The First Omen (20th Century Studios)

“He was born of a jackal, Mr Thorn!”

Infamous words spat in desperation by Patrick Troughton’s Father Brennan in the original Omen movie back in 1976 – almost fifty years ago now.

It was arresting even back then – the notion that if you’re going to make an antichrist, you somehow, supernaturally, involve both a jackal and Satan in the mating process, and create something that looks beautifully human.

Probably, back in the day, the intention of claiming that the antichrist was “born of a jackal” was that the jackal was its mother, and Satan, the fallen angel, inseminated the wild creature, so it would have a lineage of both supernatural power and bestial savagery, all while looking like a cherub, as originally personified by Harvey Stephens.

The First Omen dares to re-imagine that origin inference, replacing it with complex would-be antichrist breeding program by a small and powerful cabal within the Catholic church.

Just as The Omen was a creation of its time – the movie launched in the era immediately post-Nixon, so the notions of bringing together political power and thoroughgoing evil wasn’t perhaps too far a stretch – so The First Omen is a product of our modern sensibilities. It’s firmly female-focused, showing the strictures on women in the Catholic church in the 1970s, but also putting the business of sex, pregnancy, and childbirth front and centre, as any story daring to tell the tale of the creation of life should do.

It’s fair so say that the actual story is probably more convoluted than it needs to be – we’re launched into a secret world of nuns and novitiates in Rome, where there’s also a longstanding antichrist breeding program hidden behind the scenes of the Catholic church. 

That’s where the complication comes in, because, it turns out, it’s not as simple as getting a Dark Lord of Desolation and a jackal together, buying a round of drinks and letting nature take its course. 

To explain exactly what’s involved would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say there are a lot of nerve-jangling whispering nuns between the start and the finish.

Nell Tiger Free is our window into this world, as Margaret, an American ward of the church, coming to Rome to take the veil and finding some pretty creepy stuff is going on.

But she’s surrounded by a cast of staggering talents, too. Bill Nighy as Cardinal Lawrence, we’re fairly certain is a wrong ’un immediately, because a) it’s Bill Nighy in a movie about the antichrist, he’s not going to be a good guy, is he?, and b) he’s the avuncular figure that paves Margaret’s way into the life of the Roman convent, and there are by now rules to this kind of thing. As in the original Omen movies, and in similar fare like Rosemary’s Baby, beware the avuncular bastards – they’re up to no good. Always. Without fail.

Ralph Ineson though is a work of spectacular casting genius as Father Brennan. 

The role first made famous by Patrick Troughton is a lightning rod for acting talent – in the entirely pointless 2006 re-make, the role was filled by Pete Postlethwaite, who shone in what was otherwise a monument to mediocrity. 

And in Ineson we have a younger, slightly more hopeful Brennan, who only learns the scope of the plot in which he’s involved fairly late in the day. He’s highly intense on screen and has a voice you could listen to for weeks on end, so in Ineson, there’s a Brennan who almost deserves his own spin-off TV show.

But while the refocusing of the Omen franchise on the female experience – essentially writing the Rosemary’s Baby version of Damien Thorn’s origins – is positive and timely, it remains an oddish thing to actually do. 

There’s merit and obvious logic in tying this story intrinsically into the original Omen. And make no mistake, both Brennan and Spiletto from the original movies are here, and there are on-screen photos of Gregory Peck as “the American ambassador to Rome.” The plots are intrinsically intertwined in their very DNA. 

But the point is, to some extent it’s a movie that’s backward-looking rather than forward. Yes, at the end there are ways to suggest room for manoeuvre for another movie – the people who are invested in creating Damien are aware of the survival of some key characters they didn’t intend to survive, and “will be coming for you.” But essentially, we know the story of the world into which Damien Thorn is born – that’s the point of the first three movies (and, tangentially, the deeply peculiar and very cheap fourth instalment that almost no one ever talks about).

Whereas, as we’ve mentioned, the original Omen movie came out in 1976, almost fifty years ago. The Final Conflict, with Sam Neill as the grown-up Damien, came out in 1981, almost 45 years ago. 

There’s even a line in the novelization of the first Omen movie by David Seltzer that explained that Satan has been birthing antichrists throughout history – the line of the archaeologist Bugenhagen (provider of child-killing daggers to the terminally paranoid, played by Leo McKern) has been instrumental in destroying them throughout the ages.

But the world has moved on so much since then – particularly when it comes to secularism, doubt, the rise of the internet, social media, fake news and disruptive populist politicians, that a new take on the basic Omen premise could really shake us out of our shoes, especially if it went back to some psychological horror roots. An Omen movie in the world of Trump and Putin? Shut up and take our money. 

(Yes, technically, the 2006 movie was set in then-contemporary times, but it was very little more than a shot-for-shot remake of the 1976 version with additional schlocky jump-scares). 

That means that The First Omen almost feels like a missed opportunity, a truncated pathway taken. 

But in fairness to it, and particularly in fairness to Arkasha Stevenson, there’s some very definite movement in that clammy, paranoid direction of the original film woven through The First Omen. It plays heavily on uncertainty, trust, external authority structures and the urge to rebel against them – arguably themes in the Satanic story as far back as Milton’s Paradise Lost – while adding new dimensions of largely female emotional depth. Caring for others in potentially grim situations, the falseness of close friends, the guilt placed upon female sexuality by a church structure that needs to define strict lines. It’s all in here, and it’s all delivered with a surety of touch that shows strength in Stevenson’s interpretation.

And in terms of the church’s fear of secularism, Stevenson again rewrites the original book. While in the original films, the people behind the antichrist were avowed Satanists in holy orders, actively working to bring about the rise of the Devil for its own sake, here, Stevenson goes Dan Brown deep, more or less adopting the Angels and Demons plotline of these people being fervent Catholics, bringing the antichrist into being with a mind to control it, frighten the world into realizing the supernatural is real, and drive people back to the church.

In a way, it’s an audacious perspective to bring to an Omen movie. It just feels out of step with the Omen reality that follows it in the next four movies – where the Satanists are proper Satanists (from a certain point of view – don’t @ us, Church of Satan).

Where perhaps all that innovation and psychological twistedness goes significantly south is in the need for jump scares which here – as in the 2006 remake – feel forced and crammed in just to telegraph to us that “Hey, you’re watching an Omen movie, y’know?”

Probably the most disappointing of those is a very familiar sequence where a young woman who’s been caring for the would-be antichrist goes up somewhere high, announces “It’s all for you!” and promptly hangs herself. Yes, really, they went there again – just as they did in 1976, when it was deeply shocking, and in 2006, when it was more or less a checklist item in the turgid shot-for-shot remake.

There’s also a grim auto-accident death, like the one that took out David Warner’s Jennings in the original, and David Thewlis’ Jennings in the remake. 

While less brutally delivered, there’s something almost playfully dark about this version of automobile-based death, so it’s worth watching for. It’s much more satirical than the original beheading, although, understandably given the overall tone of the piece, you might not necessarily think “Oh, satire!” when you see it. After all, there’s lots of screaming to steal away your attention.

There’s a transposed version of the original movie’s Mrs Baylock, too – an older carer for the demon-child, who ends up battling the child’s mother for the fate of the antichrist. 

The combination of the innovative, the return to psychological horror, the female lens, the endless, intimidating, whispering nuns, the occasional full-on, full-frontal childbirth scene with a twist, and these slightly off-kilter back-references to a movie from 48 years ago and yet the in-universe future, ends up delivering a horror that has lots to recommend it…but never quite delivers either the fresh scares it’s aiming for, or the spiced-up, dyed-in-the-wool Omen movie it clearly intends itself to be.

But if it never quite ends up hitting either element out of the park, it nearly manages both – which is more than enough to make it an above-average modern horror film, and the female lens on what was famously a fairly male-driven franchise (the only time they made the antichrist a girl, it was tragically poor) gives enough freshness to make it particularly watchable. The two-hour runtime feels around half an hour too long, and could be trimmed by, for instance, removing some of the schlockier moments, like a return from the dead for the self-hanging nun. In fact, removing the self-hanging nun altogether probably wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings too badly, but that’s another discussion.

Overall, it’s an interesting, if ultimately off-kilter way to spend at least 90 of its 119 minutes. Not perfect, but brave. Worth adding in if you’re planning an Omen marathon, absolutely. But whether it does enough to greenlight the sequels for which it inserts space at the end is significantly less certain.Tony Fyler 

The First Omen is now streaming on Disney Plus 

Be the first to comment on "The First Omen (20th Century Studios)"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.