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The First Omen ★★★★★



Released: 5th April 2024

Director: Arkasha Stevenson

Starring: Nell Tiger Free, Bill Nighy, Ralph Ineson, Sônia Braga

Arkasha Stevenson’s interrogative and entirely committed directorial feature debut The First Omen is a side-splitting, emotionally arresting hell-dive into religious psyche, corporeal trauma and the anatomy of birth. Stevenson’s remarkable work examines what it means to bear life, to take life and to have rules about your own existence and body both explicitly and inexcusably pre-determined for you. These abusive ‘plans’ governed by the Church themselves to oppose the ongoing Italian civil rights movement and the systematic deconstruction of Italy’s religious landscape, lead to the arrival of Margaret, portrayed fearlessly and nakedly by Nell Tiger Free, who has arrived in Rome in 1971 to take her vows. She is greeted and comforted by Cardinal Lawrence, Bill Nighy, who’s typically understated and still performance erupts into an evil that one could not even begin to imagine.

Cardinal Lawrence, who took care of Margaret as a child in an orphanage in America, has ulterior motives alongside the malevolent Sister Silvia, Sônia Braga, who’s plans ultimately result in the incongruous distorting and methodical dismantling of Margaret’s entire existence, her sense of agency and fundamentally her reality. It is mentioned early on that Margaret’s struggles as a child where based in her psychological struggles and early childhood traumas, but where typical trauma-based horror fails is in their demonisation of these struggles. The First Omen’s genius is in the alignment of Margaret and Carlita.

Both marginalised and separated from the very culture that proposes to not do precisely that,
Margaret and Carlita immediately form a lifelong homosocial bond entrenched in their difficulties in early life. Unlike the utterly bland and inconsequential Immaculate, that released a week prior to this, Stevenson’s The First Omen is both thematically and formally exceptional. From spine-tingling slow cross-dissolves into infrared spiders like something made by František Vláčil, to technically immaculate shot composition and editing of both environmental space and the body itself, at both a macro and external perspective. In recent times, genres pieces of the contemporary horror-landscape have seemingly been terrified of photographing the body. The First Omen entirely reverses this notion, demonstrating a fascination and, crucially, an empathetic understanding of the corporeal self. The idea that the relationship between physiology and psychology are entirely webbed in with one and other and the devastation of finding out that what was supposed to protect you, has ultimately been exploiting and abusing every fibre of your being for a lifetime.

Furthermore, Stevenson’s dedication to exploring femininity and womanhood in light of these abusive so-called ‘higher powers’ gives The First Omen an omniscient and entirely human feel. The multiple, terrifying and devastating birth sequences do not hide from the reality of childbearing. Originally rated as NC-17 in America for its graphic depictions of birth, mean that Stevenson’s persistence and dedication to not only body horror, but female-led body horror are firmly embedded in depicting the reality of what can only be described as an explosive and agonising female-only experience. Near the eventual and crippling birth of the titular First Omen, the muffled and agonising cries of Margaret’s, “Is this really real?” sent me emotionally sideways. Like a strange call-back to Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, Arkasham Stevenson places herself firmly in the top-tier of genre-based filmmakers, despite this only being her directorial debut.

Bleeding out, guts and all into one of the boldest franchise genre films in recent history, The First Omen is not just formally the greatest film of 2024 so far, but one of the most perforating and unquestionably emotionally resonant pieces of horror work in a long time. Unafraid and feverish in its rich and complex portrayal of womanhood in a metaphysical, religious landscape that aims to misuse and exploit every ounce, Arkasha Stevenson’s The First Omen is truly, one of the most devastating and terrifying genre films in a very long time.

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