Producers: David S. Goyer and Keith Levine   Director: Arkasha Stevenson   Screenplay: Tim Smith, Arkasha Stevenson and Keith Thomas   Cast: Nell Tiger Free, Ralph Ineson, Sônia Braga, Tawfeek Barhom, Maria Caballero, Charles Dance, Billy Nighy, Nicole Sorace, Ishtar Currie Wilson, Andrea Anjelica and Dora Romano   Distributor: 20th Century Studios

Grade: C

Damien Thorn might have had considerable power, being the Antichrist and all, but as the three “Omen” movies made between 1976 and 1981 showed, despite the help of numerous supporters and some initial successes, things did not turn out well for him.  Now “The First Omen” appears to inform us that while Damien’s life proved to be no picnic, he also had a very difficult birth—not so much for him, perhaps, but certainly for many of those around him.

The screenplay for the prequel, set largely in 1971 near the start of the two-decade period in Italian history known as the Years of Lead because of the pervasive far-left and far-right acts of terrorism that rocked the peninsula (thus the many demonstrations in the streets depicted here), centers on Margaret Daino (Nell Tiger Free), a naïve American girl who arrives in Rome to be a postulant in a local abbey and orphanage preparatory to eventually taking the veil as a full member of the community.  She’s welcomed warmly by Cardinal Lawrence (Bill Nighy), an old friend from her earliest days in an orphanage, who introduces her to the Abbas, Mother Silvia (Sônia Braga).

Margaret’s novitiate is unconventional.  She’s assigned a roommate, Luz Valez (Maria Caballero), who arrives on the scene wearing clothes that make her seem like a streetwalker, and promptly invites Margaret out for a night on the town, which involves writhing about on the dance floor, linking up with a shy fellow named Paolo (played by an actor whose name, ironically enough, is Andrea Arcangeli), and getting so blotto she remembers nothing of what happened the next morning.  Luz will later receive the habit in an elaborate ceremony; Margaret’s profession, however, is postponed. 

Why?  Because she’s become protective of Carlita (Nicole Sorace), a somber, dark-haired girl frequently punished for being bad who has the habit of drawing gloomy, fearsome pictures.  In fact, she was with Carlita when another nun, Sister Anjelica (Ishtar Currie Wilson) added a scrawl of a baby in the stomach of a picture of a woman the girl had drawn—an event followed by Anjelica’s histrionic suicide as she screams “It’s all for you!”  The good nun’s motive for her act isn’t even remotely explained, except that watching a woman who’s just immolated herself before leaping from a balcony makes for a nifty horror-movie sequence.

Margaret becomes even more troublesome to the community when she’s approached by Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson), the priest some will remember from the 1976 “Omen,” who informs her of a plot within the Church to arrange the birth of the Antichrist for reasons even sillier than those that drove the culprits in “The Da Vinci Code.”  (We’ve already met Brennan in this movie’s prologue, as he watches in horror as one of the conspiracy’s members, played by Charles Dance in a cameo that makes his presence mercifully brief, suffers the consequences of doubt.)  Brennan’s confidences cause Margaret to engage in detective work to find out what’s going on in the abbey—as if we didn’t know.

Thanks largely to the skill of director Arkasha Stevenson, making her first feature after some television work (including directing an episode of the oddball Dan Stevens series “Legion”), “The First Omen” delivers a number of effective moments, including some that are extremely grisly instances of body horror and plenty of jump scares.  But like Sister Anjelica’s suicide, most are bluntly contrived and often illogical, and those in the final reel are quite predictable, down to an ending cunningly designed to lead directly into the 1976 movie while allowing for a different, parallel storyline in a possible sequel.

Free makes a sympathetic heroine, capturing poor Margaret’s discomfort in a disturbing new environment and her growing terror over that’s happening to her.  The rest of the cast handle their roles adequately, with Braga in particular cutting a fearsomely single-minded figure.  But it is rather sad to watch Nighy, who hit a career high recently in “Life,” slumming as Cardinal Lawrence.  But once you’ve done “Underworld,” it’s hard to sink much lower.

The craft contributions—Eve Stewart’s production design, Paco Delgado’s costumes, and Aaron Morton’s desaturated cinematography—make for a suitably dank, sinister atmosphere, and editors Bob Marawski and Amy E. Duddleston try to keep the increasingly cumbersome plot clear, while Mark Korven’s score indulges too blatantly in those foghorn groans that are so common nowadays.

As might have been expected, “The First Omen,” proves an utterly superfluous, as well as ludicrous and rather ugly, prologue to a movie that succinctly gave as much information about Damien’s birth as was needed.  It’s fairly efficient in its crude way, but since its subject is religious, you could cite Scripture in making a final judgment about it.  Matthew 20:16 famously states that “the last shall be first, and the first last.”  One might hope that this titular first “Omen” will be the last.  Don’t bet on it, though.