The First Omen and Immaculate | Powerful horror for a post-Roe vs Wade world

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Both Immaculate and The First Omen explore women’s bodily autonomy with the help of the horror genre. Some thoughts… 

NB: The following contains heavy spoilers for both Immaculate and The First Omen.

In January 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled that the right to an abortion was protected under the US constitution. In June 2022, that ruling was overturned and it’s now harder than ever to seek an abortion in the US, regardless of your reasoning for needing one. 

Despite the ruling directly affecting only those with female reproductive organs specifically in the US, the impact of the overturning was felt all over the world. Women all over grappled with the idea that their body didn’t belong to them anymore, that someone else was deciding what was and wasn’t necessary for it. We became fearful that the same fate could await us wherever we were. 

Released within weeks of each other, both Immaculate and The First Omen deal with the horrors of the female body being used, violated and taken to the breaking point. Using the horror genre as their vessel, both films showcase the extremes that the body can stretch to and endure and the films’ themes feel all the more real and relatable in a world that seeks to control women’s bodies. 

immaculate sydney sweeney running
Immaculate. Credit: Black Bear

In Immaculate, Michael Mohan’s thrillride of a film, Sydney Sweeney’s Sister Cecilia finds herself miraculously pregnant despite being a virgin. As her pregnancy proceeds, Cecilia becomes more and more concerned for her safety as the convent’s villainous plan is revealed. 

The convent has managed to acquire one of the actual nails used to crucify Christ and they have even managed to extract some DNA from it. The convent has then impregnated Cecilia using Christ’s DNA in the hopes that it would produce them a clone of Christ himself. The child is said to have the potential to either save the world or to destroy it, drawing an unintended comparison to Oppenheimer

To make matters worse, Cecilia isn’t the first woman to endure this. Dozens before her have tried to carry the unnatural child inside them, but all have ended in stillbirth or miscarriage. Cecilia ultimately painfully gives birth to something monstrous, even though the camera doesn’t dare to show us what it looks like. Terrified of the creature, which is grunting unnaturally before her and might save the world or possibly end it, she is implied to crush it with a large rock after biting through the umbilical cord herself. 

Cecilia giving birth is a traumatic experience. Sweeney wails and grunts her way through it and we feel the pain. She did not choose this, she didn’t consent to growing a living thing inside her, her organs shifting out of its way as it grows rapidly inside Cecilia. She was forced to be a concubine, similarly to how many women are forced to carry unwanted children after abortion has become nearly impossible to get in the US, and many other countries. 

The First Omen also leans heavily on the body horror aspect of pregnancy. At the end of the film, the film’s protagonist Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is revealed to be pregnant with Damien, the future Anti-Christ. Her belly suddenly, unexpectedly swells up and she writhes in pain as the monstrous fetus invades her body. 

Unlike Cecilia, Margaret is forced to go through a caesarian, one without any pain relief. While director Arkasha Stevenson makes sure we get the spectacle of horror in shots where Margaret’s belly is cut open and hands plunge inside her to dig out the amniotic sac, the most horrifying shot includes no blood at all. 

Shot from the side, we only see Margaret up to her chest. She’s quivering and crying from fear and pain as someone is digging around inside of her while dozens of people watch from the outskirts of the room. Margaret’s body violently moves up and down on the table as they forcefully rummage around inside her, trying to pull out the contents of her womb. It’s a visceral, uncomfortable shot; this is not a gentle procedure, it’s invasive, it’s painful and it’s a violation on her body. It’s sickening. 

Read more: Director Laura Moss on Birth/Rebirth: “The assault on female bodily autonomy is ongoing”

Both films ask us to consider what is being done to these women. In The First Omen, Ralph Ineson’s Father Brennan (yep, that Father Brennan) tries to tell Margaret that the church is covering up years of abuse. “Rape,” he says in a hushed tone, as if to hide his words from God himself. To hear the word ‘rape’ used in a film distributed by Disney and one that features the Catholic church still feels revolutionary, but rape is exactly what both Cecilia and Margaret endure in their respective films. 

the first omen nell tiger free
The First Omen. Credit: 20th Century Studios

Then there’s the already-infamous shot that nearly earned The First Omen the feared NC-17 rating in the US. The shot shows another woman giving birth as Margaret watches through a window. The woman is in agonising pain and the camera refuses to look away from the suffering. Stevenson focuses her camera on three things; the woman’s face in a tight close-up, her swollen belly and knees from the side as she’s pushing and her vagina as something grotesque is making its way into the world. 

The US is notoriously bad at dealing with sex and nudity. Over a decade ago, Blue Valentine was also nearly given the NC-17 rating, all because Ryan Gosling performed oral sex on Michelle Williams. Blue Valentine, like The First Omen, managed to get the MPAA on their side and reduced the rating to a commercially viable R with no cuts, but clearly, the MPAA isn’t a fan of the female reproductive organs. 

Stevenson’s most bold shot in the film is a straight look at the woman’s vagina as a wrinkled, crooked hand emerges from it, extending its long, bony fingers towards the camera as if to grab us. It’s a shot that will no doubt be ingrained in the audience’s minds for a long time, but it’s also integral in communicating the horror that women endure in childbirth, whether it’s one they consented to or not. 

I can’t speak for the men in the audience, but as a woman, both Immaculate and The First Omen terrified me like no other horror film has managed in a long, long time. Men often say they feel funny, almost a ghost pain in their nether regions when they watch the Jackass lads get their balls stomped on or kicked in the nuts and for the first time, I understood that. During both films, I was unintentionally crossing my legs, protecting myself from the horrors that were unfolding on the screen.  

It’s impossible to watch either film without the context of Roe vs Wade’s overturning. We’re living in unprecedented, scary times and Stevenson and Mohan’s films hit that much harder because of it. 

Immaculate and The First Omen are in cinemas now. 

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