Demons not only facilitate the spread of the intangible, supernatural notion of evil, they also deliver a physical manifestation of it into the natural world. Such is the conceit behind actor-turned-writer/director Romola Garai’s debut feature, Amulet, although it takes a while to get there. For much of its early runtime, this is a slow-burning, atmospheric horror film, one that could easily fall into tonal inconsistency and jar the viewer when it erupts into twisted body horror. But Garai deftly navigates the arcane demonology to produce an unnervingly satisfying film that conjoins Rosemary’s Baby-adjacent dread and Evil Dead-style ghoulishness with surprising aplomb.

As with most devil-themed films, Amulet utilizes the trappings of the Catholic Church to sinister effect. Homeless veteran Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is aided in London by habit-clad Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), who sets him up with lodging in a decrepit home in exchange for his helping with upkeep as Magda (Carla Juri) cares for her ailing mother (Anah Ruddin), a woman mysteriously locked away in the attic. Disturbing as that is, especially when ungodly sounds begin emanating from the forbidden room, Tomaz is more haunted by his own memories and dreams. Whenever he falls asleep, he’s transported to an outpost at an undisclosed border where he is confronted by a fleeing civilian named Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia). It’s here, near his wooded station, that he also unearths an unusual stone charm buried just under the topsoil, a totem that may exert an otherworldly influence on all that comes after its discovery.

Even in the squalid London dwelling that’s meant to represent his own confounding and damaged psyche, Tomaz feels unwelcome. He may lend a helping hand in investigating the source of the house’s rank tap water or in simply keeping walls from collapsing in on themselves, but Magda routinely bristles at this presence, even as she’s changing a bandage that conceals a raw bite wound. When she does soften, and lets him take her dancing, the tension between them appears to be a mutual attraction amid difficult circumstances, and it’s clear Magda is protective of her tormented mother even as the old woman routinely wounds her. Garai’s relatively sparse script may offer stilted dialogue at times, but there’s a sense this is an intentional representation of the awkwardness between Magda and Tomaz, and through her often-cryptic responses Magda’s true intentions remain obscured. Sister Claire’s eventual information dump about physical attributes and longevity of actual demons, however, serves as more of a necessary evil – for the over-the-top third act to land, some expositional otherworld-building may be required.

By jumping back and forth between timelines, Amulet occasionally leans too heavily on the trite convention of a character startled awake from a dream. But overall, Garai’s camera heightens the film’s ominous tone, especially when she foreshadows eventual gore through close-ups of Magda gutting fish or preparing glistening meat pies for dinner. And Tomaz is often pulled back into his memories of his encounter with Miriam in the wooded outpost; when he and Magda share a tender moment during a night out together, he flashes back to Miriam in the woods and is soon pounding on the door of Sister Claire to explain that he “tried to help someone, but they got hurt.” Past trauma contorts his present, and despite rolling up his sleeves and digging around in the muck, he may not find much he can salvage.

Summary
An unnervingly satisfying film that conjoins artful Rosemary’s Baby-adjacent dread and Evil Dead-style ghoulishness with surprising aplomb.
70 %
Sinisterly Audacious
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