The heart of Romola Garai’s Amulet, her debut as director, beats deep within the film’s running time, which confounds analysis of her work without giving away the ending. It’s a heavily backended piece, in other words: In keeping with expectations of so-called “elevated” horror, most of Garai’s best flourishes arrive after around an hour of slow-burning insinuations tied to a flashback structure, wherein Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a former Romanian soldier now squatting in London and doing odd jobs for cash, routinely dreams about what could be the precipitating incident that led him to leave the military and flee his home.
It’s easy to deduce that something bad happened between Tomaz and Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) at the woodland crossing zone he manned, but Garai holds back the truth for a critical length of time, just beyond the point where the mystery built from the beginning curdles into thematic indistinction. Tomaz meets a nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who makes lilting Biblical introductions with him first, and offers him work at a crumbling row house: “Like the lamb,” she says, “he did return into the fold, into the blessed light.” The house belongs to Magda (Carla Juri), a young immigrant like Tomaz, who barely leaves as she’s essentially chained to her sickly mother and tends to suffer a bruise or two in plain sight. Mom, coming to the end of her life as well as her humanity, lashes out at Magda’s care.
Tomaz, made wary by life experience as much as by nature—and being as the scenario itself screams of enigmatic dangers—enters the arrangement with an abundance of caution and his wartime baggage. This proves wise roughly half an hour into the movie, when Tomaz discovers an alarmingly large batlike creature in the bowl while unclogging a toilet sloshing with brackish water. It’s dead, he thinks, until it springs shrieking back to life and bites him. If it isn’t obvious that Amulet has terrible secrets up its sleeve from the moment Tomaz sets foot in Magda’s home, and it’s well past obvious, then this encounter spells out the unknown threat in bold type.
Garai’s filmmaking comprises the whole of Amulet’s treasures. For a 99-minute movie shot with a deliberate sense of pacing, the story never slackens, and even gains momentum as the plot opens up and its central macabre details are allowed to breathe. A good in-genre comparison to Garai’s work is Richard Shepard’s The Perfection: Where that film stumbles in the telling of the tale, it deftly recovers with some of the most insane and inventive imagery seen in most of 2018’s horror. Garai has a mind for the same style of mind-shattering ineffability, designs and creations that can only be understood through visual language (and even then, they still push back against easy understanding). The marriage she officiates between those visuals and disturbing graphic violence coats Amulet with layers of exploitation-level grease and grime, which offset the sniffy, self-regarding ambitions of the elevated horror niche.
Garai’s screenplay, though, runs into brick walls with characters, messaging and possibly unintended political gaffes. Amulet is ultimately a stranger-in-a-strange-land narrative where Tomaz leaves one hostile territory for another. Curses thrown at him by Britishers passing in cars invoke England’s pro-Brexit atmosphere, and the place that Garai goes in the end, where morality is judged and the wicked are dealt punishment in symmetry with their crimes, suggests accidental animus toward England’s immigrants. Look at what they bring with them, their trauma and tortured pasts. It doesn’t help that Garai’s structure forces her to withhold personality from Tomaz as well as Magda, which puts Secareanu and Juri in the unfavorable position of drawing fully fleshed-out people on screen without the aid of writing. They half succeed. Too many blanks remain.
Still, Garai’s array of filmmaking techniques are impressive and haunting, breathing an unsettling melancholy into her script. Dissolves from forbidding treescapes to Tomaz’s sleeping face and emphasis on ornate set decoration hidden beneath dilapidation drive home the film’s mixed motifs of end-of-life decay and duality. Not everything is what it seems. People aren’t always scarred by experience but by their actions. A house is more than merely a house. A nun isn’t just a sage monastic. A woman trapped by custody over her dying parent may not be trapped at all. But Amulet doesn’t entertain these conflicts as much as it springs them on viewers after the suspense has grown too thin and the video nasty pleasures Garai delivers on feel robbed of context. She clearly has a perspective and personal vision—Amulet is proof—but like Magda’s home, the movie’s foundations are in dire need of rehab.
Director: Romola Garai
Writer: Romola Garai
Starring: Alec Secareanu, Carla Juri, Imelda Staunton, Angeliki Papoulia
Release Date: July 24, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.