more to earn the right to exist. The First Omen is a prequel offering retcons the original trilogy didn’t need, with themes that are too thin to be of much use to the audience.

That said, in the context of its own standalone film, the greater franchise, or the greater world as a whole, it’s still a brisk two-hour film with fantastic scares, gut-churning kills, and two genuinely poignant performances from Nell Tiger Free and Nicole Sorace anchoring a charismatic cast. To get by in this genre, that’s more than enough.

It’s worth seeing in theaters just to check out that photography on the big screen. And if you can make it a double feature with Immaculate, I goddamn double-dog dare you.


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