Review: ‘The First Omen’ plays to the faithful, but more nun fun is to be had elsewhere

Two women look skyward at something ominous.
Nell Tiger Free, left, and Nicole Sorace in the movie “The First Omen.”
(20th Century Studios)

“The First Omen,” as it happens, is neither the first “Omen” (1976’s half-loved horror hit) nor the first “Omen” reboot (a misbegotten 2006 attempt). It’s not even this spring’s first movie about nuns in trouble and baby bumps in the night; that would be March’s “Immaculate” starring an unbound Sydney Sweeney, a film that compares favorably to this one for being crazier, gorier and ultimately more defiant.

But “The First Omen” does have a certain swagger, like it was the only evil-pregnancy thriller in the world. Let’s credit debuting feature director Arkasha Stevenson (a former photographer for this paper) with the stylishness to pull off a potent sense of atmosphere and the kind of lovely period detail that deep studio pockets can fund but rarely have cause to summon. The movie is set in the seething, hippified Rome of 1971, a shaggy backdrop straight out of Federico Fellini’s “Roma” or, more aptly, Dario Argento’s post-Manson masterworks “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” and “Four Flies on Grey Velvet.”

Traipsing into these lushly hued shadows is Margaret (Nell Tiger Free of “Game of Thrones”), a wide-eyed novitiate who is quickly supplied with the type of companions that naive Americans typically get in these movies. There’s a kindly-but-clearly-malevolent mentor, Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), a louche, sexually experienced roommate unlikely to be taking vows anytime soon named Luz (Maria Caballero) and a spooky overseer, Sister Silvia (Sônia Braga).

A priest brings an ominous warning.
Ralph Ineson in the movie “The First Omen.”
(20th Century Studios)

Margaret, it is hoped, will be able to connect to the wayward generation currently protesting in the streets. (“A rejection of authority,” sighs Nighy’s cleric — as scripted by Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, this is a film that often says the quiet part out loud.) But mainly we’re waiting for the creaking, clanking scaffolding mishaps of “Omen” movies of yore: the rooftop suicide leaps and mark-of-the-beast reveals. Those moments do arrive, confidently, in ways that fans will tick off approvingly without ever being wholly traumatized by.

There is a genius at work here, though: the makeup and prosthetics designer Adrien Morot, elsewhere the creator of the vicious robot girl in “M3GAN” and an Oscar winner for “The Whale.” Morot has a gooey ball with these full-to-bursting wombs; one nightmarish image, surely pushing the R-rating to the limit, shows an unlikely clawed digit emerging from where delivery doctors would anticipate a crowned head. (I can’t wait to watch this on a plane.)

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How long will it be before Margaret, teetering around in heels at a disco, suffers a mysterious pregnancy that somehow manifests in weeks, not months? Don’t question “The First Omen” too hard. Its dark magic, such that it works, functions in sensory impressions: the gravelly basso of “The Witch” star Ralph Ineson’s voice (a special effect in itself) or the choral doom of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score from 1976, revived to fine effect.

The problem, of course, is that you know where this is going. You even know, somehow, that the final word uttered in the film will be a boy’s name, famous to even non-horror fans. A prequel to one of the most conservative movies of the 1970s, “The First Omen” is destined to disappoint anyone hoping for something a little more imaginative. It brings us straight to Gregory Peck’s ambassador, detailing a backstory we never needed in the first place. But it mainly speaks in a language of suspense, not jump scares, and if you ever wanted to spoil an omen with an omen beforehand, it should get you converted for a couple of hours.

'The First Omen'

Rating: R, for violent content, grisly/disturbing images, and brief graphic nudity

Nunning time: 2 hours

Playing: Now in wide release