The First Omen review Nell Tiger Free

The First Omen is one of the best horror films in years

4 out of 5 stars

Who would imagine that a studio horror sequel by a first-time feature filmmaker could be one of the best horror films in recent memory? Set before the events of the 1976 film The Omen, The First Omen takes place in Italy. As novitiate nun Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is driven to her new home, a convent in Rome, the car passes student and trade worker protests. Young people fill the streets, and on the radio, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s duet, “Some Velvet Morning,” fills the car. “The world is changing,” warns an older cardinal as the power of the Catholic Church is waning. 

Margaret was raised in the church and is on the final steps of becoming a nun. She’s sheltered and naive, though a quick learner with a big heart. In Rome, she will be a teacher at an orphanage for girls that’s not unlike the one she grew up in. She shares a flat with the more modern Luz (María Caballero), an Italian novitiate who relishes in the pleasures of the flesh. Luz explains to Margaret that to make the sacrifice of becoming a nun, you have to understand what you’re giving up. One night, Luz dolls Margaret up and drags her to a disco. 

The film brims with period detail and attention to the smallest gestures. The scene that unfolds on the girl’s night out overflows with disco music, bodies squeezed together and coloured lights. Margaret meets a man. They build a rapport; he eventually invites her to dance. Under the blue lights and strobe lights, they get closer and closer. Margaret’s baser urges give in — they kiss. She licks his face. It’s a scene that brims with eroticism, bodies vibrating with desire. The next day’s hangover fills Margaret with heavy shame.

Meanwhile, Margaret becomes increasingly attached to a young girl who is ostracized and frequently punished at the orphanage. The parallels between them grow stronger as they also become closer. Margaret begins to lose her grip on reality as she falls more deeply into this new guardianship.

Nell Tiger Free in The First Omen

The film itself slips into strange and twisted horror fantasies. The orphanage, also a birthing centre for unmarried women, increasingly becomes a landscape for horror. Demonic imagery creeps in, the darkness swirling with evil potential. Though conventionally shot, the film relies on the audience leaning in, looking into the corners and towards the unfilmable to fill in horrific gaps. The jump scares rely on our imaginations, and the film features increasingly shocking, boundary-pushing horror scenes that are more at home in the looser and more sexually liberated European cinema than your average American horror. The movie evokes imagery from the original Omen films, but also Rosemary’s Baby and Zulawski’s Possession

Like many great horror films before it, The First Omen gifts Nell Tiger Free an incredible role, and she steps up to play it with sensitivity and intense physical commitment. The film’s style complements her performance, particularly in the last act, as the camera lingers uncomfortably long on her undulating body, possessed by something beyond comprehension. All the performances are strong, brimming with contradictions and hidden impulses. 

The backdrop of the film’s effective storytelling and horror-making is a surprisingly potent takedown of theocratic systems. The First Omen delves deep into how the church maintains power through control, not just of people’s bodies but of their minds. The movie quite radically presents a putrid system of rampant abuse that yearns for a more conservative and less liberated past. The horror of institutional power is as potent as some of the film’s genre-motivated scares. The veil of benevolence, forgiveness and care all shields a mad grab for power and the central nightmare is rooted in a desperate attempt to hold onto it at any cost, including turning your back on Jesus Christ himself. 

The First Omen‘s flaws are minor. The tie-ins to the 1976 movie are a bit clumsy, and some of the wigs are distractingly bad. Otherwise, this is one of the most vibrant and exciting horror films to hit the big screen in years. It’s fresh, smart, sexy and horrific. The director, Arkasha Stevenson — who previously made some short films including part of the anthology Brand New Cherry Flavor — is a talent to watch. ■

The First Omen, directed by Arkasha Stevenson

The First Omen opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 5.

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