What to expect when you’re expecting … the Antichrist?

Filmmaker Arkasha Stevenson delivers her gleefully gruesome answer to that increasingly popular question in 20th Century’s terrifying and triumphant “The First Omen.” It’s a nominally named soft franchise reboot and the vastly superior (if accidental) answer to Neon’s “Immaculate” with Sydney Sweeney, also in theaters now.

Yes, both horror films explore what happens when a child of Christ is involuntarily forced to carry a demon baby to term. And yes, both movies have some merit; trite but true, Damien just doesn’t have that “Cassie from ‘Euphoria’” pull. But only Stevenson’s spin on “The Omen” can tie its borderline NC-17 terror to a multi-decade genre legacy suddenly feasting on noticeably improved visual artistry and a narratively satisfying revamp of stale IP.

In “The First Omen,” Nell Tiger Free stars as Margaret, an American nun in training come to teach at an ill-fated orphanage in Rome. Serving under a strict mother superior (Sônia Braga), Margaret was called to the school by a cardinal she’s known since childhood (Bill Nighy) and soon runs into a troubled girl (Nicole Sorace) who oddly reminds her of herself. Paradigm-shifting for Margaret and “The Omen” franchise, it’s this relationship that makes up the meat of the movie; if you can watch these two talk on a bench, you’ll follow the plot just fine.

A scene from 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
‘The First Omen’Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Still, for the unindoctrinated, it’s worth knowing the basics. Stevenson’s giallo-inspired (*) prequel takes place just a few months before the start of Richard Donner’s 1976 masterwork. Those classic horror beats — grayer and distinctly more British in pallor — center on a U.S. ambassador, his unlucky wife, and a still pint-sized Son of Satan residing in London.

(*There comes a time in most Rome-set horror movies when you have to ask yourself: Is this supposed to look like a giallo — or is that actress just well-lit and Italian? One such moment arrives about a third of the way into “The First Omen.” As Margaret’s stunning roommate and fellow wannabe nun Luz, played by Maria Caballeler, lounges on her bed, she’s covered in a prismatic pool and it’s definitely giallo.)

Three increasingly weak sequels and an abysmally bad 2006 remake later, Damien faced diminishing returns on his franchise. Yes, everybody loved seeing Sam Neill monologuing on the precipice of world domination in “Omen III: The Last Conflict.” But before now “The Omen” franchise was perhaps best described as “’Final Destination’ for Rich and/or Educated People Who Pissed Off the Devil.”

Sonia Braga as Sister Silva in 20th Century Studios' THE FIRST OMEN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Sonia Braga in ‘The First Omen’Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Freak accidents, animal attacks, recreational sports injuries, and the occasional aneurysm have punctuated “The Omen” screenwriter David Seltzer’s nostalgic but sometimes fallible and forgettable universe. As radical as the Emmy-winning “Prey” with as many of its own sequel possibilities as the smash hit series midquel “Saw X,” “The First Omen” ticks all the boxes of a justified IP revisitation that arguably should get more chapters becausse it improves what came before it.

From a screenplay co-written by Stevenson, Tim Smith, and Keith Thomas with a story by Ben Jacoby, the unholy conception of Damien Thorn for “The First Omen” doubles as the basis for Stevenson’s feature directorial debut — releasing intense scares at a contraction-like pace, before giving birth to a last act no one could forget. It’s also the rare prequel (sequel, requel, what have you) that fits seamlessly inside the existing franchise and makes tracks toward a chilling new future. In short, it births something new and genuinely scary. Remember when that wasn’t so rare?

Grade: B

Distributed by 20th Century Studios, “The First Omen” is in theaters on Friday, April 5.

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