Amulet (2020) opens on a beautiful, misty forest in the middle of nowhere, a lone outpost the only point of interest on a long stretch of desolate road. It’s a place that the soldier Tomas (Alec Secareanu) is happy to call his home, manning the post by himself while he enjoys the surrounding silence, safe from whatever conflict is happening in this unspecified country. Cut to present day though and we find Tomas in a very different situation, living a million miles away in the UK and struggling to get by without a roof over his head, his only source of income low-paid jobs that are probably illegal. But rather than longing for the peaceful life he had before, Tomas seems to be haunted by it, desperate to make amends with that time and finally move on from it – a task that’s almost impossible as his vivid dreams remind him of it every night. The redemption he seeks may be just around the corner though when a kindly Nun (Imelda Staunton) offers him a job as a live-in handyman for Magda (Carla Juri), the Sister keen for him to help fix the house so Magda can focus on caring for her sickly mother (Anah Ruddin). With Tomas unsure about the arrangement, but hopeful this new role will make him feel at peace again, he starts to notice strange goings-on, particularly upstairs where Magda’s mother stays hidden away. And what exactly is wrong with her?
Romola Garai’s debut feature is the kind of ominous, slow-burn horror that immediately has you in its grasp, her assured direction and careful plotting deliciously building up the tension as we follow Tomas trying to unravel the mystery he finds himself in. With Garai focusing the camera on the creepy interiors of the house (a sinister ceramic ornament here, a huge patch of mould on the ceiling there) she creates an atmosphere dripping with dread, keeping us in a constant state of unease as we wait with baited breath for the inevitable scares. It’s an incredibly effective approach, particularly when it’s accompanied by Sarah Angliss’ wonderfully eerie choral score and the wails of pain from Magda’s mother that echo through the ancient pipes. Indeed, it’s almost as if the home itself is a living, breathing creature that’s warning Tomas to stay away – an omen that he also suspects when he sees a shell carved into the ceiling (a symbol of evil he tells Magda). Yet Garai has bigger ambitions than the mere haunted house story this first appears to be, her script taking some twists and turns that are so unpredictable, even the most seasoned horror fan will have no idea where this is heading.
Rather compellingly, Garai expands her plot by intertwining two timelines throughout, jumping back and forth between the present day and Tomas’ previous life in order to build-up a much clearer picture of who he really is, with Alec Secareanu’s brilliantly vulnerable performance helping us identify with him on every step of his tumultuous journey. Yet it’s also this method that gives those twists such a huge impact later on, Garai using what we’ve seen in both sides of the tale to suddenly make us view things differently, pulling her story down other unexpectedly macabre paths that will shock and enthral us in equal measure. However, this dual narrative isn’t without its problems, with that timeline back at the forest often taking away the tension from that far more interesting plot set in the house. It certainly serves a purpose, but Garai would have been wiser to show these moments to us in briefer flashbacks so as not to undermine the scares when they’re happening elsewhere. Her script unfortunately has other issues too, several reveals coming so out of the blue that we’re more confused than horrified, while the multiple ideas she throws around (homelessness, identity, hope, forgiveness, trauma, grief) don’t always land, even if they do keep us guessing what’s going to happen next. The result is an unfocused story that we’re often playing catch-up with instead of enjoying – a real shame as it shows a lot of potential earlier on.
For a debut, writer-director Romola Garai has done exceptional work here, crafting a spine-tingling, atmospheric horror that will stay with you for a long time. She coaxes excellent performances from all her cast (Imelda Staunton is an absolute delight as Sister Claire), while the refreshingly different narrative heads in several completely unexpected directions, making great use of amazing practical effects in later moments (who doesn’t like a gory scene or two?). Yet with that cluttered, flawed script this is often difficult to watch, particularly when the tension is lost to that past timeline. Fans of horror will still love the twists and the out-there ending, but others may be left in the dark with this one.
Amulet is out in UK cinemas on Friday 28th January 2022