The First Omen: a surprisingly lively take on well-worn franchise mythology

Set just before the events of Richard Donner’s satanic horror, this fan service prequel is an impressively paced and enjoyable act of IP renovation.

The First Omen (2024)

The casting of Gregory Peck as the unwitting adoptive father to a cherubic fair-haired Antichrist in The Omen (1976) was inspired; if Atticus Finch suspects his kid isn’t quite right, you know you’ve got a problem. By turns pulpy and pompous – and propelled past its flaws and directly into the 1970s studio-horror canon by Jerry Goldsmith’s Gregorian-flavoured musical score – Richard Donner’s film owed as much to James Bond as to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Exorcist (1973); in lieu of slow-burning suspense or psychological ambiguity, it substituted spectacularly lethal set-pieces at ten minute intervals, killing off supporting actors in a conjoined display of demonic power and Hollywood wizardry.

The myriad callbacks to Donner’s classic in Arkasha Stevenson’s bluntly named prequel The First Omen are pure fan service, and harmless as such; in truth, their cosy, gory superfluity only barely gets in the way of what is on the whole a surprisingly lively and enjoyable act of intellectual property renovation. 

The film is set in June of 1971, just days before the start of its predecessor, and figuring out exactly how and when the story of shy American novitiate Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is going to intersect with David Seltzer’s well-worn franchise mythology is part of the fun. Suffice it to say that Margaret’s new post at a remote, tradition-oriented church is fraught with, well, bad omens, most of them surrounding a teenage orphan (Nicole Sorace) whose mere presence seems to augur tragedy; meanwhile, in the background, there are so many fine international character actors skulking about (including Bill Nighy, Ralph Ineson and Sonia Braga) that even the most marginal characters bristle with menace.

A young veteran of streaming television whose credits include the very enjoyable Netflix shocker Brand New Cherry Flavor (2021), Stevenson is clearly raring to go in her debut feature, but, working with the superb editor Bob Murawski, tempers her exuberance smartly; for all of the predictable turns of its screenplay, The First Omen is impressively paced, doling out shocks at unexpected (and effective) intervals while leaving the character-based scenes room to breathe. It helps that Free is such a striking and resourceful performer, to the point that she sells a quasi-homage to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) – merely the most obvious example of a scene that shouldn’t work and does in a movie that’s never quite great yet consistently better than it has to be.

 ► The First Omen is in UK cinemas now.