Scroll To Top
Reviews

The First Omen is a chilling tale of authoritarian control & a diabolically good time

‘The First Omen’ is a chilling tale of authoritarian control & a diabolically good time

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

In a time when fascistic powers are intent on controlling our bodies, minds, and reproductive choices, this all-too-timely and terrifying film hits just right.

rachiepants

The First Omen, as its name suggests, takes place before the events of the ’70s horror classic, but its themes, anxieties, and messages are as relevant as ever. It’s an exploration of religious trauma and authoritarian assault on bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom that prove to be terrifyingly timely.

It’s also just a wicked good time.

The film focuses on Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), a young American and prospective nun who has come to Rome to take the veil. However, when she arrives in the city, she’s surrounded by civil unrest as a younger generation is pushing back at the oppressive and exploitative systems of government, the economy, and the church. Temptation also lurks around every corner, particularly at the hands of her roommate and fellow novitiate Lux (Maria Caballero), who suggests they take advantage of the time they have left to express their individuality before they commit to being the bride of Christ.

(Left): Mar\u00eda Caballero as Luz in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Margaret also takes on a new role as a teacher at the local orphanage; she meets a young, troubled, occasionally violent girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) whose background mirrors her own traumatic childhood. The closer she looks around her, the more her suspicion grows that the church she calls home, the authority figures she looks up to, and the beliefs she has held all mask a dark and sinister truth — and since this is a horror film, she’s not wrong.

While the setup may sound familiar, the execution is anything but rote. Director Arkasha Stevenson embraces the era with not only costuming and set design but by paying homage to the era with her shot selection, pacing, and a film-like grain that makes the movie, aesthetically at least, feel lifted directly from that decade. It serves as a cinematic artifact, though its modern vision of the church would make it far ahead of its time.

(L-R): Director Arkasha Stevenson and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret on the set of 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

At the film’s center is, of course, Free’s performance as Margaret. In a lesser film, she would be simply naive and eye-rollingly plucky, or a too-worldly cynic, but instead she is something far more interesting and nuanced. She feels driven not by the needs of the plot, but by a rich and complicated psychology born of trauma, curiosity, compassion, and the fierce drive to survive. She has been the witness to and recipient of horrific abuses both of the mind and body, and yet she remains beautifully, utterly human. And in Free’s fearless and grounded performance, you can see the constantly shifting layers just below the surface and a in a haunting around her eyes.

Religious iconography is used to great and chilling effect throughout. In one shot in particular, while Margret is practically prostrate in prayer, the camera pulls back to reveal that she is surrounded by burning candles that emulate the maw of a creature that has her trapped in its jaws, and a weaponized stained glass window that carves its way into a very memorable moment in the film. That said, it’s the film’s psychological aspects that really drive home the horror.

Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios\u2019 THE FIRST OMEN.

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Sexual assault is also an aspect of this film, but it is never gratuitous, nor played for titillation, and it’s utterly monstrous in every sense of the word. But most importantly, it serves to unequivocally convey the film’s themes rather than just aiming for shock.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments that are truly rattling, two of which take place in a birthing room and cannot be unseen. To be clear, we mean that as the highest compliment.

The film is at turns dripping with a slow creeping dread, while also brazenly grotesque and shocking, and director Stevenson uses both modes to great effect. While the film might take longer to ramp up than most modern audiences are accustomed to, when diabolical action is finally unleashed — and unleashed is the right word — in its final act, the payoff is ferocious, unflinching, and visceral. It quickly wipes away any memory of perceived pacing issues.

(L-R): Sonia Braga as Silvia and Nell Tiger Free as Margaret in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN.

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Ultimately, The First Omen’s impact is a testament to the staying power of religious horror as a subgenre and an excellent introduction to an exciting and subversive new voice in horror. It’s also definitely the pro-choice movie of the year. Oh, and give Nell Tiger Free every role, because she’s a, ahem, revelation.

Rating: 4 stars

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

author avatar

Rachel Shatto

EIC of PRIDE.com

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Dread Central, Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Dread Central, Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.