Amulet – Ghosts of the past haunt this compelling horror

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?

Imelda Staunton as Sister Claire...
Imelda Staunton as Sister Claire…

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.

Tomas (Alec Secareanu) starts to suspect something sinister is going on...
Tomas (Alec Secareanu) starts to suspect something sinister is going 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

The Harry Potters…

In preparation for going to see the final Harry Potter instalment I decided (like pretty much everyone else has) to watch all of the other films beforehand to remind me of what has gone before…Oh and I didn’t watch them marathon style – I likes me sleep…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a great film to set up the series and introduce aspects of the magical world that J.K. Rowling has created. It’s a good film but it feels very…family friendly Sunday filmy – although this may be more to do with the story as darker aspects haven’t yet been brought in. The child stage school acting isn’t great either, but the presence of some more than capable adults makes it work – mostly Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore (replaced by Michael Gambon after the second film) and Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall. This excellent thesp acting talent is something that is repeated throughout the series too, making them all the more watchable…

The Chamber of Secrets is the weakest film out of them all – this is mostly coz it’s a film (and book) to establish parts of the plot later on (horcruxes, etc.). It doesn’t really work but it’s a necessary film to have. It just seems to peter on until it’s conclusion – and the scene with the Basilisk at the end is good but just a little…boring. The one saving grace is definitely the introduction of the evil Lucius Malfoy played brilliantly by Jason Isaacs and of course the excellent foppish Gilderoy Lockhart played by Kenneth Branagh (who also brings much-needed fun to the proceedings here).

The next film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, is my personal favourite: both story wise and aesthetically. The story (and plot twists) are so much more interesting. And the direction by Alfonso Cuarón is beautiful – I hadn’t realised until I watched it again recently just how many long takes are used with v. few cuts and fluid camera work. And it also has 2 of my favourite actors of all time in it: David Thewlis and Gary Oldman (as two of the best characters in the series, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black respectively) – watching them acting in the same room together is just, WOW (although they should have explained more about the Marauders and the map…). And the introduction of the Dementors is also brilliantly done – they are cleverly designed and genuinely creepy, watching them makes you feel like the room really is turning cold.

The Goblet of Fire is the second weakest film in my opinion – too much is omitted about the Triwizard Tournament and other things: it feels far too rushed. The fact that they kept the Yule Ball in though makes up for this and shows what Mike Newell was trying to go for with this film – showing more of the teenage relationships and growing up. The introduction of Mad-Eye Moody is a highlight though and Brendan Gleeson is amazing as him – a little bit funny and a lot intimidating. And of course, this is the film in which we finally get to see Voldemort in his true form: Ralph Fiennes is at his best as the snake-like, terrifying dark wizard (and he gets all the more scary throughout the rest of the films…). Unfortunately Emma Watson’s eyebrow acting in this one reaches all new levels of weird. And who’s this Robert Pattinson? Don’t see him going far (sorry, old joke…).

Then onto the David Yates directed films, starting with the Order of the Phoenix: again not brill plot-wise (the conclusion seems disappointing after the huge build-up about the prophecy – which to me seems a little rushed over and forgotten…). But the death at the end of the film is excellently done and truly upsetting – especially when it’s so sudden (like in the book). Imelda Staunton as the controlling Dolores Umbridge is also great – she’s sickly sweet, condescending and completely horrifying. And Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange is just horrifying with added doses of wide-eyed crazy…

The Half-Blood Prince is another one of the best films of the series – again very well shot and directed by Yates: the idea to include an opening scene with wizards destroying London is clever and shows the first signs of both worlds colliding. And again another great character is added – Horace Slughorn played by Jim Broadbent adds comic relief at times and also forwards crucial parts of the plot. Another person worth mentioning here is definitely Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy – he truly comes into his own acting wise and shows Draco as no longer in control of his fate, and scared of what will happen to him – he makes you really start to feel sorry for him. And the inevitable death scene at the end of the film is truly affecting yet again…and devastating.

And finally the penultimate film – the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The idea of having them out of the school brings a bit of relief – it’s very freeing and Yates lets both the Muggle and Wizard world merge even more. Again there are some great standout action scenes – the last chase scene through the woods with the Snatchers is kinetic and heart-pumping and the scene of the infiltration of the Ministry is brilliantly realised and just as scary. And the brave decision to tell the story behind the Deathly Hallows by coming out of the story and showing an animation was a clever risk – it’s beautifully done and well explained for people who haven’t read the books. And yet more standout thesp actors added to the cast list: Peter Mullan as Yaxley is gruff and menacing, and Nick Moran as Scabior is creepy and looks like Adam Ant for some reason.

And now onto the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (which I will be seeing today!) – I know that I am inevitably going to enjoy it and that it is going to be pretty epic. It’s also going to be sad to see the films come to an end – although a lot of the films have their flaws, they are all enjoyable in their own ways and I’ve always been excited to see them. I’ll let you know what I think soon enough though!