Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), the not-exactly-hero of the new horror movie Amulet, can’t get any relief. The movie opens with him manning a forested outpost during an unnamed armed conflict, mostly out of harm’s way, but not free of worry. At some later point, he’s turned into a bearded, haunted-looking man, staying in a London homeless shelter and eking out a bit of money as a day laborer. He also binds his hands before he goes to sleep. It’s not entirely clear whether this is for safety, or he’s punishing himself.
When his shelter burns down, helpful nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a job as a live-in handyman for a decrepit home, assisting Magda (Carla Juri) as she tends to her elderly, fading mother. Before any supernatural elements enter the picture, Tomaz is encountering real-life horrors at every turn.
Between Amulet, the recent Relic, and the upcoming Saint Maud, elder care is getting a lot of horror-movie attention in 2020. But Amulet writer-director Romola Garai, making her feature debut after an acting career in films like Angel and Amazing Grace, isn’t necessarily interested in the discomfiting intimacy of caregiving. At least not directly. Magda’s mother remains unseen for a large chunk of the movie, known primarily by the noises she makes upstairs and her reputation for abusing herself and others. As Magda dutifully tends to her, Tomaz deals with the usual quirks of an old, electricity-free building, like a toilet clogged with a large, fleshy bat-like creature, with what looks like an umbilical cord dangling from its midsection.
As the bad omens pile up, Garai meets the considerable scary-movie challenge of finding a plausible reason why the lead character would keep returning to such a creepy, foreboding place. He’s clearly seeking some kind of stability and absolution, and for a while, the bond he develops with Magda seems to provide it, balancing out any suspicious noises or bad dreams. “Peace, quiet, home-cooked food … what more could the bachelor want?” Sister Claire asks rhetorically early on. Horror fans familiar with ironic mock-warnings and suspicious of characters fussing over succulently prepared meat-based dishes might suspect that something is amiss with the cooking. But Amulet’s horror burrows deeper — sometimes so deep that it’s hard to tell what exactly is happening on a broader story level.
The movie periodically cuts back to Tomaz at his lonely outpost, where he encounters a woman named Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) and offers her shelter. Gradually, the backstory starts to converge with the present; we see Tomaz dig up an amulet in the forest, then later find the same pattern carved into the ceiling of the crumbling house he just can’t seem to leave. What transpires between Tomaz and Miriam also informs the present-day action. The general outline is telegraphed fairly early; Tomaz isn’t having nightmares about his military duty because his experiences fill him with tender fondness, for others or himself. But as the movie reveals more, the details of the present-day scenes just get murkier.
It’s the kind of murk that can inhibit performances, as skillful as they are. Secareanu conveys guilt and anguish without a moment of overacting, while Juri (who starred in the quite differently grotesque, worthwhile comedy Wetlands) makes Magda’s devotion both touching and troubling. When Magda and Tomaz go out dancing for a taste of freedom, her exuberance quickly zips from charming to unsettling, making it clear how adrift she appears in the “real” world, where she’s not puttering around a dilapidated house crawling with the horror-movie-requisite water damage and mold.
But all the actors are ultimately forced to play into a strategy of leaving key motivations unspoken (and sometimes obtuse even when they are spoken), and eventually the movie suffers. At first, it’s quiet concealment is striking, all the better to highlight the well-composed sound design. The opening five or six minutes of the film are nearly dialogue-free, and talk remains sparse throughout, as the movie communicates more with atmospheric visual flourishes and the occasional homage. (A famous shot from Psycho gets quoted, and the movie’s reliance on set design, not to mention its climactic bloodiness, brings to mind the original Suspiria.) Yet as Amulet gets wilder in its final stretch, it also starts to feel more remote.
Maybe that’s a natural byproduct of the way this well-made movie toys with audience sympathies, and how that dynamic relates to the bigger statements Garai wants to make about violence, guilt, and trauma. It’s heady stuff that doesn’t automatically make a movie all that scary, or even as fully visceral as its most extreme moments of body horror seem to aim for. Amulet attempts to yoke together serious drama with over-the-top genre satisfaction. Instead, it winds up tying itself in unsatisfying knots.