Is ‘The First Omen’ the first good film in The Omen franchise?

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

APRIL 20 — Movie franchises, especially in the horror genre, have mostly gotten their reputation through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Very few of these horror franchises have even one, let alone two, good movies in them, but we love them anyway because we remember being scared watching them when we were kids.

If we’re to be honest with ourselves, how many of these movies that scared us silly as kids even hold up, now that we’re adults and have seen our fair share of horror flicks? Probably not that many.

The OGs have usually stood the test of time and remained scary/disturbing/prescient to this very day like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Halloween and Jaws.

It’s usually the ones that were trying to cash in on a particular trend or box-office hit that tend to not age very well, from the many Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist knock-offs, the copious amounts of slasher movies that arrived in the wake of Halloween, to the never-ending zombie movies that have littered the market ever since Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead became big hits.

As much as I remembered being scared when watching The Omen (the original 1976 film) as a kid on VHS in the 1980s, I’ve also accepted the fact that it was only just a decent horror flick once I watched it again as an adult.

A scene from ‘The First Omen’. — Screen capture via YouTube/20th Century Studios
A scene from ‘The First Omen’. — Screen capture via YouTube/20th Century Studios

A scene from ‘The First Omen’. — Screen capture via YouTube/20th Century Studios

And don’t even get me started on the diminishing returns being offered by its three sequels, making it one of the most underwhelming of major horror franchises in the history of cinema.

Even the 2006 remake couldn’t get much of a tune out of the tired storyline and tropes explored in the whole franchise. In short, it’s just not a very good franchise.

While another Omen film is definitely, theoretically at least, not necessary, at the very least what we’re getting in 2024 is a prequel to the original film, and not just another remake.

So that at least got me intrigued enough to give this new film a chance instead of simply deciding to pass on this one when it arrived in Malaysian cinemas just before Raya.

I’m glad I did, because what I witnessed was a totally unexpected, and almost blindingly great debut film from first-time feature film director Arkasha Stevenson, who most notably helmed the entire third season of Channel Zero back in 2018.

Even more surprising is how Stevenson and her co-writers Keith Thomas and Tim Smith have crafted a storyline and script that completely justifies the need for an origin story for Damien, that little Antichrist parented by the American diplomat (played by Gregory Peck) and his wife (Lee Remick) in the original 1976 film.

This prequel ends exactly where that 1976 film began, so you can go back home after seeing this film and immediately press play to enjoy the continuation of its story, even if you have seen the original film before.

But let’s not get sidetracked here. The First Omen focuses on Margaret Daino (a star-making performance from Nell Tiger Free), an American novitiate who arrives in Rome to take her vows, and is tasked to work at an orphanage there before doing so.

Playing in the background are scenes of political and social unrest, as young people turn their backs on the authorities, including the church.

Thanks to a roommate (and fellow novitiate) who is determined to use her remaining days of secular freedom to really experience the hedonistic lifestyle, Margaret’s first great mystery arrives when she wakes up the next morning (after a wild night out at the disco) unable to remember much of what happened the night before.

Another great mystery arrives in the form of a young girl at the orphanage named Carlita, whose troubles with the orphanage authorities reminds Margaret of her own troubled past growing up in a Catholic orphanage as well.

All of this starts to make sense once Father Brennan (played by Ralph Ineson here), a character from the 1976 film, enters Margaret’s orbit, the same way he did for the American ambassador Robert Thorn in the 1976 film.

So many movies about the coming of the Antichrist usually neglect to explain why the people trying to conjure it are trying to do so. Even the original 1976 film only took it as fact that Damien is the Antichrist and just spends most of its time trying to explain and decode poems and passages from holy texts in its then current context.

So, imagine how satisfying it is to get that explained by Stevenson and her co-writers Thomas and Smith here, which I’d rather not spoil for you except for saying that it’s the church’s last ploy for control and power.

It’s The Omen by way of Rosemary’s Baby, with a show-stopping tribute to that Isabelle Adjani subway scene in Possession thrown in towards the end, enhanced by Stevenson’s acute awareness of what makes a great horror film tick and what doesn’t.

Add to that the subtext about a woman’s autonomy over her own body and the whole pro-choice vs pro-life debate, especially in the wake of the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US in 2022, The First Omen is a thoroughly refreshing and invigorating exercise in mainstream horror, and is already one of the best horror films of 2024.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.