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Caregiver horror ‘Amulet’ builds from quiet dread to feminist body-horror

Caregiver horror ‘Amulet’ builds from quiet dread to feminist body-horror

Caregiver horror ‘Amulet’ builds from quiet dread to feminist body-horror
August 05
10:42 2020

“Peace, quiet, homecooked food — what more could the bachelor want?”

Looks like 2020 is not only the year of the pandemic, it’s the biggest year for caregiver horror — “Relic” recently crept into theaters where it “decayed,” in the words of our own Spencer Kain, while the much-anticipated “Saint Maud” has been pulled until further notice. Between these two, Romola Garai has unchained her directorial debut, “Amulet.”

There’s more to the comparison than just involving caregivers — all three are directed by women who are first-time directors, the latter two involve some degree of body-horror and all three were scheduled to come out within a month of each other. In fact, “Maud” was set to premiere the week before “Amulet.” So, how does “Amulet” fair in this relatively competitive field?

Well, it certainly doesn’t lack in sheer strain and shock.

The setup is relatively simple — sometime after a conflict in an unknown Eastern European country, homeless veteran Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is employed by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) to help lonely, seemingly disconnected Magda (Carla Juri) take care of her mother by helping around the house. As Tomaz connects with Magda, her mother’s erratic behavior attracts Tomaz’s attention and it’s clear Sister Claire hasn’t told him everything.

In a parallel storyline set during his time in the war, Tomaz finds the titular amulet buried near his solo posting in the woods. During a patrol, he shelters a refugee named Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) who’s looking for her daughter, beginning an off-key friendship with her. However, Tomaz’s night terrors make it clear something went wrong.

Starting as a quiet mystery, “Amulet” paces its story pretty well, building itself on a strong foundation of character development and atmosphere. There’s a real strong Dario Argento influence here, especially from the 1977 “Suspiria” — a dreamlike feeling to some of the events and a heavy influence on contrasting lighting during the more eventful moments. The claustrophobia of Magda’s decaying home is contrasted with the mesmerizing symmetry of the woods during flashbacks, with a strong, dark fairytale vibe permeating them.

It helps that all three primary actors are firing on all cylinders — Secareanu carries this brooding, yet sensitive quality to Tomaz. He carries a quiet charisma and intensity to him, and Secareanu kept the attention during the quieter parts, as well as keeping a sympathetic presence during Tomaz’s worst moments, save for the end. Juri is also magnetic as Magda, effortlessly evolving as the film peels back her layers. Staunton also carries her role as a suspicious and creepy nun and she gets some truly chilling lines.

The unsettling atmosphere is further helped by Sarah Angliss’ score. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an official release because it’ll stick with plenty of viewers. An ambient collection of vocals, chimes and electronica, it’s simply haunting and adds to the building dread as “Amulet” exposes the audiences to just what is going on under the surface of Magda, her home and Tomaz’s own mind.

Another positive is the motifs the film dwells on — feminist musings on self-absolution, vengeance and trauma. Tomaz, Miriam and Magda all have some sort of trauma and thoughts on forgiveness and empowerment. The way Garai chooses to explore them is pretty unusual, even for horror films.

Also, while it may not rival the climax of 2018’s “Suspiria,” there’s true depravity to the ending that’s completely fearless and goes all on it’s themes. The body-horror is especially sickening and will make even iron-stomached viewers queasy. Strong warning.

One problem, however, is that it’s not entirely coherent, at least not in a way that feels either intentional or to the movie’s advantage. While “Amulet” is only a brisk 99 minutes, it doesn’t necessarily have enough plot to fill out it’s running time. There is a period just after the middle where the film seems to really struggle with what to do next and throws a twist that doesn’t feel entirely necessary to obscure the final outcome of the plot.

Also, as much as I can appreciate an ending that goes all in for what Garai and crew are trying to accomplish, I can see how it might take people out of the world the movie spent nearly 100 minutes solidifying. Still, major respect to Garai and everyone else for committing to it.

While it may not be entirely coherent and goes into some disturbing territory, “Amulet” is a striking debut for Garai. With a strong sense for incredible sound and spellbinding visuals, Garai holds a lot of promise. While general audiences will probably be turned off, I can wholeheartedly recommend “Amulet” to those looking for something with an intense cerebralism to it.

Final rating: 3/5

Featured image: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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