Amulet review – Romola Garai’s room at the top holds untold horrors | Horror films


Offering yet further proof that the future of cutting-edge horror is female, British actor turned writer-director Romola Garai’s impressive feature debut, which won enthusiastic applause at FrightFest last year, is a moody, brooding chiller that goes from slow-boil creaks to rapturous, hallucinogenic madness. Set largely in a decrepit building whose mouldy walls mirror a creeping moral malaise within, Amulet plays adventurously with subversive sexual politics and reconfigured horror tropes, conjuring a heady parable rich in ritual and intrigue, built upon sturdy subtextual foundations.

Writer-director Romola Garai.
Writer-director Romola Garai. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

The Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, who proved such an engaging screen presence in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, is Tomaz, an ex-soldier from an unnamed, conflict-torn country, now struggling to survive in squalid London. In his dreams, Tomaz is haunted by fable-like visions of the past: unearthing an amulet while stationed in a remote forest; meeting a fleeing woman who collapses in desperation; taking her in, giving her shelter and promising to help reunite her with her daughter.

Meanwhile, in the destitute present, Tomaz meets Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who offers refuge in return for his help repairing a dilapidated house. Here, Magda (Carla Juri) cares for her invalid mother, who dwells “on the top floor”, a groaning figure living in the shadows beneath the roof, evoking the Victorian-gothic spectre of Jane Eyre and the paranoid psychodrama of Andrzej Żuławksi’s unhinged 1981 masterpiece Possession.

Garai says that inspiration for Amulet came from reading about how the perpetrators of war atrocities would mentally “recategorise” their crimes when returning to civilian life, making normal that which was clearly aberrant. In Amulet, the blurring of perceptual lines between aggressors and protectors is a recurrent motif, leaving the audience constantly uncertain as to how to react to each of its three central characters, all of whom have their secrets.

The casting of Secareanu is particularly astute. His expressively melancholy face draws us into Tomaz’s traumatised world, his lonely visage in sharp contrast to the almost sardonically sincere expressions of Staunton’s sinisterly smiling nun. As for Juri, she carries herself in a manner that flits from childlike innocence to something altogether more edgy. A scene in which Tomaz takes Magda dancing reminded me of a memorably disturbing interlude from Rose Glass’s Saint Maud.

Like the housebound horrors of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, Amulet traps its central characters in an enclosed location in which they must confront their deepest fears and most guilty secrets. Interestingly, Garai cites the films of Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland as stylistic touchstones, a connection that chimes with her own intertwining of the domestic and the demonic, everyday reality and otherworldly ritual.

Cinematographer Laura Bellingham, who did such atmospheric work on Corinna Faith’s hospital-based horror The Power, works wonders within the confines of the Victorian pile in which the story plays out, aided by the carefully colour-coded production design of Francesca Massariol, whose impressive CV includes Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion and Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli.

Garai clearly has a fondness for the physical special effects of David Cronenberg body-horror classics such as Shivers and The Brood, lending a tangible oomph to the film’s occasional jump scares (an encounter with something horrible in the bathroom gave me a genuine start) and injecting a much-needed element of solidity into the impressively bizarre finale – a head-scrambling amalgam of the nightmarish weirdness of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the trippy existential ecstasy of Ken Russell’s Altered States.

A terrific score by feature first-timer (and renowned theremin player) Sarah Angliss completes the picture, mixing sampled Renaissance instruments with women’s voices that draw upon “the wails of female Scandinavian herders” (yes, really) to create a soundscape that seems alien and familiar. Working in close harmony, Angliss and sound designer Nick Baldock mirror the architecture of this sometimes jaw-dropping story, turning the house into a character with its own distinctive pulse, and ensuring that the audience’s collective heartbeat is cranked up a notch.

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