You will come across any number of creatively creepy elements in writer-director Romola Garai’s toedip into atmospheric horror. For starters, there’s a deep, dark forest, the kind of fairy tale setting that houses woodsmen, witches and big, bad wolves. That’s where Tomaz (Alec Secareanu, the handsome Romanian from God’s Own Country), a soldier, mans an isolated outpost as an unending war divides an unnamed country. It’s also where he encounters Miriam (Dogtooth‘s Angeliki Papoulia), a refugee — she prefers a sweater over a riding hood, but the garment is still red — fleeing the city, and discovers an ancient-looking talisman buried in the soil near his cabin.
Then, when Tomaz flash-forwards to modern-day London and the now-bearded immigrant is working as a builder, he meets a nun (Imelda Staunton) who has a way of inspiring religious-horror choral wailing on the soundtrack. She brings him to a run-down house filled with grime and odd bits of mold — all the better to suggest a spiritual rot writ large, my dear — as a caretaker. The other occupants are an old, infirm woman who lives upstairs and never comes out, and a younger, mousy woman named Magda (Carla Juri).
There are a lot more scary-movie tidbits scattered about, such as albino bats, jump scares, jittery and semi-focused shots that suggest extreme disorientation, crude homemade dolls, and speeches about demons and evil. And for Amulet‘s first two-thirds, right up until viewers get a major revelation about exactly what’s going on, it’s a blast to see how Garai keeps all of these various things in play. A British actor who’s done time in BBC literary adaptations and various period pieces (Atonement), not to mention the occasional WTF Hollywood detour (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights), the first-time filmmaker has a way of keeping the mystery of it all seem completely beguiling even when everything feels cryptic to a fault. You get the sense that you’re being guided along by someone with a vision, as well as facility for marshaling her collaborators around that vision. (Shout-outs galore here: Laura Bellingham’s heebie-jeebie–inducing cinematography, Sara Angles’ eerie score, the fetid sense of things falling apart thanks to the unholy design trinity of Francesca Massariol, Lucy Gahagan and Sofia Stocco; bonus points for Staunton’s scenery-gnawing pronunciation of the word “in-vin-ci-ble.”) Horror has proven to be an especially fertile ground for female filmmakers, and Garai is dead set on making the most of the genre’s ability to slip deeper, more disturbing commentary underneath the cover of superficial shock-treatment pleasures.
It’s when Amulet tries to tie its various strands together, however, that the film starts to lose the plot, its footing and the good will it’s built up. It seems to suggest that evil, whether the supernatural or the social kind, is all part of the same age-old continuum, yet doesn’t quite connect the dots in a manner that gives you a coherent big picture at the end. The movie’s ambitions exceed its grasp, and it’s hard not to wonder if the ideas here might not have been better served in a shorter, tighter format. Even when the big swings for the fence pay off, notably in a climactic set piece that promotes a hinted-at gynecological subtext to full-blown text, the mood gets punctured by a heavy-handed coda that will have you shrieking, and not due to feelings of terror. What you’re left with is not a new classic but a nice calling card, and one that genuinely makes you wonder what Garai will do next. There is enough here to suggest that it’s not a matter of “if” so much as at what point she’s going to produce something both unsettling and unshakable.