Romola Garai’s debut as writer-director shows ambition and a commitment to the weird that makes a different impression – and marks her out as a rather interesting filmmaker. Amulet doesn’t always work but it’s certainly memorable.
There are superficial parallels with His House as a guilt-ridden refugee in the UK is homed in a haunted environment and discovers horrors behind peeling wallpaper and in blocked drains, but this takes a few very different turns. In flashbacks, set in an unnamed European country during a border war, clean-shaven soldier Tomas (Alex Secareanu) mans a sentry box on a road through the woods. His mother has used clout to get him a post away from the fighting, where he whiles away the time reading Hannah Arendt and eventually shelters a fleeing woman (Angelika Papoulia) from possible persecution. In the present day (or thereabouts), bearded Tomas is an undocumented day labourer in a hostile Britain, sleeping rough and prone to night terrors in which he is capable of self-harm. A very odd nun (Imelda Staunton) pulls him off the streets and places him in a near-derelict old house where downtrodden Magda (Carla Juri) cares for her terminally-ill, often violent mother (Anah Ruddin). He does odd jobs and makes a start on forging a connection with the naturally suspicious Magda – and starts noticing bitemarks, strange sigils behind the plaster and other omens. A hairless mutant bat clogging the toilet suggests even nastier stuff to come. All this takes him back to his origin story, which involves a daggerlike amulet dug up in the forest and Something Bad That Happened.
Once inside the gloomy house, Garai dials down the social realism and plays up the ghost story … dropping hints of the real situation between the cooped-up characters. In the third act, she uses much more surreal imagery (including a giant snail-shell) to accompany plot and character reversals. For a while, it’s not clear which of the characters are monsters – and later it takes more time to specify what kind of monsters they are, as regular human rottenness and the demonic jostle for precedence. Secareanu holds it all in as a walking shell of a man but Juri is allowed a wider range of expression as the very peculiar custodian of a charge who seems to be another in a recent run of dementia-suffering horror film characters but turns out to be even odder than that.