When horror is at its best, nightmarish themes are expertly woven with often harsh social commentary, creating an experience that hits you two-fold. It’s one reason why the genre has been at a peak lately; unfortunately, this world has many problems with which to explore in tales of horrific woe. Romola Garai’s haunting film Amulet is another top example of horror used to tackle disturbing a disturbing topic. Exactly what that topic is…well, you’re not going to find out here.
For those who know Garai, she’s probably best-remembered as the unfortunate star of the sequel nobody wanted, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. While she’s acted in plenty of better films before and since, for a certain segment that’s what she’s always been recognized for. Well, that’s probably going to change soon. In her directorial debut, Garai crafts a multi-tiered tale of guilt, anguish, and downright terror, all wrapped under the guise of what appears to be a classic demonic possession story.
The film stars Alec Secarneau as Tomaz, an ex-soldier who has seen and done a lot that continues to trouble him. The film jumps around from the past to the present, from his time stationed at an outpost in the Yugoslav wars to a nomadic existence in England, taking whatever work and shelter will get him through the day. We see early on, an act of kindness towards a fleeing immigrant woman, clearly terrified out of her mind. Tomaz takes her in and cares for her in her time of need. Later, when Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton, always suspicious) offers him a similar kindness, we want him to accept this helping hand. This kindness is to live rent free in the crumbling home of Magda (Carla Juri), a sad, despondent Polish woman taking care of her ailing, abusive mother.
It’s masterfully insidious the way Garai works each of her lead characters into our sympathies. Tomaz and Magda both have so little, and have been battered by the world around them, both battered by poverty, war, and loneliness. We take delight in the simple pleasures both receive from her rather common cooking; him at having a home cooked meal and her for having someone to share it with. The chores he needs to do to maintain this shelter don’t seem to be much of an issue…but then, there’s the old woman who is rarely seen, often heard, and never in a good way.
Amulet relies on moody atmosphere, drab atmosphere crafted by DP Laura Bellingham, and an array of creaks and cracks that make your skin crawl. It’s a deliberately paced film, perhaps too deliberate, and can’t avoid dragging because this isn’t really a movie that traffics in big scares. While Garai presents it that way initially, the one thing to know about Amulet is that nothing is quite as it seems. There is a deeper mystery unfolding, and Garai, who also wrote the script, has a message she intends to deliver with the force of a hammer blow.
Actors-turned-directors also happen to be the best casting agents, and Garai hit a home run by casting Juri as Magda. Juri’s biggest film to date was Blade Runner 2049, but she made her big breakthrough with the gross-out romance, Wetlands, and another Sundance film I was quite fond of, Morris from America. She has endless amounts of range and a screen presence that is undeniable. Even when purposefully downplayed as she is in Amulet, Juri commands your attention.
Secarneau is an actor I’m unfamiliar with before now, but I was struck by how captivating he was while having very little actual dialgoue. This is a movie that works extremely well without an abundance of conversation. Staunton, as mentioned earlier, is terrific at playing characters who come across as suspicious, especially when they are being too helpful. She was Dolores Umbridge for a reason, folks.
Amulet sets Garai as a director worth keeping a close watch on for a long time. There’s nothing I respect more than a filmmaker who has a perspective and goes to great lengths to say what they feel needs to be said. To that end, Garai goes to tremendously gruesome, unsettling ends and the conclusion to Amulet is one that I will not soon forget. It may come across as heavy-handed to some, but you aren’t likely to forget it, either.