The First Omen is predictable proselytising with flashes of body horror genius | Films | Entertainment

The First Omen’s macabre atmosphere and hellish visuals aren’t quite enough to sustain yet another generic horror revamp.

Director Arkasha Stevenson makes her feature debut for the first entry into the pinnacle Antichrist horror franchise, which admittedly already has a spotty history, in 18 years.

After Richard Donner’s terrifying 1976 original, which is dripping with enough subtext and spooky chanting to rival The Exorcist, a number of underwhelming sequels and a 2006 reboot followed.

Almost two decades later, Stevenson daringly attempts to revive the chilling religious horror with its most iconic character, Damien, the son of the devil himself, nowhere in sight.

Instead, likable newcomer Nell Tiger Free stars as Margaret Daino, an American devout Christian who is sent to an orphanage in Rome to become a nun.

There she discovers a sinister conspiracy to birth the Antichrist on Earth to drive fearful sinners back to the church in droves.

Taking place in the weeks leading up to Damien being handed off to unsuspecting couple Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick), The First Omen has an intriguing premise that quickly falls victim to familiar horror trappings.

While its 1970s setting and Catholic iconography stand out from the usual crowd of Conjuring copycats, most of the scares here are woefully contrived and nothing horror-heads won’t have seen before.

Obligatory moments from the original classic are played out with only casual attempts to amp up the tension or reinvent them. Though the franchise delightfully leaned into unconventional slasher fare – gruesome and ridiculous kills either by happenchance a la Final Destination or a hard stare from Damien – very little of that is present in this austere retelling.

The laboured drama takes itself very seriously, often to its detriment, though many moments will have even the most hardened gorehounds clutching their armrests. There are flashes of Cronenbergian body horror delights, it’s just a shame they’ve been strung through an incredibly familiar framework.

Lead Tiger Free remains effectively terrified throughout the proceedings and, when the conspiracy takes a sharp yet foreseeable turn in the third act, she rises to some challenging heavy lifting pretty handily.

A surprising lift from Andrzej Żuławski’s cult favourite Possession (which stars The Omen III’s own Sam Neill) will either be a welcome descent into madness amidst otherwise rote and jumpy horror fare, or a jarring distraction before the final 20 minutes plays out exactly as predicted.

It’s those inspired moments that make The First Omen so frustrating. Director Stevenson clearly has the credentials after working on the likes of Legion and Channel Zero, but shies away from delivering anything truly innovative. This is some of the best visual horror in a minute, but the whole set-up around it is too paper-thin to justify nearly two hours.

The supporting cast includes a fleeting yet memorable introduction from Charles Dance, Sônia Braga as Sister Silvia, a stern nun who could give The Nun a run for her money, and Ralph Ineson serving up exposition as paranoid priest Father Brennan.

Meanwhile, British charmer Bill Nighy is rather unconvincing as a senior member of the Catholic church, Cardinal Lawrence, who winks his way through the first half but struggles somewhat to adjust to the relentless tone of the second.

While the original Omen will continue to be beloved for its chilling tone and commentary on mental illness, parenting and secularism becoming increasingly relevant, The First (and maybe last) Omen is a thrilling big screen watch that is nevertheless unlikely to stand the test of time.

The First Omen is in cinemas from Friday, April 5.

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