INTERVIEW: Emory grad Keith Levine produces horror prequel ‘The First Omen’

He was a film studies major as an undergrad and made a career out of it.
A woman played by Nell Tiger Free starts to question her own faith when she uncovers a terrifying conspiracy to bring about the birth of evil incarnate in Rome. 20th Century Studios

Credit: 20th Century Studios

Credit: 20th Century Studios

A woman played by Nell Tiger Free starts to question her own faith when she uncovers a terrifying conspiracy to bring about the birth of evil incarnate in Rome. 20th Century Studios

Keith Levine, who was born in 1983, grew up with two older brothers who exposed him to classic horror movies when he was not even a tween, including “The Exorcist,” “Carrie,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Omen.”

That may sound like a recipe for nightmares and future therapy visits as an adult, but Levine was able to funnel his love for horror into his own production company. And the Class of 2006 Emory University graduate has revived “The Omen” franchise with a prequel shot in Rome and released in theaters the weekend of April 5.

The “Omen” franchise includes the original film in 1976, three sequels, a remake and an A&E TV show “Damien” in 2006. So it’s been 18 years since anybody has tried to do anything with the property.

Levine, who runs Phantom Four Productions and has already resurrected the “Hellraiser” franchise in 2022, decided to take another bite at the “Omen” apple. He is well aware that this is hardly a risk-free proposition.

“When you step into the driver’s seat,” Levine said in a recent Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “there are a lot of expectations. There are a lot of thoughts. There are a lot of people saying, ‘Don’t do it. Why are you doing it?’”

The original “Omen” features Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck as a father whose newborn son dies at birth so he subs out another child without telling his wife. But the child Damien is the Antichrist and all sorts of shocking, super violent murders happen. Despite mixed reviews, it was a box office hit, almost grossing as much as the Robert Redford classic “All the President’s Men.”

“Damien became an iconic character,” Levine said. “A father who brought in this child with a lie is told he has to now kill him. There’s an intensity to that core conflict.”

“The First Omen” goes back to how Damien came to be. The film’s focus is around Margaret (Nell Tiger Free), an American nun who comes to Rome in 1971 to work at an orphanage and uncovers a church conspiracy to spawn the Antichrist as a twisted way to scare people into going back to the church.

Margaret, despite the warnings of her superiors, befriends a child she thinks might be construed as the bad seed, so to speak.

The film is atmospherically dark and foreboding as it attempts to capture the magic of the original movie.

“Our goal is to bring the franchise back to its glory,” Levine said.

So far, the reviews opening weekend have been largely good with a 79% positive rating from 126 reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Frequently frightening even as it plays within the confines of a nearly 50-year-old film series, this prequel is the first omen of a bright future for the franchise in quite some time,” the website said in summary.

“What is cool about the movie is we had all this lore from the original movie that we were backing into,” Levine said. “We wanted to put some of it on its head. For instance, Damien’s mom is a jackal. That proves true, but we do it in a unique way. What was fun was we had a destination, but we got to do some fun things along the way.”

“The First Omen” opened at a relatively soft $9.1 million for a film budgeted at about $30 million, finishing third for the weekend. The average grade from opening weekend moviegoers was a C, according to CinemaScore.

Bill Nighy plays the morally bankrupt Cardinal Lawrence in "The First Omen." 20th Century Studios

Credit: 20th Century

icon to expand image

Credit: 20th Century

While most of the cast is relatively unknown, the producers did nab esteemed Academy Award-nominated British actor Bill Nighy as Cardinal Lawrence, a senior member of the Catholic church who is enmeshed in the conspiracy.

“Bill has that charisma,” Levine said. “He’s a total pro. Every time he was on set, everybody had a great time being around him. He learned everybody’s name. He felt like part of the family. He and Nell hit it off. While they looked intense on camera, they were singing and dancing between takes.”

The most challenging scene to put together was early in the film when Margaret views a horrific birth. “It was graphic on the page and graphic in the movie,” he said. “We had to build a prosthetic. Every step of the way, we had to think, ‘Should we be spending time on this? Will the ratings board cut it?’ We had to go back and forth with them. That scene was constantly under scrutiny.”

Levine during his time at Emory regularly saw films at the Plaza and Tara cinemas and wrote culture stories for The Emory Wheel. “My cinema brain was maybe cracked open in Atlanta,” he said. “That was where I was pursuing my cinematic boundaries and seeking out new stuff. My brother lives in Marietta, so I came back to Atlanta quite a bit. I have a 404 cell number. I’m connected to Atlanta.”


“The First Omen,” in area movie theaters now