There’s a particular kind of joy in seeing a debut from a first-time feature filmmaker and it being excellent. A layer of intrigue is added when that feature debut comes from a longtime actor-turned-filmmaker. Such is the case with creepy and atmospheric Amulet, the first feature film from veteran British actress Romola Garai. For a first swing, she knocks it out of the park.

Amulet follows the story of Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an ex-soldier now living as a homeless refugee in London. A kindly nun (Imelda Staunton) takes pity on him and arranges for him to stay with a mother and daughter she knows in exchange for him doing odd jobs around their crumbling, decaying house. It quickly becomes clear to Tomaz, however, that something is badly amiss. Adult daughter Magda (Carla Juri) is strangely insistent on remaining with her abusive, dying mother (Anah Ruddin) despite clearly feeling trapped by it and her devotion not being returned. The house itself is a source of unexplained and unsettling events that haunt Tomaz. As he grows closer to Magda and puts the pieces together, he discovers the reality of what’s happening in the house is so much more horrifying than he ever imagined.

It’s difficult to say much more than that without giving crucial plot points away, but trust me when I say Amulet is well worth the watch. Here are three reasons to see it this weekend, whether in limited theaters or on-demand.

1. The Visuals Layer On Atmospheric, Creeping Tension

Garai shows an impressive command of visuals in her debut. Credit to the art team of production designer Francesca Massariol, art director Lucy Gahagan and set decorator Sofia Stocco for building a world of decay. The vibe of the house isn’t one of simple sad neglect but of being unclean, a rot that goes beyond age. Mold and filth splatter the walls and floors, plumbing spits up black sewage and dead, deformed rat creatures, trash and debris litter the halls. Even Magda’s cooking, which the malnourished Tomaz wolfs down, is unappetizing in appearance. Close-ups of sludgy stew glistening with fatty, oily meat like thick blood clots kill the appetite rather than whet it. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of China Mieville’s book Perdido Street Station and the way he revels in describing the disgusting, repulsive elements of New Crobuzon with reverential detail.

Garai’s attention to evoking a visceral response layers tension in expert ways. Dread is thick from the start even when the mother-daughter relationship is initially framed as one that is a straightforward one of patient and caregiver, though abusive and parasitic. Long before your ears hear the lines of dialogue that reveal the true nightmare of the situation, your eyes tell you that something is wrong, something is horribly wrong thanks to the thick and grimy atmosphere created by the visuals.

2. It Unfolds A Mystery That Keeps You Guessing

If, from the start, your senses tell you that there is something far more diabolical at play, what exactly that truth is remains elusive until the ultimate reveal. The script, which Garai also wrote, does a fine job of not revealing its hand too soon. The movie is a trim hour and 39 minutes so the story moves along efficiently, but the pacing and plot never jump ahead of themselves. Each interaction and new bit of information send you on a new path. “Ah, okay,” you think, “This is where it seems to be heading.” The next new bit of information proves your guess wrong.

3. Revelations And Plot Twists That Work

It’s difficult to predict the final direction of Amulet because it doesn’t telegraph plot twists and revelations so obviously that they’re a letdown or only serve to officially confirm what you’d already guessed. Without giving away any specific twists, there are levels of revelation to be had in Amulet. No one, not even our protagonist Tomaz, is what they seem; it’s eventually revealed he’s not the good guy and white knight he appears to be. Flashback scenes of his time spent in a conflict in what appears to be Central Europe finally lead up to a shocking scene that strips him of the veneer of heroism. Amulet forces us to ask ourselves what makes a monster, and whether or not there is a monster in everyone. Can one ever truly atone for a monstrous act? Or does it slowly twist us, rotting our humanity away from the inside? Are there certain acts for which we can never find redemption? And in aiding the monsters that hurt them, do victims become monstrous themselves? Beneath the horror, Amulet is a story of revenge and justice on a supernatural scale.

If there’s any criticism of Amulet, it’s that the last twist might be a stretch too far for some. It’s a stark tonal contrast to the rest of the movie and it may make the execution seem clunky to viewers who were expecting something different. But inelegant transition aside, it’s worth it simply for the payoff and resolution it brings.

Amulet is by no means a perfect film, but it’s an astonishing debut from a first-time feature filmmaker. I hope Garai remains behind the camera as a filmmaker for a while as I’m excited to see what she does next.

Amulet is in limited theaters and on-demand today, July 24th. Check your local theaters for listings.

  • Horror
  • Review