Romola Garai’s Amulet is one of the most misguiding films of the year. Its poster features Imelda Staunton in profile view dressed as a nun, with bat-like wings protruding from her back — to assume that this is some standard devil or possession movie involving the church would be a very wrong theory indeed. Garai has crafted a jaw-droppingly bizarre— borderline cosmic, vengeance horror that actively seeks to pull the rug out from under you.
Amulet begins with a young Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) in his undisclosed home country, working as a soldier who has recently been stationed at a remote checkpoint where he whiles away the lonely hours reading philosophy books. This is until one day he digs up a strange figurine — the titular amulet, of a goddess-looking being with a shell-like fan around its head; not long after this a distressed woman runs right into his checkpoint station. Garai does well to keep the audience out of the loop of knowledge; the time frame, location and social context are never divulged and the fleeing woman’s background is not explained until later as the soldier Tomaz timeline intersects with another timeline taking place in the present day.
In the present Tomaz is older and with a scruffy beard. He is homeless and squatting with other refugees somewhere in London, working in construction for a few quid. A suspicious fire drives Tomaz out of his temporary living space and into the arms of a local nun, Sister Claire (Staunton). She tells him she knows of a perfect space he can live in in return for his home improvements skills, so he moves in with another woman named Magda (Carla Juri).
The old Edwardian terraced home is far from picturesque, mould seeps down each wall and there’s a general sense of unease — the house a decrepit time capsule with visible remnants from previous owners: ‘The house is full of things, very few of them are ours’ informs Magda. What is Magda’s however, is her violently ill, dying mother residing on the top floor of the house. Unable to see Magda’s mother and only hearing her piercing screams from every corner of the house, Tomaz’ quickly regrets taking on the residency, but feels a duty to care for Magda when he sees how abusive her mother can be to her. He finds himself on a mission to discover what is lurking within that attic room.
Garai and cinematographer Laura Bellingham craft the entire film with a layered, textural feel. Despite the mould and peeling wallpaper, the home feels lived-in and strangely warm. This is in complete contrast to the crisp woodland scenes of Tomaz’ military life that are inter-cut throughout the film paving the way for his eventual emotional journey. The house has all the makings of your traditional haunted house and the disfigured bat-like creature Tomaz pulls out of the toilet drain is no exception. It’s a disgustingly icky moment, Tomaz flushes the blackened toilet water, revealing the scary creature slowly and then all at once, which is how much of the film’s latter half pans out.
The latter half of Amulet is a whirlwind of body horror madness and feminist idealisation. This is undoubtedly a film to go into as blind as possible (I’m borderline sorry you’re even reading this) as Garai swings for the fences in a bold, and incredibly surprising take on possession horror. The women become the focal point as Tomaz is forced to confront his past grievances and the amulet he found way back in the backwoods of that European forest comes to hold a significant, cosmic meaning. At times the films mythology is too expansive with its finale to be a sure off-put for some fans seeking something a little less politicised, but as a debut feature from an actress-turned-director, Garai is confident with those strides in her vision. The visuals and performances from all the cast are executed to near-perfection, with a perverse nature undercutting even the most tender of scenes. Many of Amulet’s finest freaky moments will no-doubt be implanted in your mind for days on end− this marks the arrival of one hell of a new voice in horror.
Amulet is available on VOD in the US now
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Twitter @sqchloe and on Letterboxd here.