Review: The Antichrist was not given justice in ‘The First Omen’

Supernatural and violent gestation, self-immolation, rape, freak accidents and creepy hallucinations set in the backdrop of the Catholic Church. The First Omen contains all of these horror elements, which would normally give the audience trauma, or at least a weeklong nightmare.

So why isn’t The First Omen scary?

According to Science, our brain releases dopamine, adrenaline and endorphins when we are watching a horror movie. Horror fans anticipate the experience of increased heart rate, dread, shock, tension and finally, that rewarding sense of relief from “surviving” a terrifying experience. 

The First Omen fails to even trigger a small yelp. But wow, such breathtaking visuals. Everything is elegant and painterly here. The heavy use of film grain in a period piece — 1971 Rome during civil disturbances — adds an otherworldly texture to the film’s old-world aesthetic. 

The prequel to the 1976 classic Omen, its objective is plain and simple: to explain where the devil child Damien came from. Directed by Arkasha Stevenson, which she co-wrote with Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, it pays homage to the source material by employing similar scenes that I will not spoil here.

At the center of the film is an ebullient young woman, Margaret, played by the excellent
24-year-old Nell Tiger Free, who is chiefly known for her role in AppleTV’s Servant and in HBO’s Game of Thrones as Myrcella Baratheon.

Here, Free is an American novitiate flew in to Rome by her father-figure friend, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), so she could work at an orphanage and eventually take the veil.  

The appearance of Nighy very early into the movie gave me an “uh-oh” moment. A movie cannot be scary with Nighy in it. It’s just impossible to remove “comedy” from the man.

A once troubled orphan herself, Margaret finds herself extra protective of a troubled girl in the orphanage, Carlita (Nicole Sorace). Her introduction to this “bad girl” sets the mystery (not horror) in motion, which is marked by a stereotypically strict abbess, Sister Silva (Sonia Braga), and the stereotypically creepy nun, Sister Angelica (Ishtar Currie-Wilson).

Overlong (the two-hour runtime felt like five hours) and predictable, The First Omen takes a leisurely pace, as it is only focused on one thing: the revelation of Damien’s genesis.

In Omen, it is revealed that Damien is the Antichrist. So, who are his parents? This sixth addition to the Omen franchise will explain it to you, but they had to tweak his family tree just a wee bit for cinematic reasons.  

Okay, so the highlight of the film is not just its pretty look — but also Free’s applaudable performance. She gets to showcase her range here as a novitiate who slowly becomes disillusioned by her religion and gets the shock of her life. 

Free has a one long take here, next to a black car, that evokes an impressive demonic feel. She nails the required performance with an impeccable showcase of talent. 

The interesting aspect of the script is the underlying “threat” — the “church within a church” angle. This layer of religious extremism to the story could have been a goldmine for more terrifying stuff, but Stevenson steered clear of capitalizing on these evil zealots. Instead, she singularly relied on her big reveal: a cheap, slimy, gnarly, creature with long dirty nails that do not induce fear. Sure, the monstrous being is not really the main event here — but this certain “demonic agenda,” which also fails to provoke a sense of worry.

If this film was a written story, one sentence could have said it all. But it decided to be “wordy” instead — resulting in a fluff piece. I keep waiting and waiting for anything to give me goosebumps, or just the tiniest bit of anxiety, but nothing registers.  

It is moody and atmospheric, boasting sophisticated imagery, complete with glorious macro shots of blood-shot eyes and spiders, and infused with Mark Korven’s lovely score ­— but these are not enough to elicit sinister vibes. The Antichrist was not given justice in this sinful prequel. 

1.5 out of 5

Now showing in cinemas