From the gothic-style red lettering to the angelic score fit for a requiem mass, “Amulet” recalls the horror films of the 70s that graced drive-in screens across the country. At the same time, the directorial debut by actress Romola Garai feels like it’s in the Clive Barker wheelhouse. The story about an ex-soldier turned handyman for a woman and her ailing mother has all the makings of a masterwork of horror.
The film opens with an aerial view of a dense forest. We meet Tomaz, played by Alec Secareanu from “God’s Own County,” a soldier stationed at an isolated outpost in the middle of the wilderness. He finds an amulet buried beneath the moist soil that resembles a female goddess with a fan-shaped headdress. The small figurine will play a significant role in Garai’s story as the narrative ventures into David Cronenberg’s “Brood” territory.
The timeline shifts and we find Tomaz, post-war, living in London among the homeless, taking whatever odd job is available. His past still haunts him in the form of nightmares which serve as flashbacks giving the viewer an idea of what torments his soul. Is there any amount of kindness that exonerates one unspeakable act? Is Tomaz a good man, or evil in its incipient stage?
Carli Juri (“Wetlands”) plays soft-spoken yet independent Magda. She cares for her elderly mother (Anah Ruddin) who resides in the attic of the two-story ramshackle home under lock and key as a safety measure for both women, although Magda is the one with bite marks on her arm.
Tomaz eventually moves into Magda’s home after being recruited by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a compassionate nun who rescued him as he laid bloody and unconscious in the street after an accident at the homeless shelter. She offers Tomaz room and board in exchange for repairing the old home and assisting Magda with the care of her mother. The black mildew that inundates the interior and the fact that Magda begins crying when she sees Sister Claire is enough to convince Tomaz that he can do some good by staying; Penance for sins of the past.
The stage has been set for an evil showdown influenced by the works of Clive Barker and David Cronenberg as well as modern-day filmmakers Ben Wheatley and Jennifer Kent. The film’s ominous tone is accented by Sarah Angliss’ choral score featuring the angelic voices of Sarah Gabriel, Melanie Pappenheim, and Robin Hallett who instill fear as a regressive form of Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant score for 1976’s “The Omen.” The Requiem Mass has commenced.
The cast is perfect for Garai’s supernatural tale. Juri, in reserved mode, plays the damsel in distress with consummate skill, a characteristic needed to lure Secareanu’s Tomaz into the lair. When she becomes the film’s savior it becomes clear that Garai has formulated the perfect feminist horror film. It’s refreshing to see the male character slide into the spot of rescuee which is usually reserved for females not played by Jamie Lee Curtis or Sigourney Weaver.
It’s also refreshing and a bit thrilling to see the wonderful Imelda Staunton as Sister Claire. Like Tomaz, the viewer isn’t quite sure if she represents good or evil. But if she does fall on the side of darkness one can rest assure that Sister Claire could give any of cinema’s evil nuns a run for their money. Put her in 1922’s “Häxan” and the Devil would have to watch his back.
Romola Garai has appeared in films that include “Suffragette” and “Atonement.” Her baptism into the genre is reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s surprising arrival three years ago. Will Garai continue to dabble in horror or is this just a temporary detour? Let’s hope it’s the start of a great relationship filled with more frights in the future.
(3 ½ stars)
In theaters and available on Demand via Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Suddenlink, and Microsoft