Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
A slab of arty horror arrives this week: UK actress Romola Garai’s directing debut, Amulet. This one can be watched online in a way that will benefit the Grand Illusion theater, so check out this link to pursue that.
If you’re not familiar with Garai’s work as an actress, go to Scarecrow and rent some of it, including the delightful I Capture the Castle, the Oscar-friendly Atonement, and the underrated historical drama Amazing Grace, a stirring, old-fashioned drama about the fight to end the slave trade in England. Meantime, here’s my review of the new film.
Here in the dilapidated house where he can stay in exchange for applying his handyman skills, the homeless stranger, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), is handed some home-made pastry. Imelda Staunton, as the nun whose thoughtfulness has brought him to the place, notes that the pastry is in fact filled with meat. He needs to be bolstered. Or maybe fattened up, who knows. And so he eats. “Peace. Quiet. Home-cooked food,” says kindly Sister Claire. “What more could the bachelor want?”
Maybe not much more, but there’s a whole lot coming in Amulet for Tomaz, who indeed moves into the old house and settles, uneasily, in. Part of his unease is suggested by the ritual of duct-taping himself to the bed every night, a habit that we infer is connected to flashback/nightmares in which he serves in a military position—a lonely border guard in a forest somewhere in, presumably, the former Yugoslavia. There’s also unease merely being in the presence of the house’s resident, Magda (Carla Juri), a decidedly offbeat woman with very odd manners.
In the early going, writer-director Romola Garai gets mileage out of the house’s funky plumbing, always a rich source of horror-movie eesh. You might not think that watching a gross toilet bowl slowly drain would necessarily be an effective Gotcha, but this movie pulls it off. Elsewhere, Garai and cinematographer Laura Bellingham create a dense, textured interiors; this is art-horror, for sure, and not too far from the lushly-designed creep-worlds created in movies by Ari Aster or Peter Strickland. But the flashbacks present effective contrast with the forest scenes, which are razor-sharp, uncomfortably orderly. We wait for the source of Tomaz’s torment to be revealed, and when it is, it proves a disturbing background for the heaviness of his presence.
That revelation will eventually connect to the appalling scenario going on in the house. There’s also plenty of omen-mongering, including some stuff about seashells as evil portents, and of course an amulet. Some of that is useful in getting us through the slow burn of the first half, and some feels a little like the usual horror-movie bricolage. Mind you, I like horror-movie bricolage, so I have no big problem with this.
A certain amount of air comes out of the balloon when things get explained, as the sillier aspects of the supernatural story are made clear. But by that point, Garai has weighted the movie with its unexpected past trauma and a share of authentically unnerving gestures (if you saw Magda executing her dance moves in a nightclub, you’d want to get away pronto). Icing it all is the strong work by Secareanu (he was one of the farm boys in God’s Own Country), Juri (spellbinding in Blade Runner 2049), the reliably sly Staunton, and Angeliki Papoulia (the older sister in Dogtooth). A genuinely strange lot, suited for a movie that stirs together its atrocities in a heady, meat-filled stew.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.