*. There’s a lot going on in Amulet outside of its fairly simple story, and I might as well deal with this stuff right away.
*. In the first place, it’s a feminist horror film. In an interview with writer-director Romola Garai that’s included with the DVD she’s asked to comment on “a great moment for women directors of horror films,” with the references being to Relic (Natalie-Erika James), Saint Maud (Rose Glass) and the remake of Candyman (Nia DaCosta). Slightly earlier, The Babadook was apparently some influence. In an essay on the new female horror in Time magazine Stephanie Zacharek also mentions She Dies Tomorrow. So it’s fair to call it a trend.
*. In response, Garai has this to say “I think that horror is the perfect female medium. Because I think that being a woman is just like being in a horror film, you know, just everything about being a woman is being scared all the time and weird things happening to your body and feeling out of place.”
*. That’s a valid perspective, and it’s a case that has been made before. Amulet even doubles down by being both a supernatural horror film and a rape-revenge thriller. Some sort of other-worldly and semi-divine female principle is meting out harsh justice on men who have committed the ultimate transgression. Given this is a horror movie and the vengeful spirit is described as a demon we may think of it as an evil force, but it seems something earthier or more chthonic than that. So really the female point of view that Garai identifies with horror is being reversed, or as the producer put it, stood on its head.
*. The story has it that Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an intellectual border guard (he spends his copious downtime reading philosophy) in some Eastern European country has immigrated to London. Flashbacks tells us that while stationed at his very remote border post he raped a woman he’d befriended. In London a nun (a chilling Imelda Staunton) sets him up in a job as a handyman in a creepy old house inhabited by a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri), who is taking care of her ill mother, who she keeps locked up in the attic.
*. Well obviously something is very wrong here. You want to yell at Tomaz not to eat that stew. Doesn’t everyone know that stew is the archetypical horror cuisine? I mean, what goes into it? Nobody knows.
*. But more than that, there’s the further feminist-horror archetype of the madwoman in the attic. This is actually where I thought Amulet showed the most potential, in a way that made it a very similar film to Relic. Magda is the dutiful caregiver for an elderly parent, a kind of master-slave relationship, forced to watch as her mother descends into dementia, literally transforming into something else. This is an everyday horror story that will resonate with a lot of people. That and pulling dead bats out of the toilet.
*. Like I say, this is the part of the movie that I thought had the most impact. The rape-revenge story seemed awkwardly bolted on to it. It turns out Magda’s mom is actually . . . well, I’m not sure what. Some damned thing that gives birth to the bats. It’s the product of a previous act of male violence perpetrated by Magda’s father. In any event, the conclusion here is very weird indeed, having Tomaz entering into the birth canal of the Great Pink Sea Snail and then becoming impregnated as payback for his having eaten of the forbidden fruit. Or something like that. I found it all a bit muddled.
*. There are things to like about Amulet. I appreciated the feeling of creeping dread (also known as slow burn), as opposed to the usual haunted-house jump scares. That restraint carries through to the performances, with emotions largely held in check. This isn’t a screamfest.
*. There’s also a nice otherworldly atmosphere. To be honest, I was surprised that the film was taking place in London. I thought Tomaz had just left his border post for a job in Bucharest or some such place. That’s what it looked like. This seemed fitting too, as so many horror movies are now being shot in Eastern Europe. But no, this is a British production.
*. Unfortunately, I came away thinking this was a movie that just had too much on its plate and not a clear enough idea about what it wanted to say. Or maybe it does and it’s just not very clear about saying it. I honestly had trouble figuring out what was going on. What was the point of the bat babies? Wasn’t the fact that Magda had to continue taking care of the hosts a sort of punishment of her? How did Tomaz get selected for this extreme punishment anyway? Did he find the amulet or did it find him? Why does Magda bother getting in touch with Miriam at the end?
*. It’s ironic, but despite being a slow burn with an eruption of weirdness and gore at the end, the climax is still a let-down. The ending is actually the least interesting part of the movie. I haven’t anything against the feminist message, but it’s really not as new or dangerous as it’s made out to be. In fact, I think it plays here against what might have been more difficult readings. Like “What are we going to do about mom?”