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‘The First Omen’: The Renaissance of Religious Horror

Experience the origin of evil incarnate.
Nell+Tiger+Free+as+Margaret+in+The+First+Omen.+%28Courtesy+of+20th+Century+Studios%29
Moris Puccio/20th Century Studios
Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in The First Omen. (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

 

Since the dawn of horror, stories of religious terror have been pervasive. The epic biblical tales of demons and unholy powers wreaking havoc have inspired countless terrifying films, many of which have become iconic within pop culture.

One of these movies is 1976’s “The Omen.” It tells the story of a couple who adopt a child named Damien who may be the Antichrist. The film horrified audiences with shocking gore and a haunting atmosphere, becoming an instant classic. While sequels were made and released, none seemed to capture the evil the first film depicted so well. Now in 2024, first-time film director Arkasha Stevenson has returned to the Omen universe with a prequel titled “The First Omen,” determined to remind audiences of true terror. 

In “The First Omen,” Margaret, an American girl set on joining the church, moves to Rome to begin her journey. As strange and unnatural occurrences begin to happen around her, she discovers the church may have plans to give birth to the Antichrist.

Straight From the ’70s

Religious horror has not been what it once was for quite a while. Although “The Nun” and exorcism films are laced deeply with themes of religion, none dive deep into the fears that come with believing in higher powers. It seems as if in the ’70s, filmmakers were more intent on exploiting these fears in film. This makes sense as at the time, it was more common for people to be a part of religious communities as compared to now. Director Stevenson has keyed into this with “The First Omen.” She rediscovers the inherent horror that comes with believing in grand supernatural powers and adds enough of a modern twist to make it accessible to all. 

In almost all technical aspects, the film wants audiences to believe they are watching a picture straight from the 1970s. From the retro opening titles to the soul-stirring, choir-filled score (inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s original Omen score), the movie screams of an older era. Even the image has a thick grain over every frame. A more naive audience member would believe they were watching a product of the past. It helps that Aaron Morton’s cinematography echoes the look of the original Omen as the camera creeps around corners and holds on dark hallways. While there are a few jump scares, most of the film’s horror is designed to make your skin crawl. As if the evil on-screen is infecting you.

This horror is also captured through some terrifying yet mesmerizing sequences that capture a surreal almost hallucinatory look. These scenes place the audience in the shoes of our heroine as she is often attacked and overcome by sinister forces that trick her mind and body. 

The film is not frequently gory but when it is, it’s graphic in a way many modern horror films are afraid to touch. One sequence even had the MPAA threatening the filmmakers and producers with an NC-17 rating. While the scene is not the worst thing a horror film has put on screen, it’s a shocking sight that will leave many watching through their fingers. 

A Nun in Trouble

The prequel has a surprisingly star-studded cast. The real star of the show is lead Nell Tiger Free, known best for her star-making role in the show “Servant.” Free is given a mentally and physically demanding role as Margaret as the movie throws the young nun through a rollercoaster of emotions. Free takes them all on with might, convincingly timid at one moment and crap-your-pants scared the next. Free has a particularly harkening moment of acting in the third act. It is very reminiscent of the grotesque and disturbing subway scene from Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession.”

That 1981 horror cult classic is possibly the best match with “The First Omen.” Both translate otherworldly horror through the sound and camera. While Stevenson makes sure her prequel feels natural preceding the original Omen film, her tale of a young woman trapped in a foreign city, with manic nuns and priests, can be enjoyed on its own. The movie is extremely claustrophobic. The dark, gothic arches of a church are constantly closing in even when they are not in sight. Despite being a slow burn, the movie has the viewer locked in horror from minute one.

It’s unfortunate the very similar “Immaculate” was released less than a month away from “The First Omen.” This newer picture does just about every element of horror scarier. The film is not free from issues, as plot inconsistencies and some unneeded final scenes bring the film down slightly. But as a prequel to a film that came out 47 years ago, “The First Omen” surpasses all expectations.

Experience the origin of evil incarnate in theaters while you still can. 

 

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@grahamcool8

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About the Contributor
Graham Jones
Graham Jones, Assistant Arts Editor
Graham Jones was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and moved to Utah to study film. Despite his passion for cinema, Graham joined the Chronicle to engage with the University of Utah community and pursue his love for journalism. Outside of the student media office, Graham can be found buried deep into the pages of a graphic novel or lip-syncing to the greatest hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

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