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Is there a more distressing vision to torment your COVID lockdown dreams than a blocked toilet? Well, yes, if the blockage is caused by the bloody, half-dead body of a hairless, razor-toothed bat with what looks unsettlingly like an umbilical cord attached. The weird and witchy Amulet — a narcotized fever dream with a slow build and a wild crescendo of demonic possession, body horror and sticky reproductive imagery — is probably not the behind-the-camera move that admirers of Romola Garai’s acting work in British period pieces might have expected. This elevated neo-gothic is executed with a firm hand and a beguiling imagination, its mysteries rooted in war, sexual violence and ancient evil.
Premiered in the Midnight section at Sundance earlier this year and opening July 24 in theaters and on demand through Magnolia’s genre arm, Magnet Releasing, the film shares a malevolent feminist twist on maternal bonds with other modern horror directed by women, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Natalie Erika James’ more recent Relic. But writer-director Garai strays from the sisterhood by choosing a male protagonist, putting him through a hell cracked open by his own gnawing guilt and ignited by some fatal encounters.
Thrill-hungry genre consumers may grow impatient with the deliberate pacing and the woozy oscillation between troubled past and sinister present. But discerning aficionados will go for the textured atmosphere and the playful appropriation of the conventions of Italian giallo and vintage Euro gore. There’s impressive craft on display, from the bespoke creature effects to the insidious gaze and insinuating angles of DP Laura Bellingham’s stealthy camera; from Nick Baldock’s penetrating soundscape to the ambient dread and shivering woodwinds of Sarah Angliss’ score and the tricky time shifts of Alastair Reid’s editing.
In scenes gradually revealed to be flashbacks, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu, the soulful discovery of God’s Own Country) is a soldier in the final days of what looks to be a Central European conflict, assigned to man a quiet checkpoint in a pine forest, two days’ walk from the nearest village. The connections of his mother have spared him from combat. His chosen reading material, Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, might be for his doctorate in philosophy, but it seems ominous in light of the later revelation that he preventively duct-tapes his hands together before he goes to sleep.
He offers shelter to Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a frightened woman who startles him, running out of the woods, but Tomaz appears continually to be fighting dark impulses where she’s concerned. He finds a small carved figurine buried in the ground — the amulet of the title — and offers it to her: “Perhaps she will protect you.”
Sometime later, Tomaz is in London with PTSD, living in a refugee shelter and working as a day laborer until his housing is destroyed in an arson attack. He’s found, dazed and confused, by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a kindly nun whose habits are revealed to be more and more secular each time we meet her. This will surprise no one, since you don’t cast the wickedly amusing Staunton to say rosaries.
Offering cryptic words of comfort, Sister Claire sets up Tomaz with a live-in job at a run-down house on the city outskirts, where Magda (Carla Juri) takes care of her invalid mother (Anah Ruddin), supposedly nearing death upstairs. Socially awkward Magda seems reluctant to have the stranger under the same roof, but the nun reassures her, “It is time.”
Tomaz’s apprehension suggests he knows that a wailing crone in an attic is rarely a good sign, particularly once he catches a glimpse of the feral old woman’s violent abuse of Magda. But he stays on and keeps getting drawn back each time things get ugly enough to send him running; Secareanu plays those conflicting impulses with haunted helplessness. There’s something poignant about his eagerness to prove to Magda that he’s a good man, as if he’s also trying to convince himself.
Garai gives production designer Francesca Massariol an excuse to dial up the creepiness of the dilapidated house by having Magda explain that they live without electricity because Mother has a self-harm habit of sticking her fingers in sockets. The combination of gloomy corners with windowed spaces flooded with hazy natural light gives the setting a disorienting, other-worldly feel. When Tomaz starts doing repairs and uncovers the same shell motif that adorned the head of his amulet in the decayed plasterwork, it’s clear the place is harboring some seriously bad energy.
Juri makes Magda a faraway presence with a sing-song voice as she natters about romance and how she’d love to have the freedom to go dancing. That manipulates audience expectations as Tomaz begins showing feelings for her. But her crazy-lady dancefloor convulsions when he takes her out to the local pub trigger more traumatic memories from his homeland. Back in the house, having Mother eyeballing them through a hole in the floorboards doesn’t do much to calm his mounting anxiety either.
Garai steadily builds suspense while keeping her intentions enigmatic until quite late in the action. She eventually folds together mysteries of the past with terrors of the present in an out-there final act that goes full-throttle Dario Argento, mixing digital and hand-made effects in a sea of garish reds and bizarre pagan visions. There’s just enough plot logic stirred in with the heady ambiguity to make Amulet satisfying as it plunges deeper into madness, warped sexuality and evil enslavement. And Staunton is at her marvelous best in these scenes, bringing a delicious hint of camp to the nightmarish developments. It’s all way freakier than it is frightening, but there’s a distinctive taste for cruelty here that marks Garai as an audacious new horror auteur.
Production companies: Stigma Films, Summercourt Films
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Angeliki Papoulia, Imelda Staunton, Anah Ruddin
Director-screenwriter: Romola Garai
Producers: Matthew James Wilkinson, Maggie Monteith
Executive producers: Damian Jones, Chris Reed, Phil Rymer, James Norrie, Bob Portal, Inderpal Singh, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Reinhard Besser, Pat Wintersgill, Walter Mair
Director of photography: Laura Bellingham
Production designer: Francesca Massariol
Costume designer: Holly Smart
Music: Sarah Angliss
Editor: Alastair Reid
Sound designer: Nick Baldock
Special effects supervisor: Cliff Wallace
VFX supervisor: Christian Lett
Casting: Anna Kennedy
Sales: AMP International
Rated R, 99 minutes