DIRECTOR: Romola Garai

CAST: Carla Juri, Alec Secăreanu, Angeliki Papoulia, Imelda Staunton, Anah Ruddin

RUNNING TIME: 99 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A homeless ex-soldier (Secăreanu) discovers something sinister underneath his new caring job…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

For Amulet, her first feature as both writer and director, actress Romola Garai – perhaps best known for historical costume dramas like Atonement, Glorious 39 and Suffragette – goes in the complete opposite direction from what you may expect her to focus on, and is all the more intriguing for it.

Garai’s filmmaking debut is a peculiar slice of homegrown horror that certainly plays into a number of expected genre conventions, and for a while it plays things smooth enough to keep you on edge. However, when it makes that inevitable switcheroo, and turns things completely on their head, it results in something that could very easily divide audiences, who may be simultaneously fascinated with how bizarre it gets and also perplexed by some of the creative decisions and overall executions it makes.

We open with our protagonist, former soldier Tomaz (Alec Secăreanu), as he’s living homeless in London after leaving behind his war-torn European country (which one exactly is strangely not clarified). He is soon approached by seemingly caring nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who offers him a job looking after Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman living in a dilapidated house where she is looking after her ailing mother, who for reasons made apparent later on is being locked away in the attic. As Tomaz grows closer to Magda, he eventually uncovers a far more sinister and unexpected chain of events that he may be unable to escape from.

Amulet certainly checks a lot of boxes when it comes to the standard horror flick – the creepy rotting household and the sinister nun among them – but Garai does not immediately come across as a conventional genre filmmaker, instead using the rather tense situation to say thoughtful things about a variety of topics, including internalised misogyny that dictates a number of gender politics in society. Our main character Tomaz is clearly a man of strong masculine tradition, positioning himself as the de facto “protector” of the seemingly helpless feminine figure, not just the struggling Magda but also, as seen during flashbacks, a fleeing woman he encounters trying to cross the border back in his country. In both relationships, we see him as someone who appears at first to be genuinely wanting to help, but certain male urges start to seep in and begin corrupting aspects of his good intentions, resulting in some disturbing reveals about his past that come as a great shock for the viewer who, up to a certain point, have felt reasonably comfortable being on his side. Garai uses the increasing tension of her film to highlight the growing sense of entitlement within this male character as he continues getting closer and closer to both women in their respective timelines, which forces the viewer to fear something much more grounded than whatever may be happening elsewhere in this house.

While there are definitely some interesting things to pick apart here from a thematic point of view, it is ultimately the horror aspect that will leave the biggest impression on audiences. Without giving many of the surprises away, Garai proves herself to be a formidable creature-feature artist, incorporating some seriously creepy designs brought to life via some strong practical effects, made more ferocious and terrifying because they look so much more real than many of the bigger-budgeted horror movies out there. The actors too do well with some seriously disturbed faces throughout, including Alec Secăreanu who carries a number of horrified expressions with each and every passing reveal, and the moody cinematography also effectively makes each corner of this mould-infested house feel utterly repugnant.

At times, though, you can feel that Garai perhaps goes a little too far into psychedelic territory, with a climax that is bound to make or break the film for a lot of viewers, based on its pure insanity alone. There are revelations and imagery throughout this final reel that are so out-there strange and bizarre that you’re often trying to work out the mechanics of things rather than actually being scared from the experience, which soften the overall blow somewhat. Nevertheless, for a first-time crack at the genre, Garai just about holds her own and hints at much stronger storytelling methods further down the line; whether or not she continues with this new creature-feature phase of her career is so far a mystery, but now that she’s proven to be decent enough with the genre it would be very interesting to see where she takes things next.

On a side note, whoever came up with the idea of Imelda Staunton as a nun in a horror movie deserves some kind of award. The actress is intimidating enough – anyone who has seen a Harry Potter movie will know this – but put a nun habit over her head and have her speak softly with supposedly calming words, and you have a rather unsettling image that this film likes to bring back for good measure.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Amulet is a decent horror film that checks a number of familiar boxes, but writer-director Romola Garai does well enough to insert some intriguing themes into her effective line of scares, although often they tend to be overshadowed by (admittedly impressive) effects and an overly bizarre, and likely audience-dividing, climax.

Amulet will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 28th January 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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