Movie Review – “The First Omen” Serves as an Effective Throwback Horror Prequel, with Some Minor Reservations

Tomorrow will see the release of the new horror prequel The First Omen from the Disney-owned 20th Century Studios, and below are my mostly spoiler-free thoughts on the film after having attended an early screening.

In 1976, director Richard Donner and 20th Century Fox released the original The Omen horror film starring Gregory Peck to mixed reviews, though it has become more warmly embraced over time. That movie introduced audiences to the character of Damien, a five-year-old child who turned out to be (SPOILER ALERT FOR A NEARLY 50-YEAR-OLD MOVIE) the antichrist– the spawn of Satan himself, primed to bring about the New Testament-foretold biblical apocalypse. And now, after several sequels and a reboot, 20th Century Studios (renamed after The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition a few years ago) and director Arkasha Stevenson– in her first feature after helming a number of short films and television series episodes– have rewound the clock to tell us just exactly how Damien came to be.

In The First Omen, a young American woman named Margaret (played by Game of Thrones recurring actress Nell Tiger Free) arrives in early-1970s Rome– where the original film began, as you’ll recall– to take her vows as a nun working in an orphanage. There she reconnects with Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy, who Disney fans will best remember as Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest), a mentor who helped her through her troubled youth, and meets Carlita (Summer Limited Edition’s Nicole Sorace), a similarly tormented tween that Margaret will come to believe is in some very real danger. She’s also guided along the way by her new roommate Luz (The Girl In the Mirror star Maria Caballero) and another priest named Father Brennan (The Witch’s Ralph Ineson, stepping into a memorable role originated by Patrick Troughton in the 70s) who has some fairly specific concerns about Margaret’s situation.

There’s a mystery that gradually unfolds here, and I definitely don’t want to spoil anything major, but I will say that if you’re at all familiar with the premise of this franchise (or have just… seen horror movies before, really) you can probably guess where it’s all headed pretty early on. The great news is that The First Omen is pretty darn well-made for a debut feature– it looks gorgeous, has some terrifically eerie locations (the movie was genuinely shot in and around Rome, giving it an air of authenticity throughout), and overall feels like a worthy precursor to an enduring cinematic legacy. I was especially impressed by some of the more out-there sequences involving pregnancy body horror and some extremely cool-looking practical creature effects. In fact, my only major complaint (outside of having figured out the third-act twist from near the beginning) is that the movie is over-reliant on fake-out jump-scares in its first half instead of simply letting the tension build over time as this type of movie absolutely would have five decades ago.

That said, anyone in search of some well-crafted religious horror this spring will probably find what they’re looking for in The First Omen. Compelling supporting turns by Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Sônia Braga and The Looming Tower’s Tawfeek Barhom, as an overbearing abbess and another concerned member of the clergy, respectively, round out the capable cast. But the work being done here by cinematographer Aaron Morton (of the 2013 Evil Dead reboot) deserves special attention– his lighting goes a long way into making the corridors of this old Roman convent feel like something might be lurking around every corner. On the whole, I would compare this effort to a less-subtle version of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not on quite par with the best of 1970s horror, but it might be the closest we’ll get from a big studio these days.

The First Omen opens tomorrow, Friday April 5th, in theaters nationwide.

My grade: 3½ out of 5 demon fetuses

Mike Celestino
Mike serves as Laughing Place's lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly "Who's the Bossk?" Star Wars podcast. He's been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general all his life and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.