Film review: The First Omen

The sixth Omen story loops back in time to the 1970s in the lead-up to the birth of Damien, who unleashes the forces of Satan and wreaks havoc on earth.

Apr 18, 2024, updated Apr 18, 2024

If you see this and wonder why the late Gregory Peck is the face of the American diplomat who switches his biological baby for another, you don’t know your Omen. In the 1976 original, Peck played Robert Thorn, who, at the urging of the hospital chaplain, replaced his baby who died soon after birth with another. His wife, Katherine (played by Lee Remick), never knew and they christened the boy Damien. Peck, who died in 2003, is glimpsed only in a photograph but it’s a key to how seriously Omen fans take their beginnings.

This prequel is the sixth in the Omen series – the 2006 The Omen was a remake of the first – and it charts new horrors in establishing the backstory of how Damien came to be born the Antichrist.

The overarching explanation is that it was a cynical bid by the Catholic Church to woo people back to their faith by facilitating the birth of an agent of Satan. With congregations dwindling, a reminder of the forces of darkness should scare the flock back to God, so they think.

It begins in Rome, 1971, as the young American novitiate Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) arrives at the Vizzardeli Convent to begin her induction into becoming a bride of Christ. She is welcomed by the kindly Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), who has known and mentored her since she was young girl in foster care.

Jump scares abound as Margaret arrives, and a heart-stopping bang on a car door early on is just a harbinger of what is to come. Everything is startling. People do not so much walk into a room as loom out of the darkness and there are so many visual and auditory hallucinations that Margaret’s grasp on reality slips.

This is understandable because the convent is home to a strange crew, including roommate Luz (Maria Cabellero), who convinces Margaret to sneak out and go partying where she dances with a boy named Paolo but then blacks out. There is also Carlita (Nicole Sorace), an artistically inclined girl who is treated badly by the nuns and who draws figures of people restrained on a bed.

The intrigue deepens when Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) engineers a meeting and warns Margaret not to trust anyone at Vizzardeli. By now, neither do I, as Sister Anjelica (Ishtar Currie-Wilson) simultaneously hangs herself and self-immolates, declaring “it’s all for you” before swinging like a crazed candle over the heads of the horrified nuns.

To say more would be telling, and while the origin story may be known, the way it came about in 1970s Rome is not. It is enough to know that Margaret starts questioning her faith as her sanity slips, the discoveries grow and the religious chants that provide much of the portentous backtrack grow ever more demonic. By the time Gregory Peck makes his appearance, events are well in train and not even Margaret can stop the coming of Damien.

The First Omen is in cinemas now.

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