It’s a bit of a mixed bag being a nun in The First Omen. One minute you’re enjoying smutty talk with the sisters while peeling potatoes, or jumping on a trampoline smoking a cig, and the next you’re at the center of a terrifying conspiracy which could change the world as we know it.

A direct prequel to the original 1976 Richard Donner movie, at it’s best The First Omen is an intriguing bit of new lore for a beloved franchise that is also very much its own film—and an intensely female one at that. Director Arkasha Steveson, who makes her feature debut here but is best know for TV including Channel Zero, Legion, and Brand New Cherry Flavor, shows whispers of the indie auteur in her directing style. There’s an art house, elevated body horror within the trappings of this franchise movie which marks her out as one to watch in the future. Unfortunately, the need for the film to live within the already existing world of The Omen does stop it flying completely free.

Set in Rome in the ‘70s, it follows Margaret (Servant’s Nell Tiger Free), a young woman who’s been sent to a convent orphanage to work, live, and “take the veil” (become a full blown nun). Rome is gorgeous, and Margaret is initially seduced, introduced to the sisters by avuncular Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), who has a close relationship with Margaret. Once there Maggie meets fellow initiate Luz (Maria Caballero), a free spirited young woman also waiting to take the veil, as well as the girls of the orphanage, including troubled teen Carlita (Nicole Sorace). Something’s not right here, and when the mysterious father Brennan (Ralph Ineson, taking over for Patrick Trouton from the original) warns Margaret that he’s unearthed something highly sinister going on at the orphanage, Margaret begins to investigate.

At points The First Omen is necessarily tropey but to its credit it doesn’t mess about wasting time toying with the audience over whether Margaret is crazy, and when she will reveal her hand. Instead the plot moves on a pace and while not every twist is going to come as a wild surprise, there are enough extra treats and reveals to keep viewers on their toes.

There are, of course, many references to Omen ‘76, and sometimes these grow a bit tiresome. The first of these is a clever bit of misdirection, but later homage kills don’t entirely stand up to logic. We’re not entirely convinced the lore ultimately fits in, though we’re ready to stand corrected if a further film in the Omen Universe gets greenlit—there is scope here for more. Meanwhile characters who will later prove crucial get some prequel style expansion.

Stevenson’s movie is beautiful and occasionally bonkers. Lingering closeups of Caballero’s face look like they could be sumptuous paintings. Scenes of nuns prostrating themselves euphorically on the chapel floor wouldn’t feel out of place in Suspiria. Paco Delgado costume design, from Caballero’s ceremonial robes to the glamorous ’70s outfits she and Magaret wear for a final night out before they commit their bodies to be hidden forever, look incredible and speak volumes.

Indeed, the attention to detail in recreating the aesthetics of ’70s Rome are impressive, with a subplot here about student protesters fighting against the status quo, which very much includes the Church, adding extra unrest to the city. Religion clashes with secularism, and history clashes with modernity, in interesting ways, building on the mythology to come in The Omen. Modern jump scares aren’t wildly original but are still effective while we are happy to report not too much time is spent wandering round dark corridors (though not none…). And when the iconic music kicks in, which it inevitably does, it’s worthy of a little shiver of its own. The devil always did get the best tunes, after all.

So there is a lot to love about The First Omen, and it is certainly a far more interesting film than David Gordon Green’s latter two Halloween films and The Exorcist: Believer. However, in some ways it’s a bit of a shame that it was an Omen film at all. Stevenson pushes boundaries with her visuals, and fought hard to keep more shocking sequences in the film, but you can’t help but wonder what she’d have done with a totally free rein, unleashing her creativity on the set pieces without having to nod at memorable kills that already exist. We could quite imagine her standing alongside the likes of Rose Glass and Julia Ducourneu in the subgenre of female-centric body horror.

Still, there’s time for that. A cut above a standard franchise cash-in, The First Omen isn’t perfect but is committed to bringing something different to a much-loved series. It’s a bold feature debut from a director who clearly has a love and respect for horror, and it’s probably about as subversive as you’re going to get for a studio horror of its type. Amen to that.

The First Omen opens in theaters on April 5.

The post The First Omen Review: A Devilish Reinvention of the Classic appeared first on Den of Geek.

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