Amulet REVIEW – Cathartic Horror

Romola Garai delivers a striking horror film for her directorial debut.

On Set Photography from the Feature Film Amulet

Horror is simply not my cup of tea. I have a roving, active imagination, so watching horror movies makes it difficult to achieve a proper night’s sleep. But I was curious about Amulet, especially since it is actress’ Romola Garai’s directorial debut, and I wanted to see what kind of horror set piece she had conceived. Don’t go into Amulet with the expectation of a gory, blood fest, though there are some disturbing visuals. Amulet is an atmospheric slow-burn, where Garai builds up this sense of unease, though we don’t really understand the nature of it until the ending of the film.

Amulet follows Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an ex-soldier living in London, where he does odd jobs and nomadically bunks around, a wanderer with no roots. The structure of the film toggles between Tomaz’ past and present, his present being in London, while his past involves him serving in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Don’t imagine a battle-worn space though, Tomaz’ service involves standing guard at the border to stop those attempting to flee, which is how he becomes acquainted with Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a mother risking it all to be reunited with her daughter.

Garai does well in communicating his dislocation, with frequent shots of the vast forest in the past, and his isolation in the present as a drifting immigrant. Tomaz seems to be running away from something; we wonder why he binds his hands before sleeping, and ponder on the possible of magnitude of the sin he has committed – what has he done with those hands?

When the place Tomaz has been bunking in burns down and he loses all the money he has on him, Imelda Staunton’s Sister Claire suggests a place for him to stay, and in return he is to help with the upkeep of the place. It is there that he meets Magda (Carla Juri), who he seems taken by. Magda is the sole caretaker of her mother, who is locked away in the attic, with Tomaz bearing witness to the injuries Magda suffers from having cared for her. Though he has plenty of opportunities to leave, as one would when confronted with a possible demonic presence, Tomaz feels the need to say and play the rescuer.

Both Secareanu and Juri deliver compelling performances, with Garai crafting the typical male/female dynamic between the two, yet there is a sense there is more here than meets the eye. Secareanu makes Tomaz earnest and seemingly likeable, while Juri plays Magda as weary, yet communicates a clear strength beneath all that submissive victimhood. Juri’s performance has hints of Rosamund Pike’s in Gone Girl, where it feels like she is performing a role for Tomaz, with Amulet periodically offering sneak peeks into the reality that lurks beneath.

The fantastic thing about Amulet is its masquerade; it sets itself up as a conventional horror film, with a possessed old woman up in the attic and a nun speaking about demons, but then transforms itself into something else. The truth lies somewhere in Tomaz’ past, and as Garai lays the twist on us, everything we had conceived of Tomaz, all that we wanted to believe of him, is torn to shreds. The evil here is not supernatural, it’s human.

Garai’s vision is very much Old Testament, where the injury of an eye must be returned twofold, with punishment the only recourse for certain innately vile natures; there is no meek forgiveness here, only the rage of vengeance, and the release that comes after.

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Amulet is a horror film that masquerades, holding its secrets tightly within itself, waiting till the right moment to spill forth truly fantastical truths, letting its madness run amok in your brain.