Written and Directed by Romola Garai
Starring Carla Juri, Alec Secăreanu, Imelda Staunton, Angeliki Papoulia, and Paul O’Kelly
An ex-soldier, living homeless in London, is offered a place to stay at a decaying house inhabited by a young woman and her dying mother. As he starts to fall for her, he cannot ignore his suspicion that something sinister is going on.
There is most definitely an amulet in the titular filmmaking horror debut from British actress Romola Garai (both writing and directing here), but it’s not a fixture within the narrative the way someone might assume coming into this. And that’s for the best, as Amulet is centered on a PTSD-ridden war veteran (no details given on the actual war, properly utilizing the less is more concept) who, through some bad luck followed by some mild fortune, has gone from homeless to occupying free lodging. The reason being is to help a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri) that must care for her top-floor living mother at such a constant rate that she is effectively a reclusive shut-in.
From the moment Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) sets foot in the house after being given the opportunity by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), it’s clear that something is not right with the ailing woman housed up top and locked away like a shameful secret, and it doesn’t require a visual to come to that deduction. There are frequent moaning noises that suggest she might as well be a zombie, she has a habit of attempting self-harm to the point where all electricity has been disabled inside the home, and simply put, she doesn’t even sound human. Yes, these are all tropes, but it’s what Romola Garai does with these basic ideas and how she flips them upside down that really amps up the suspense.
Amulet begins with deliberately slow pacing but always has its atmosphere and mystery under control. Part of that is due to some interwoven flashbacks of Tomaz stationed at a security checkpoint during the war, where he also comes to both unearth the pivotal artifact and befriend a woman in need. The situation not only somewhat parallels what he is going through in the present but slowly fills in details that this man harbors some dark secrets and even darker impulses.
Nevertheless, Tomaz begins to enjoy the company of Magda, even when all signs dictate that he should probably get far away from this evil predicament that only becomes more sinister with time. To be fair, their developing connection could have been handled better; sometimes the bonding feels off and not in the way that it is supposed to be. One terrific sequence sees taking Magda to a nightclub for some evening fun, where her dancing elicits a sense of longing freedom that one hopes she will be able to have by the end of the movie. Meanwhile, Tomaz has glimpses of his troubled past.
However, not all of Amulet‘s strongest moments are about pondering past and future. Tomaz uncovers some disturbing horrific images while performing his renovations on the house; namely an overgrown bat that suspiciously looks like a fetus. The practical effects are not only stellar, but that one image alone (along with the rightfully animated and expressive physical reactions from Alec Secareanu, who in general is outstanding playing a former soldier wrestling with his past) is enough to instill a sense of fear and the sense that the worst is far yet to come.
Romola Garai takes that slow-burn and builds on it by increasingly adding legitimate terror, setting the stage to go all-in on gonzo nightmarish visuals and trippy imagery during the final 20 minutes that is both ambiguous and telling as to the truth. And none of it has anything to do with the hideous sight of the gravely ill woman upstairs and utterly gross things going on in that room, although it too is compelling. The recontextualizing doesn’t necessarily make Amulet a film that requires two watches to firmly grasp, but it’s worth doing anyway just to study these characters and performances further with more information (Carla Juri is especially fantastic).
It also has one of the best endings of the year thus far; a segment that drives home how warped and demented the experience has been with some gallows humor. Outside of a certain revelation about one character that is too on the nose for a film trying to play around with clichés, Amulet is one of the most satisfying and richly evocative filmmaking debuts of 2020.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com