Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Romola Garai
Writer: Romola Garai
Producer: Matthew James Wilkinson, Maggie Monteith
Stars: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Angeliki Papoulia, Imelda Staunton
A homeless war veteran haunted by his past takes up residence with a beguiling woman in a house hiding a horrible secret.
Remember a few years back when someone tried to coin a new term for a subgenre of horror that was pretty much the same category as ¡°mumblegore?¡± As evidenced by my inability to recall its name (deathcore?), the word never caught on, although it did get a hot round of debate in dueling editorials on whatever site where the phrase originated. It basically seemed like someone craved recognition for inventing a label no one had any use for.
A person can appear just as desperate for ¡°hot take¡± attention by trying to cancel a common phrase. I once read an opinion piece on a video game website that proposed getting rid of the term ¡°metroidvania¡± for describing a specific style of gameplay. Plenty of nonplussed readers reacted by pointing out the obvious. Why do away with an assimilated word whose exact meaning is instantly understood by everyone who hears it?
Having said that, I admit I have wished for certain phrases to be purged from every horror critic¡¯s vernacular for the crime of being overused. If I never read another review comparing something to a ¡°fever dream¡± again, it¡¯ll be too soon. The one that nags me most however is ¡°slow burn,¡± even though I use it often since the term brings to mind an impression that says more than those two words.
I could describe ¡°Amulet¡± as a ¡°slow burn¡± and immediately present an accurate picture of how the film plays. But author Grady Hendrix¡¯s non-fiction retrospective ¡°Paperbacks from Hell¡± recently reminded me of famed writer and editor Charles L. Grant¡¯s legacy. Grant popularized what came to be called ¡°dark fantasy¡± or ¡°quiet horror,¡± both of which describe ¡°Amulet¡± more distinctly than ¡°slow burn,¡± which nowadays gets incorrectly interpreted as shorthand for simply ¡°dull.¡±
Hendrix¡¯s book recalls how Grant wrote about modern characters ¡°taking midnight strolls down empty streets.¡± Grant transacted in themes about ¡°suburban ennui¡± and ¡°families crumbling under pressure from suspected infidelity.¡± ¡°Amulet¡± isn¡¯t really rooted in the nightmares of a normal neighborhood in quite the same way. But its nature as a disturbing fairy tale, one focused on cerebral dread only occasionally punctuated by sudden goriness, earns classification as darkly fantastical ¡°quiet horror¡± that suggests more terror than it shows or tells.
Alec Secareanu stars as Tomaz, a homeless military vet haunted by nightmares of his troubled past. Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) takes pity on his PTSD and sets up Tomaz in a decaying old home where young recluse Magda (Carla Juri) lives with her ill mother. Details on how these living arrangements work are hazy. Tomaz just has to use his handyman skills to make repairs in lieu of rent. And he is to never enter the attic, where Magda¡¯s invalid mother lives in hiding behind a locked door.
¡°Amulet¡¯s¡± second story occurs in flashbacks. As a soldier posted alone at a remote forest checkpoint during wartime, Tomaz ends up rescuing Miriam, a refugee desperate to reunite with her daughter. Tomaz gradually grows closer to Miriam, just as he does with Magda in the present. Yet an awful act at the end of his prior trail turns Tomaz into the shattered shell he is now.
Magda and her mother might be Tomaz¡¯s opportunity for redemption. But the mystery creeping through the house¡¯s moldy walls threatens to further frighten the man¡¯s fragile mind. Particularly when he has his first encounter with a bat-like creature and then discovers the truth about Magda¡¯s mother.
Writer/director Romola Garai molds her movie into a message about determining deservedness for forgiveness. A theme that heady has a tough time breathing for a full feature. This kind of smolder burns through air quickly, leaving ¡°Amulet¡± to continue coughing in lengthened moments that belabor points already made. Because it gradually unfolds like a macabre fable as opposed to a narrative-rich thriller or ¡°shock and awe¡± suspense, ¡°Amulet¡± would work better in a shorter runtime not occupied by as much busywork developing a problematic protagonist.
¡°Amulet¡± features two twists, one of which entirely upends our perception of Tomaz with only 20 minutes remaining in the movie. By effectively removing all sympathy for a person we¡¯ve been conditioned to believe is terribly tormented, this revelation has a possibly unintended effect regarding how we relate to his character. When Tomaz becomes as much of a monster as anyone else, ¡°Amulet¡± uncouples from the audience to become a detached parable we¡¯re only passively watching, no longer actively participating in.
¡°Amulet¡± plays like ¡°Relic¡± (review here) without the same depth of emotional resonance. They¡¯re both cold movies about human connection built on metaphors of decay. Even with a small handful of characters in controlled locations, ¡°Amulet¡± isn¡¯t as intimate. It doesn¡¯t seep into the soul on a personal level. Its alienating people exist further outside of a relatable reality, extending arms to ward us away from investing in its meaning.
Call ¡°Amulet¡± a slow burn if that helps calibrate personal perspective. I¡¯ll call it ¡°quiet horror.¡± Too quiet, in fact.
Already an accomplished actress, Romola Garai demonstrates stewarding confidence indicative of a seasoned veteran, not a first-time feature filmmaker. Her instincts regarding where the lens should guide our attention and skill at tuning performances down to minute fractions of detail establish her as an auteur in the making. The story she chooses to tell merely has difficulty maintaining the mood her artistry effortlessly creates. ¡°Amulet¡± aches to scream louder. Garai does too. But ¡°Amulet¡± cements an alluring building block whose minor intrigue nevertheless indicates major talent.
Review Score: 55