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‘The First Omen’ is a prequel with style, plus borderline NC-17 body horror

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

I hate to call “The First Omen” unexpectedly well-crafted and a little bit surprising, even. But for an essentially unnecessary prequel to “The Omen,” the 1976 hit about one satanically minded child, two unfortunate parents and three sixes, its virtues point to an auspicious feature debut from director and co-writer Arkasha Stevenson, a former Los Angeles Times photojournalist with an eye for sinister beauty.

That word “unexpected” doesn’t speak well of my occasional pre-judginess. I try not to pre-judge any movie, except an Eli Roth movie, and look where that got me: “Thanksgiving” turned out to be worthwhile! In a more considered vein, so has “The First Omen,” full of splurchy callbacks to various hangings, impalings and characters from the Richard Donner hit but with a visual confidence and personality of its own.

Rome doesn’t hurt, although in “The First Omen” it certainly doesn’t help young Margaret (Nell Tiger Free of the M. Night Shyamalan Showtime series “Servant”). An American with a troubled childhood, she’s a novitiate soon to take the veil thanks to her American sponsor, the high-ranking cardinal played by Bill Nighy. Much of the narrative, written by Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, unfolds in the confines of the orphanage to which Margaret has been assigned. The fearsome and very obviously secretive Sister Silva runs the place, and with that role taken by the great, gravel-voiced Sonia Braga, and with the disgraced Irish priest (introduced in the first “Omen”) played by Ralph Ineson, that’s a helluva pair of basso profundo voices, nicely suited to unholy menace.

The story’s 1971 setting introduces a host of societal upheavals that have hurt church attendance worldwide. Without giving the game away, “The First Omen” imagines what a powerful subset of Catholic leadership might resort to in order to get lapsed believers back into the pews and praying for their lives. Haunted by visions of demons, Margaret keeps an eye on the orphanage’s designated problem child, Carlita (Nicole Sorace), a similarly plagued loner. Is she the devil’s child?

“The First Omen” underwent some trims involving graphic footage of childbirth, of a sort, filmed forthrightly by director Stevenson but in ways, at least as recut to avoid an NC-17 rating, that aren’t the usual sort of horror movie fodder. Never mind the double standard: I’ve seen far more disgusting screen violence in R-rated movies made by men, in male-driven stories. Gynecological body horror remains a final frontier for some viewers. Roman Polanski did a lot with inference and suggestion in “Rosemary’s Baby,” five years before “The Exorcist” married crassness with piety and made a dubiously influential fortune.

“The First Omen” hardly qualifies for landmark or pantheon status. But it’s a movie that maximizes all its elements with some panache. Stevenson, editors Amy E. Duddleston and Bob Murawski and cinematographer Aaron Morton save the explicit gore for crucial sequences. Not everything tracks or comes together in “The First Omen”: Father Brennan’s expository dump regarding the church’s plans to retain power feels rushed and confused; some of the narrative and visual references to the ’76 film don’t do much for the one we’re watching. Even so, it’s a pretty tense experience.

It also has an off-center way into the main narrative, involving Margaret’s initiation, before taking the veil, into Rome’s nightlife. Her impishly sexy roommate and novitiate plays host and Maria Caballero, who plays her, is spectacularly expressive in close-up. As Margaret, Free works more unassumingly, but effectively, and there’s a pretty stunning moment when she undergoes a physical transformation (certainly mostly) without any digital effects assistance. It’s a long take, without cutting for shock emphasis. It works. And that kind of directorial instinct is most welcome.



3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for violent content, grisly/disturbing images, and brief graphic nudity)

Running time: 2:00

How to watch: In theaters Friday


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