Hell of a prequel

Will Ferris
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The First Omen (15, 119 Minutes)

As if pregnancy isn’t terrifying enough, the devil’s offspring growing in your womb is problematic on a universal scale. In her directorial debut, Arkasha Stevenson delivers one hell of a baby in this clever but unsettling prequel to classic 1976 film The Omen, considered one of the defining modern horror flicks of the 20th century.

Most of us know the score: Gregory Peck as an American ambassador striking a deal to swap his deceased newborn with an orphan in Rome. Years later, the boy becomes a maleficent prince of darkness while priest Patrick Troughton is impaled by a church lightning rod and David Warner’s head is chopped clean off.

It’s a simple(ish) premise with a lot of unease and that final, sinister smile from little Damien as a choir sings the demonic hymn Ave Santani.

48 years on, a few have tried to continue or remake the story. All have failed. Until now.

Stevenson’s The First Omen is a bold, twisty tale which breathes new life into a film that didn’t necessarily need to become a franchise. Sometimes the oldies really are the goldies and should be left alone, but luckily the results of making something new out of the old really pays off here.

Rome, 1971. A young, American novitiate called Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free) has arrived at the request of father-figure Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), preparing to take her vows whilst settling within a tight knit of fellow Nuns at the Vizzardeli Orphanage.

Among the children, she takes a shine to ostracised teen Carlita (Nicole Sorace), reminded of her own upbringing in the church and apparent psychological problems, particularly visions and apparent delusions.

All is going swimmingly until she experiences demonic visions, a ritualistic suicide – the old “all for you” schtick – and the arrival of Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), who is convinced that the orphanage is host to a cult of spiritually corrupted church elders seeking to initiate the birth of the antichrist.

But who is the mother? Who can be trusted? How did the BBFC pass this film off as a 15 certificate when one scene in particular is so grotesque it gives The Exorcist a decent run for its money?

Yes, THAT scene. The moment which, depending on how successful The First Omen becomes, will become its monstrous signature. Curious? If you’ve a strong stomach, consider this a dare to go and see it.

Visually stylistic whilst aided by a sweeping, searing, even howling soundtrack, The First Omen hits in all the right places, depending less on jumpscares and more on its melancholic atmosphere as every good horror film rightfully should.

But it is by no means perfect. Shedding its title would prove an even greater piece of cinema if it didn’t have obligations to carry an established story in its designated direction. Stevenson certainly manages to mix things up a little, but you have to wonder where it’s heading and its final scene feels significantly weaker to the rest of the film, lacking one final roll of the dice to suspend our belief in what we know and launch this cult favourite to a whole new plane. There are also a couple of missed opportunities in there, but we cannot simply have our cake and eat it, can we?

Still, this film still has surprises up its sleeves and manages to be one of the best prequels of the past few years – which, frankly, isn’t a hard competition.

RATING: 8/10