Amulet (2020) – Horror – Romola Garai – United Kingdom – 99 minutes – watch here
With a lot of experience in front of the camera, Romola Garai has proven to be a good actor both in film and on television. As a writer-director, though, she had a lot to demonstrate with her debut feature: Amulet, Garai’s first effort behind the camera, is an arthouse/slow-burn horror film that will likely be very divisive.
Made by an almost-entirely female cast and crew, Amulet was featured in my most anticipated horror movies of 2020 list more out of curiosity than anything else: I was interested to see what an actor who worked within different genres could bring to the horror genre.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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My review is also available on IMDb – Amulet (2020)
Check out the official list of 2020 horror films I’ve watched
Amulet – plot(s), tone and objectives
Benefitting from a very international cast, Amulet follows Tomas (Alec Secareanu) – the only prominent male in the movie, including the crew – a former soldier who lives homeless in London. When he meets Sister Claire (the wonderful Imelda Staunton), he is invited to stay at a decaying house inhabited by a young woman, Magda (Carla Juri) and her dying mother (Anah Ruddin). Despite something being clearly not right, Tomas begins to fall for Magda: an infatuation that might lead to dire consequences. Similarly, Amulet flashes back to Tomas’ past, which was strangely characterised by the unhealthy relationship with Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia, which some of you may recognise as a recurring actor in Yorgos Lanthimos’ filmography).
Indeed, one of the standout aspects of Amulet is the movie’s non-linear and double narrative structure, which both keeps the viewing compelling and adds a very eerie mystery element to it: you know the two storylines will come together at some point, but the uncomfortable tone keeps you intrigued as to how that will play out. Speaking of tone, Amulet manages to create a nail-biting atmosphere thanks to its slow (almost plodding) pacing, which is filled with odd and uneasy interactions.
The look of terror
In this respect, Garai’s debut film truly understands the look and feel of horror filmmaking: the dour environments, paired with washed out colour palette and looming sensation that something truly horrifying is happening, provide Amulet with a long-lasting feeling that something is constantly off. The camera work is not particularly varied, as there are few and repetitive locations, but the film does a great job at making you forget about it: in fact, the claustrophobic and bleak cinematography enhances the sense that Tomas is trapped. Therefore, as a viewer, you feel the same way he does.
In addition, Amulet doesn’t hold back in terms of gore and disgusting imagery. If first and second act are mostly psychological and atmospheric – to the point they might seem boring upon first watch – the last 25 minutes of this film go to unexpected places. Hints to the disturbing moments to come are sprinkled throughout, but the third act surprises in all the right ways: it’s gory (thanks to great practical effects), strange and mysterious enough not to spell out its layered meanings to audience members.
The sound of doom
Creepy imagery goes a long way in horror, but it’s sound that can elevate the film. Luckily, Amulet benefits from a phenomenal soundtrack, which is very uncomfortable and incredibly ominous.
The score, used sparingly as not to come off gimmicky or overbearing, truly shines towards the end of the film, where its ominous notes perfectly fit the images and concepts that are shows in the last few minutes of the runtime. Sarah Angliss – in her first credit as composer – showcases a rare talent for complementary music: she’s an artist to look out for.
Characters and actors
If I had to point out some weaker elements with Amulet, I would be speaking about some of the acting and, to a certain degree, character development. Speaking of the latter, Tomas is sort of the main character: he’s well-rounded and has a clear role within the story, but he feels more like a mean to deliver a message, rather than a realistic person. By the same token, every other character in the movie has only one motivation and their personality doesn’t develop any further than that.
Whether the directing of actors wasn’t on par with the general directing or the performers didn’t give their all, the acting in the film comes off as wooden and mechanical. This goes for everyone – including great performers like Secareanu and Papoulia – except for Imelda Staunton: at this point, she can pull off every character. Her role requires her to, basically, be two different people and she conveys both characters in a rather mesmerising way.
Feminism and retribution
The almost-all-female cast and crew mirrors the feminist message of Amulet, and so does Tomas’ role in the film. Although I personally disagree with said message (or, at least, with what I believe the message to be), the execution of it is remarkable: Amulet is both subtle (at the beginning) and in-your-face (at the end) with its agenda, but it never fails to put filmmaking in front of it.
On top of that, I believe on a second watch it’s possible to notice that every seed for the crazy ending was planted at the very beginning. An unmistakable mark of good writing.
Amulet is designed to be divisive: it’s a slow-burner that can test the patience of viewers who want their horror to be delivered quickly and constantly; it’s multi-layered and opinionated to the point of keeping people away from appreciating the filmmaking at play; it’s vague and doesn’t serve the answers on a silver plate.
These traits, together with the impressive technical achievements for a first feature, are what separate Amulet from the average, middle-of-the-road horror flick. This is a challenging, flawed but overall great horror film: it may not resonate with everyone – in fact, it will disappoint many – but it’s definitely worth a watch if you seek for a unique, demanding viewing experience.
*** It’s more like between 7 and 8/10 for me. Therefore, it could move up to 8/10 upon subsequent viewings.