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“The First Omen” is a prequel with style

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I hate to describe The First Omen as unexpectedly well done and even a little surprising. But for an essentially unnecessary prequel to “The Omen,” the 1976 hit about a satanic child, two unhappy parents and three sixes, its merits point to a promising feature debut from director and co-writer Arkasha Stevenson, a former Los Angeles native , a Times photojournalist with a flair for uncanny beauty.

The word “unexpected” does not reflect well on my occasional biases. I try not to pre-judge any film except an Eli Roth film, and look where that got me: “Thanksgiving” was worth it! In a more measured style, “The First Omen” is also full of flashy allusions to various executions, impalements and characters from the Richard Donner hit, but with a visual certainty and personality all its own.

Rome doesn't hurt, although it certainly doesn't help young Margaret (Nell Tiger Free of the M. Night Shyamalan Showtime series “Servant”) in “The First Omen.” An American with a difficult childhood, she will soon wear the veil thanks to her American sponsor, the high-ranking Cardinal played by Bill Nighy. Much of the narrative, written by Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, takes place in the confines of the orphanage to which Margaret was assigned. The frightening and obviously mysterious Sister Silva runs the place, and considering that the great, gravelly-voiced Sonia Braga takes on the role and Ralph Ineson plays the disgraced Irish priest (introduced in the first Omen), is one hell of a pair of basso profundo voices, well suited to unholy menace.

The story's setting in 1971 leads to a variety of social upheavals that have negatively impacted church attendance worldwide. Without giving away the game, “The First Omen” imagines what powerful subgroups of the Catholic leadership might resort to to lure lapsed believers back into the pews and pray for their lives. Haunted by demon visions, Margaret keeps an eye on Carlita (Nicole Sorace), the orphanage's real problem child, a similarly troubled loner. Is she the devil's child?

“The First Omen” underwent some cuts involving graphic footage of a birth, the kind filmed straight by director Stevenson, but in a way, at least re-edited, to achieve an NC-17 rating avoid anything that isn't the usual kind of horror movie fodder. Not to mention the double standard: I've seen far more heinous violence on screen in R-rated films made by men in male-dominated stories. Gynecological body horror remains a final frontier for some viewers. Roman Polanski did a lot of inference and suggestion in “Rosemary's Baby,” five years before “The Exorcist” combined crudity with piety and made a dubiously influential fortune.

“The First Omen” has little claim to landmark or pantheon status. But it's a film that maximizes all of its elements with a bit of panache. Stevenson, editors Amy E. Duddleston and Bob Murawski, and cinematographer Aaron Morton save the explicit image for crucial sequences. Not everything fits or fits together in “The First Omen”: Father Brennan’s exposé dump about the church’s plans to retain power feels rushed and confused; Some of the narrative and visual references to the 1976 film don't add much to the film we're watching. Still, it's a pretty exciting experience.

There is also an off-center introduction to the main narrative that includes Margaret's introduction to Rome's nightlife before she wears the veil. Her impishly sexy roommate and novice plays the hostess, and Maria Caballero, who plays her, is spectacularly expressive in close-up. As Margaret, Free works more modestly but effectively, and there's a pretty stunning moment where she undergoes (certainly mostly) a physical transformation without any assistance from digital effects. It's a long shot, with no cuts to emphasize the shocks. It works out. And that kind of directorial instinct is most welcome.

“The First Omen” – 3 stars (out of 4)

MPA Rating: R (for violent content, gruesome/disturbing images and brief graphic nudity)

Running time: 2:00

How to watch: Premieres in theaters April 4th

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.