dir: Romola Garai
Another week, another horror flick set in a decaying house with some demented woman upstairs slowing dying and trying to take everyone else down with her.
Amulet could not be more different from the other film I’m referring to, being the Australian flick Relic which came out a week or two ago. Amulet is far darker, but also far less harrowing somehow than the other flick. Both were directed by women, not to lump films into categories just because of the gender of the directors involved, but I can say that at least in this instance, they are directors trying to do more than just jump scares and surprise kills.
And while Relic might have been about intergenerational legacies and the steady process of deletion that dementia brings in the aged, the narrowing of a labyrinth people find themselves trapped in looking after the elderly, Amulet is some strange amalgam of guilt, revenge, physical manifestations of evil, and some monstrous feminine energy seeking retribution. I think? I could have it all completely wrong, because the thing I was thinking the most towards the end was “what the fuck is going on, like, seriously?”
Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is clearly a very troubled chap. We see scenes of him clean shaven, meaning the past, and bearded, meaning the present. In the past, he was a soldier, in a forest, a suspiciously symmetrical forest. Something bad must have happened during The War, but we won’t find out until way later in the film. Also, we never find out which war, which, I guess, doesn’t matter. All wars are bad, and bad things tend to happen in them. But the bad thing that Tomaz does has nothing to do with the war.
In the bearded present, Tomaz seems to be leading a fairly hardscrabble existence in London, living in a squat with fellow refugees, but one detail of his existence seems to be unique to him: each night as he lays himself down to sleep, he tapes his hands together for some reason, and has to cut himself free in the mornings.
A fire in the squat sees him and the rest ejected into the streets, and now into an even more precarious existence. A kindly nun (Imelda Staunton, the only recognisable face in this film with like 4 people in it) takes him in briefly, and suggests that there is a place nearby where he could board and do jobs fixing the place up.
And it could really do with some work. There’s rot throughout the place, in the ceilings and walls, everything creaks, and there’s a girl called Magda (Carla Juri) who patiently looks after her decrepit mother, who’s in a lot of pain, and often lashes out.
Magda seems like a refugee not only from a country other than England, but from an earlier time period as well. She takes the abuses from her mother with either good humour or resignation. Tomaz’s every instinct is to flee, but he also can’t figure out what the hell exactly is going on.
It’s about half an hour in where one thing happens, which seems to imply that nothing is as it seems: the nun throws away a small roll of cash. It might seem innocuous, but it is not.
As he gets more wound up in the house and in feeling protective of Magda, who seems like a bit of an odd sort herself, Tomaz is really captured after eating a meal, like, a casserole. He eats it like a man who’s not eaten in a long time, not eaten a casserole in a long time, and not eaten a casserole so good it stuns you ever before. I thought maybe there was heroin in the food or something; turns out he was just mega-hungry.
Hungry and tormented by the past. Every time he gets a bit closer to Magda, or Magda trusts him more, he freaks out and pushes her or runs away, because of something, something. It’s teased out to an incredible degree, it builds to something truly horrible. But along the way Tomaz wonders whether forgiveness is possible, whether he can forgive himself, and move in a different direction in his life, along a better path.
Meanwhile the aged creature on the top floor keeps harming Magda, and Tomaz keeps being freaked out by the house’s sound design, because I think he can hear the same odd, unsettling soundtrack that we’re hearing.
Plus he finds some hairless albino bat-like monstrosity in the toilet, before he conveniently forgets about it later on, no matter how freaked out he got.
To say matters become worse for almost all involved would be an understatement along the lines of “going into a lockdown for a second time is more depressing than going into lockdown for the first time.” The nature of what Magda’s “mother” is completely changes towards the end of the film, in ways that don’t even register as a twist. Grand, monstrous things occur later in the film, and it’s not that they were telegraphed – it’s that we weren’t to know what kind of film we were watching. We thought maybe this troubled chap was struggling to find a way to redeem himself, that, whatever was happening with Magda and her mother, that maybe there was a way to protect Magda that somehow would make up for what he did During The War.
But that isn’t the story being told here. At all. It’s profoundly different.
In a chat with the nun, Tomaz wonders aloud about how, before the nun’s god came on to the scene, the gods they previously had around weren’t as forgiving. They didn’t let you forgive yourself, in fact, they weren’t much in the business of forgiving anything. Early in the film Tomaz, back in the day, finds a carved totem, or, amulet, if you will, of some earthen, feminine goddess, perhaps. Intended to protect from evil? Perhaps they are more about punishing the wicked, about inflicting evil upon those who deserve it.
Because, as well, until very late in the film, we don’t actually know yet what Tomaz did, we still wonder whether he deserves to be forgiven, whether he is at heart a good man. The only book he reads is a philosophical text, to complete some dissertation he was working on prior to the war. It is implied that, in his struggles to forgive himself, perhaps he searches philosophy and metaphysics as a way to justify his own actions, or intellectualise reasons as to why he’s not so much to blame for what happened. And then we find out. For sure. That none of that is applicable.
The film from then on makes the case that, actually, no, Tomaz, maybe you were right the first time, and people don’t get to decide their own comfort levels with the evil they’ve committed. Maybe certain people are all about the punishment, rather than the redemption, and, honestly, I was so bewildered and bemused by the end, when it actually comes around, and is far nastier and deranged than I could have imagined, I was left pretty cold.
This is a horror film, but it’s not scary at all, maybe a bit gross, and it has perhaps a feminist agenda that I would ordinarily applaud, considering how appalling the horror genre usually is towards women in general and female characters specifically.
I just – it’s that – without spoiling anything, anyone who sees the bit with the giant shell and whatever the fuck it was inside, who tells me that *that* made a lick of sense, or the coda, where someone somehow gives a character acknowledgement that the grave wrong done to them has been avenged, without, you know, actually telling them in any way, maybe you’d be less baffled than I was. It makes you think the fix was in from the start, but then you have to wonder the hows and whys of it all, and it feels pretty fruitless.
I didn’t actively dislike the film until the end; it’s mostly well made. It looks seedy, like it should. There is perhaps something of a language barrier. The actor playing Tomaz is Romanian, the actor playing Magda is Swedish, a character who spends some time with Tomaz in the past sections I recognise from the films of Yiorgos Lanthimos, which means she’s Greek (being Angeliki Papoulia), so there’s a bit of the Europudding thing going on (films which get funding from different countries in the EU sometimes overload their casts with people from different countries still speaking in English despite there being no story reason for it, lazily referred to as “Europudding”, at least by me). While the direction is unsettling and disconcerting, and while the story is completely uncompromising, I can still say that, even as I did not enjoy the experience, I am pretty sure the director Romola Garai made exactly the film she wanted to make, because honestly…
Sure, horror flicks are by their nature unpleasant, but sometimes, when I can’t see the purpose behind it, or the approach they’re reaching for, stories like this can be a bit absurd at the end, undermining whatever might have been done previous that worked.
Amulet will not protect you from anything, let alone the forces of confusion, and it won’t protect you from a bad night at the movies, either.
5 times the real monster turns out to be YOU! out of 10
“It has dwelled within you. Now it’s time to let it out.” – strong words to an expectant mother-to-be - Amulet