The First Omen review: Purposeless death scenes detract from a truly horrific concept

The First Omen attempts to provide a bold new perspective to the Omen franchise, bringing in new characters and styles of horror. Did it succeed?
Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

In the 70s, religious horror and creepy-children tropes merged to form the trifecta Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). These three movies, while technically unrelated, dealt with the inherently horrifying idea that something is wrong with your children. 50 years later, it seems like that concept is back with a new face, as religious pregnancy horror is on the rise.

The First Omen is only one of these films, but it is one of very few that has an IP tie-in, which has put it at the center of a lot of scrutiny. Not only does it have to be a good movie in its own right, but it has to honor its source material. Given that none of the other entries in The Omen franchise have been as well-received as the original, this film was bound to face an uphill battle.

The movie takes place in Italy, shortly before the start of the first Omen movie. A young American woman named Margaret arrives, intending to take her vows as a nun after spending time as a novitiate under the guidance of Cardinal Lawrence and Sister Silva. The nuns care for orphaned girls, and Margaret quickly finds herself bonding with a troubled girl named Carlita. As the film progresses, Margaret must try to protect the girl and determine what secrets the church is hiding.

The First Omen masterfully portrays the theft of female autonomy

According to director Arkasha Stevenson, Texas passed its six-week abortion ban at the same time that they pitched The First Omen, and the context of female reproductive freedom (or lack thereof) is fittingly a core part of the DNA of the film.

Unlike the other entries in the franchise, which use a combination of religious horror and brutal death scenes to scare the viewer, The First Omen emphasizes subtler horrors that women experience in ordinary life. There is some very effective body horror woven throughout the film, especially those scenes that depict pregnancy and birth. Margaret's visions are sufficient as jumpscares, but the normality of the labor scenes makes them more gruesome than any of the more overt horrors.

This is one of the best parts of the movie, as the biggest question prompted by a prequel to The Omen is how Damien was conceived and born. It's a natural path for the movie to follow, and the extreme lengths that the church goes to produce the Antichrist are deeply troubling. It touches on just about every taboo a person could think of.

In addition, The First Omen successfully builds tension by showing how trapped Margaret truly is, unable to heed the omens once she understands them. She cannot move freely about the city without supervision. Her bonds with others are controlled. And, when the concept of bodily autonomy becomes a factor, there is absolutely nothing she can do to stop what the church has planned.

Unfortunately, the film can feel a bit unbalanced when it isn't directly addressing these kinds of issues. It takes a while for the movie to really hit its stride, because it doesn't quite manage to produce dread in its early stages.

In The Omen and its sequels, the violent and unusual deaths add to the tension, as both the characters and the audience learn that something evil is afoot. However, the audience already knows that something evil is happening with The First Omen. Because of this, the death scenes aren't impactful for the audience. They just feel tacked on.

(L-R): Sonia Braga as Silvia and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

The death scenes muddle who the true villains are

Fans know what to expect from an Omen film, and that tends to be a series of violent deaths proving that Damien is evil and showing how far he (and the forces of darkness) will go to succeed. However, the brutal death scenes and creepy drawings actually take away from the true antagonist of this film. Carlita is not the monster, nor is it really about Satan and true evil. Instead, it is about an organization that has historically been willing to do anything to get what it wants.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Sister Silva's line when Margaret protests the orphanage's treatment of Carlita:

"The things we do aren't always pleasant. But they are in the name of God."

People who can justify any action, however unethical, because of their religion are the true danger. The existence of the Antichrist and the ambiguous representations of Satan allude to the existence of pure evil, but it is merely a tool being used by a group that is prideful enough to believe they can control it.

This is a great angle to take, as it helps clarify the role of the Catholic Church in the franchise as a whole while also calling out the Church's darker actions in the real world. However, the death scenes actively seem to work against this idea.

The first two deaths in the movie are stunning homages to the first film, but they (and most of the film's other deaths) follow the precedent of the other films in the franchise. People are being killed by terrible accidents or through possessions. The problem is, that suggests that the Devil is actively manipulating the world to create the Antichrist.

Certainly, a franchise revolving around the Antichrist does imply the existence of true evil, but it's not relevant for this story. God and Satan aren't particularly important, because the villains are the people within the Church who are willing to betray any and all moral obligations in order to keep control.

That should always be at the heart of the story, but it seems as though The First Omen cares more about feeling like an Omen movie than embracing the formatting that would best showcase its message.

(L-R): Nell Tiger Free as Margaret and Nicole Sorace as Carlita in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

Adherence to the franchise explains The First Omen's failings

For the most part, the references to The Omen franchise work well in this movie. Including characters like Father Brennan and Father Spiletto makes a lot of sense, and they don't detract from the new characters. Likewise, the uses of 666 and the name Scianna provide easy, non-obtrusive references for long-time fans.

In addition, leaving most of the characters without last names provides an easy opportunity for fans to speculate whether side characters could be younger versions of characters elsewhere in the franchise. Could one of the nuns become Mrs. Baylock? Is one of the children perhaps Ann Rutledge from the television series, as she mentioned meeting Mrs. Baylock as a child?

These questions are excellent ways for fans to invest in both the classic films and the new one. However, the film tries too hard to convince audiences that it is part of the larger franchise, to the detriment of what makes the story so captivating. There isn't a single death scene that doesn't allude to a previous film, which makes them uninteresting, as well as unhelpful.

While the franchise's sequels were not always well-received, they introduced new lore to the Antichrist mythology, as well as surprising and horrifying new ways for Damien's enemies to die. By making every death scene a reference, The First Omen undercuts its own scares and makes the deaths feel more like an afterthought than an intrinsic part of the rising tension.

This is also a problem when the film lingers on the pre-existing lore. The entire nature of the jackal is a mess in this movie, and while it has been a complicated part of the franchise since the beginning, the prequel makes it more confusing, not less. The more this movie tries to be a part of The Omen universe, the more it loses what makes it so effective.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo by Moris Puccio. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

There's a lot that can be learned if this franchise continues

Ultimately, The First Omen struggled to balance the responsibilities of a new horror film and an entry in an existing franchise. It was marketed as a prequel to The Omen franchise, but it was at its best when it functioned as an independent sister film.

It's obvious that Arkasha Stevenson intends to continue the plot from The First Omen, thanks to the many questions left unanswered in the finale. What happens next for the surviving original characters, and will they one day interact with Damien? Will the franchise finally allow a girl to be the Antichrist, rather than just providing a womb?

The surviving trio clearly still have a part to play in the Apocalypse, and while they may have become a family after surviving this trauma, they surely won't always agree with each other on how to move forward. There is a lot of potential for those three, particularly if they choose to interact with the corrupted church leaders in the future.

But that potential sequel will need to be willing to abandon elements of the original films that don't benefit it. If the traditional death scenes don't fit the new story, then drop them. If these characters can be best explored outside of the religious setting, then let them go there. The First Omen introduces engaging characters and explores new angles of this story's horror. The creators need to trust in that base before trying to force another film to fit a structure that it doesn't need.

Overall, this was an enjoyable horror movie. The body horror was incredibly disturbing, and the unveiling of secrets and corruption sent a powerful message. But it was weakened every time it tried to stick too closely to the template set by its predecessors. This is the first time a movie in The Omen franchise has really concerned itself with the female perspective, so let that guide the structure, rather than relying on established traditions.

The First Omen Review. 3.5 out of 5. The First Omen shines when depicting violations of bodily autonomy and control. . However, it is weakened by its own insistence on staying too close to the original films. . The First Omen

The First Omen is in theaters now.

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