Something wicked isn’t coming for the characters in Romola Garai’s “Amulet.” Something wicked is already very much here.
There’s plenty to be suspicious of in Garai’s feature debut, a moderately successful horror movie with an overlong lit fuse (and which will be available for rent and in some theaters starting Friday). Anyone who’s seen three films in their life about things that go bump in the night will find ample reason to doubt the seemingly good intentions of Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a nun who takes it upon herself to help a lonely and tormented drifter Tomaz (Alec Secareanu, looking a bit uncannily like Oscar Isaac here) after he’s been displaced.
Against his best wishes, Sister Claire brings Tomaz to stay with the equally-as-doubtful Magda (Carla Juri). Is she a younger relative of the helpful nun? A friend, or merely an acquaintance? The relationship is hard to decipher, but it’s worth wondering about in anticipation of what comes later.
Magda’s home, however, is nowhere near as ambiguous. The food looks repulsive. Wails from upstairs break the eerie silence (Magda’s ill mother, apparently). The walls and ceilings look like the wrinkled flesh of a drowned body. The plumbing is out, and there’s no electricity, either; Magda says her mother has a propensity to stick her fingers in the sockets. In other words: As far as your get-the-hell-out-while-you-still-can tales of terror go, “Amulet” makes a pretty clear case from the onset that Tomaz should, well, get the hell out while he still can.
Having lost what little money he had to his name, though, there’s no other place for Tomaz to go. And with a murky past he’s trying to escape at the same time as we’re piecing its together, this will have to do. Cue the horrific theatrics, which only occasionally manage to rise above mere theatrics.
If the appeal of the horror genre is anticipating the un-cloaking of things that must not be what they seem at first, Garai (who wrote “Amulet” as well as directed it) provides a suspicious head start in putting the clues out in the open. Does Tomaz truly so easily accept the explanation of the screams coming from the locked attic? Doesn’t he notice how suspiciously he stirs his spoon through the stew that’s served him from Magda before he takes a bite? So blatant are the blood-red flags in this decrepit house that in wondering where the slow-moving first hour of “Amulet” will go, it almost – almost – aspires to a meta quality and cheeky commentary on how silly is that Tomaz remains. You might laugh by the time he insists on cleaning up the otherworldly rot that’s set into the home. Mine was more of a groan.
By the time the movie’s first true dash of original personality arrives via un-plugged toilet bowl, in the form of a shriveled and ghostly-pale bat with a gnarly set of teeth, we’ve become a bit numbed to the uncompelling lead performances that Tomaz and Magda’s subdued reactions (“I’ve never seen a bat like this,” Tomaz calmly confesses, after the creature has taken a freakish bite of his arm) feel unnecessarily grating. And the sudden injection of undeveloped romance into the dynamic between them makes things even less interesting.
While “Amulet” plods through the story of Tomaz’s present – and eventually starts to feel like it’s dancing around the obvious terrors to come at the expense of elegantly curated tension – it’s his ambiguous past that more strongly commands our attention. We’re initially led to believe an early scene of foggy forests and strangely mythic totems with a clean-shaved Tomaz is just a strange dream sequence.
The suspicions are dashed as “Amulet” intermittently returns to what was apparently Tomaz’s prior life as a soldier in an unspecified country. There’s a woman in this parallel-prologue story of sorts, too; played by Angeliki Papoulia (fans of Yorgos Lanthimos’s work will recognize her), Miriam’s initial crossing of paths with Tomaz almost ends in him gunning her down. Instead – as Magda will later do for him – he provides Miriam with shelter. A connection begins to grow. So do harmful intentions.
I won’t divulge any more of where the story goes from there, other than to say Garai hints at an as-yet-unrefined storytelling prowess with how the events of the past come to influence the increasingly demented nature of Tomaz’s present—resulting in a final 20 to 25 minutes that is so much more daring, so much more provocative and so much more thematically interesting than everything that’s come before. There’s some staggeringly original imagery and an acute bleakness in the final scenes as “Amulet” morphs rather quickly from an eye-rolling affair to one of several psyche-clutching moments stacked up against each other. At the very least, it goes to territory that’s as surprising as it is confounding.
That’s not to say “Amulet” ends up wholly justifying the sluggishness and overfamiliarity of those first two acts, and the manifestation of its karmic messaging feels marginally like an annoying “Gotcha!” when the drama is at its supposed peak. It wants so much to subvert what we expect that it ends up becoming another thing altogether—and it ends up seeming more than a bit like we’ve been cheated.
Nonetheless, there’s a compulsive pull to the late-blooming merging of ideas – gender, vengeance and situational control among them – that gives the story a sharper definition, a more meaningful reason to be told. I just wish the sleepwalking scenes that came before didn’t feel so much like a repellant by comparison.
"Amulet" is rated R for some strong violence, bloody images, a sexual assault, and brief language and nudity. It's available to rent on various digital platforms now.
Starring: Alec Secareanu, Imelda Staunton, Carla Juri, Angeliki Papoulia
Directed by Romola Garai
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