Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The First Omen

“Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Ophelia.

I know, I know: I used the same quote a few weeks ago to begin my review of Immaculate, a scare fest about novitiate Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) traveling to Italy to become a nun and serve the aging nuns for whom the convent exists. It’s the same setup in The First Omen for Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), who’s going to Rome in 1971 to take the veil and help orphans. Both stories are energized by the Catholic Church’s obsession with virgin birth.

With encouragement from her mentor, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy, a man who can handily play good or evil because of his snarky smile and ambiguous whimsy), Margaret arrives with great joy from the elderly nuns, just as Cecilia did. I am ambivalent about nuns given my eight years under their thumbs in grammar school, for filmmakers seem also to love the possibilities of good and evil represented by their black and white uniforms. Sonia Braga is especially scary as Sister Silva.

First-time director Arkasha Stevenson pays homage to the Richard Donner 1976 horror classic, especially heroic for Stevenson since the original has become revered. The First Omen embraces a new take on the Antichrist by claiming its birth will bring back the faithful out of fear:

Father Brennan: [from trailer] “How do you control people who no longer believe? You create something to fear.”

It also enjoys even more body horror than the original, often to the exclusion of coherent plotting. While it is faithful to the chaotic demonstrations and riots of the time in Rome, The First Omen does miss Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score.

Margaret begins to feel the presence of the demon, who is destined to use a young woman to come into the world just as Christ the Savior did through Immaculate Mary. Although we can expect the arrival of Antichrist Damien, the devil of the original Omen starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, right now Margaret must fight the sins of the flesh even before she confronts the arrival of Damien.

She does have a go at a disco, dressed to kill, so to speak, the night before taking her vows. That fling will have import, just as Catholic doctrine promised when we fall into sin. The rest of the film is formula for jump-scare horror flicks because like Nazis, these good-looking religious are waiting to show their true colors, not healthy in any scary film.

Although no new cinematic ground is dug up here, its special effects are impressive mainly in the workups for births. What remains is the usual nun/Catholic horror porn with lots of blood, ugly evil ones, and unholy nuns and priests. In this version, not as in Immaculate, the priests are sometimes good guys, while the nuns are uniformly homely and malevolent.

The First Omen

Director: Arkasha Stevenson

Screenplay: Stevenson, Tim Smith (Searching), Keith Thomas (The Vigil)

Cast: Nell Tiger Free (Broken), Ralph Ineson (The Creator)

Run Time: 2h

Rating: R

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take (recently listed by Feedspot as two of the ten best NPR Movie Podcasts) out of WCBE 90.5 FM, Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at


John DeSando