Two actors make their directorial debuts with horror films this week, and their approaches to the genre reflect its two dominating, often contradictory sensibilities. Dave Franco made The Rental, a moody thriller that relies more on atmosphere and realism. Then there is Amulet, a film directed by Romola Garai, who is best known stateside for her role in Atonement. If The Rental is timid, then Garai’s film embraces the genre’s stylistic excess. Absurdist imagery, copious gore, and gnawing unease are what define a film where the line between sanity and madness blurs until it has no meaning. Intensity and discomfort notwithstanding, Garai loses her grip on the material until it is too obtuse for its own good.
It unfolds in the present, but there is a timeless quality to the plot and its setting. Romanian actor Alec Secareanu plays Tomaz, a former soldier who finds himself homeless in London. Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) takes pity on him, arranging for him to live in a decrepit house where Magda (Carla Juri) lives with her enfeebled mother. This house is forgotten by time: nothing seems to work, and the boards creep with palpable malice. Tomaz is quick to sense something is wrong, except he thinks he deserves what befalls him. There are frequent flashbacks to his time as a soldier, a period that has left him with lingering, profound regret. Still, there are scraps of curiosity and decency left in Tomaz, and he senses something is deeply wrong in this house.
An early scene in Amulet contains imagery as disquieting as anything you might see this year. Tomaz tries to fix a toilet, and inky bile fills the bowl. He drains it, and what is left inside taps into primal fears: fear of the unknown, and of death. This scene has little to do with the rest of the film, except to establish Garai’s credibility. She knows how to use sound design and editing to create a specific atmosphere, then has the patience to wait so the building suspense will make your skin crawl. There is also a sense of Grand Guignol to the climax and its immediate aftermath. Like Ari Aster, Garai has the courage to push her film well past the realm of good taste and into the sublimely grotesque.
Unlike Aster, to my chagrin, she has less grasp on character or pacing. Juri and Secareanu have little chemistry, and the performances amount to little more than desperate whispers. Frequent flashbacks disrupt to the pacing to the point that the story ultimately loses its inertia. And since some scenes unfold without much apparent purpose, the big plot “reveals” arouse more confusion than clarity. A little more exposition would go a long way, without robbing Amulet of its nightmarish milieu.
Aside from the creatures themselves, who snarl and contort themselves in uncomfortable ways, Sister Claire is the only thing that elevates the material. Imelda Staunton has a talent for being ingratiating in an uncomfortable way, and she taps into that quality with a small role that leaves a big impression. She has fun with the script in a way that no one else can muster. If the dialogue lacks specificity, then at least Staunton has the wherewithal to imagine some for herself.
As far as horror debuts go, Amulet shows that Garai has all the right instincts. She knows how to escalate tension, and can depict gore without being too excessive about it. Maybe she also meant her film to be a little allegorical, as Juri and Secareanu are both immigrants in the United Kingdom and can barely find a place for themselves. These are tantalizing ideas that are teased, but never fully explored. Amulet is what happens when an ambitious filmmaker accidentally finds themselves in fiasco territory. Its highs are transcendent enough for longtime horror fans, and if you’ve made it this far, you probably know whether or not you qualify.