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‘The First Omen’ 4K Ultra HD (Digital review)

Disney

 Satan was a hot property back in the late sixties and early 70s.

I was too young for Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, but at least I got to read the Mad Magazine parodies. “The Ecchorcist” ends with the Devil offering to leave his victim in exchange for six more Satanic movies. “Father Merry” says it could go as high as sixty or seventy.

He was actually short of the mark—IMdB lists seventy-eight movies in the “Demonic/Religious Horror films” category since 1973, and even that seems a low estimate—though few of them have scaled the, um, depths of Polanski’s and Friedkin’s visions.

Only one, in fact, seems to enjoy the same iconic status: Richard Donner’s 1976 thriller The Omen.

Riding a wave of Last-Days paranoia inspired by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and those Hal Hartley Archie comics where Archie and Jughead talk about the Second Coming, The Omen asks a simple question: what if you were literally raising the Devil?

Donner’s answer to that question is a pure horror play. There’s none of the gaslighting of Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist’s musings on faith. Instead, The Omen keeps flinging us into nightmare scenarios where nannies hang themselves and baboons hurl themselves at a car while little Damien looks on placidly.

Usually the mayhem is foreshadowed by the arrival of a crow and a chorus singing, “Ave Satani,” Jerry Goldsmith’s answer to the Jaws theme (to date the only Oscar-winning song with Latin lyrics). Anyone who tries to get in Damien’s way is swiftly dispatched: the number one rule of all Satanic horror films is that nobody beats the Devil.

So it was interesting to see Arkasha Stevenson try to change that rule in The First Omen, billed as an immediate prequel to the 1976 original, Rogue One to its A New Hope.

Stevenson, the writer-director of Brand New Cherry Flavor, is once again exploring psychological and body horror from the perspective of marginalized people. In this case it’s young girls, and the bad guys are nuns. Well, nuns and the Catholic patriarchy they defend. The nuns are of the heavily wimpled, sour-faced and violence-happy variety: led by Sister Silva (a near-unrecognizable Sonia Braga), they run a hospital for pregnant teens and a hostel for their (exclusively female) offspring in 70s-era Rome. The patriarchy is represented by Bill Nighy as Cardinal Lawrence, who’s brought his young protégé Margaret (Nell Tiger Free, aka Myrcella Baratheon from Game of Thrones) to be enrolled as a future member of the order.

Margaret describes herself as a former bad kid, though we don’t see many signs of it. She’s simple and caring, unschooled in the ways of the world like Maria von Trapp. Except that these kids are not learning to sing. Most of them seem cheerful enough to be living in a creepy convent with peeling paint and no TV… except for poor Carlita (Nicole Sorace), who draws creepy prophetic pictures in the “bad room” and seems intended for some dark purpose. Margaret is immediately drawn to protect Carlita from the nuns who are intent on keeping her isolated and despised. This is the dramatic conflict through most of the movie’s first half: what secret is Carlita keeping?

As he did in the 1976 Omen, Father Brennan has the answers… only they’re different answers.

It’s at this point that The First Omen reveals itself not as a prequel but a reboot.

In the original Omen, Father Brennan was furtive and crazed, a fallen priest who’s trying to warn Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn that his real son was murdered by his fellow Satanists while the baby he took in exchange, Damien, is the son of the Devil and an actual by-God jackal. Against all probability, his story checks out: exploring an old Etruscan cemetery, Thorn unearths the remains of a jackal… and the skeleton of a newborn infant with a crushed skull.

Ralph Ineson, with a voice deep enough to leave Patrick Warburton and Brad Garrett crying angry tears, plays a very different Father Brennan with a very different prophecy. This Brennan still has most of his marbles, so he seems entitled to be believed when he tells Margaret that there are not one but two Roman Catholic churches: one dedicated to love and the teachings of Jesus, the other using terror to force unbelievers back into the arms of Holy Mother Church.

This second, evil church invites demons to sexually abuse children, hoping to produce the Antichrist and give Christianity its ultimate boss villain. Margaret responds with incredulity… though I’m pretty sure anyone who’s lived in the past two centuries will be saying, Yes, it abuses children and terrorizes people and…?

What about the jackal? There is no jackal. Damien’s future mom is a perfectly ordinary young girl named… well, that would be telling.

Once we know that the bad guys are not a few rogue Satanists hiding out in the church but a powerful faction within the institution itself, the meaning of The First Omen becomes clear. Probably too clear. Every horror movie has some subtext, but knowing the subtext is rarely good for horror. Once we see The First Omen as a commentary on the Catholic Church’s abuse of children and regressive stand on reproductive rights (every uterus that can bear a child must do so, no matter how it was forced to conceive) there’s nowhere else for our imagination to retreat. It’s a good message, but a little loud. Social commentary can work in horror-comedies like Get Out where the accusations are presented as satire, but The First Omen keeps us in darker territory. So we’ve got heavy foreshadowing (Carlita’s spooky pictures of pregnant girls delivering monsters), body horror (Margaret witnesses a young girl giving birth to a demon), and a whole lot of jump scares involving crazy nuns. These moments work, but not as well as they could: Anderson has us thinking too much. A good horror movie is one where you want to yell “Don’t go in there!” or “Don’t trust them!” In The Omen, it’s more likely to be, “Okay, okay, I get you.”

There are a lot of standouts in The First Omen. Maria Caballero shines as Margaret’s fellow novice Luz, a party girl who makes Margaret exchange her habit for a sequined top so they can go disco dancing (they haven’t taken their vows yet). Sonia Braga is terrifying as the imperious Sister Silva, and Bill Nighy (as always) is affably louche as Cardinal Lawrence. He plays the big bad less like a true believer and more like an inappropriate relative sneaking you a nip of scotch. Unfortunately these characters are all underutilized. I thought one of the nuns was being set up to become Mrs. Baylock (Damien’s protector, memorably portrayed by Billie Whitelaw) and that Cardinal Lawrence might play a deadlier role: Margaret trusts him, and it would have been wrenching to see him betray that trust. But Mrs. Baylock does not appear, and the Cardinal is reduced in the final act to the part of Explainer Villain.

As I said early on, Anderson tries to change the rules of the genre by suggesting there actually is a way to beat the Devil, or at least even the odds. I can’t explain it without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it involves a kind of female empowerment. It doesn’t really dovetail into the events of The Omen—in fact, it seems to be pointing toward a whole new take on the franchise—but the final scene definitely avoids the fatalism of the original Omen series, where we’re all just hot dogs waiting to be grilled in Satan’s Sausage Fest.

There’s a kind of “come and get me” defiance to the end of The First Omen, like you might see at the end of a Terminator movie: dark forces are coming, but they won’t find me unarmed. I found the ending appropriate and just, but also predictable and way too cliffhanger-y. The world is definitely ready for victims and survivors who fight back against their abusers. Whether the demonic horror genre is ready is not foreseen in Revelation or Satan’s black book.

Extras include featurettes.

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