Tue. Aug 11th, 2020

Film Review: ‘Amulet’ – Romola Garai’s directorial debut puts a fresh spin on classic horror

This is a strange variant on the riddle of “The Chicken and the Egg” I suppose, but which do you think comes first: you realizing you’re inside a Horror Movie, or you finding something evil clogging a toilet? I personally don’t think one can survive without the other. I’ve watched a lot of Horror Movies and therefore I have watched a lot of things — decapitated heads, human hearts, oversized bat fetuses — get pulled out of toilets. And on the reverse, if I was to ever pull one of these things out of a toilet myself, in actual real life, I would immediately realize with all of my being that yes, I was indeed and truly living inside of a Horror Film. The riddle is complete. Like peanut butter and chocolate, inextricable.

And that’s just one of the many mysteries that await your brain with Amulet, actress Romola Garai’s curious and very fine debut directorial effort, which is hitting VOD this Friday. There’s also the mystery of “Who the hell puts their eyeball right up against a keyhole when they know there’s a monster on the other side?” and the mystery of “Why does Alec Secareanu look like a totally different person without a beard?” and the mystery of “Is Imelda Staunton actually God?” (The last one’s a trick question — we all know that is the truth, the whole truth, so help us Imelda Staunton.)

Like with God’s Own Country Mr. Secareanu here again plays another sweet, put-upon, hard-working and finely-bearded immigrant fellow, this one called Tomaz, who’s been tossed foot over beard into a hostile new country — in flashback we see him (sans beard) being forced to do military work he is entirely unsuited for by armed forces, but in the present he seems to have escaped from the war of his homeland and made his way to the U.K., where he does day-laborer work and lives in small oppressive flat of squalor with tens of folks in the same dire situation. 

At night Tomaz straps himself down to his bed in case of PSTD convulsions, which very nearly gets him killed when some local racists try to burn down the building he’s sleeping in — Tomaz wakes up some time later being cared for by a nun called Sister Claire who is played by Imelda Staunton, aforementioned God herself. Sister Claire smiles beatifically upon him, healing him instantaneously, as would happen were Imelda Staunton to smile upon any one of us. And once he’s all righted she has a job for him, turns out.

That’s how Tomaz finds himself doing handyman work in the strange house of Magda (Carla Juri) and her sickly mother squirreled away in the attic — another sign you’re in a horror movie or a horror movie’s in you is definitely a sickly woman being squirreled away in the attic, by the way. Magda and this place seem stepped outside of time, which works well for Tomaz since he too can’t seem to settle on a time — Garai edits us between Tomaz’s past and present relentlessly, the only guide-post being the amount of hair on Secareanu’s chin. And this new place seems to only make his (and our) slippage worsen — his own demons, it seems, are coming to his new home to roost.

Amulet has a lot of tricks up its sleeves that I wouldn’t dare to spoil, but the film’s flirtations with the worn-down horror tropes I’ve already mentioned — keyholes and attics and toilets, oh my — come to feel like a familiar flavoring sprinkled over its own unique and surreal dish; that is to say that Garai really seems to be onto something here, spinning her own fantabulous weird fantasy tale from some old elements, some new, some borrowed and some very very blue. 

Amulet, in its weird old new way, feels new and memorable and fresh. It will also probably frustrate a lot of risk-averse viewers because of her aims, which are arty and non-linear and ultimately totally wackadoo, and which also have underneath them some interesting angles and things to say on the modern immigrant experience. But it’s a sincere puzzle, worth the piecing.

Amulet hits VOD this Friday, July 24.

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