Actress Romola Garai makes a distinctive feature directorial debut with “Amulet,” even if this upscale horror drama is ultimately more impressive in the realm of style than substance. It’s some style, though: She hasn’t just created a stylish potboiler, but a densely textured piece that makes for a truly arresting viewing experience to a point. A shame then that the film succumbs somewhat to the more pretentious and silly aspects of Garai’s initially cryptic puzzle of a script.
“Amulet” is definitely the kind of joint that will irk mainstream genre fans for being too “arty,” and for not pouring on the kills or gore (though neither are entirely lacking). Still, more adventurous types will grok the distinctive vision on display in this split-level narrative of terrors bred by both war and more unearthly evils.
It takes a while before we get our basic bearings in the early going, when an overload of intercut unsettling but often beautiful imagery mirrors the dislocation suffered by our protagonist. We eventually realize that in the present tense, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is among many refugees who’ve landed in England fleeing poverty or violence at home — in his case, what looks like the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. But while scant time may have passed since he fled, it’s hard to reconcile this furry, furtive man with the clean-shaven youth seen in flashbacks. Then, Tomaz was lucky to get out of active fighting, being stationed alone at a checkpoint on a little-traveled rural road miles from the nearest village.
Now, he works construction jobs for under-the-table sustenance pay while staying in a squat with other refugees. His PTSD is such that he binds his arms and feet with duct tape to prevent causing self-harm during night terrors. That makes escape difficult when some presumed anti-immigrant fanatic sets fire to the place, and he barely escapes alive. Waking in a hospital, Tomaz discovers he and his precious few belongings were saved by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton).
As his roll of cash is now gone, he must accept the nun’s further generosity in providing him a free place to stay in return for “helping” Magda (Carla Juri), an awkward, suspicious, unworldly young woman. Her large but dilapidated house is in sore need of some basic repairs. Tomaz is indeed handy, but she seems resistant to his arrival, while he won’t stay where he isn’t wanted. Nonetheless, he does decide to remain — primarily from pity, when he realizes that the painfully, terminally ill mother hidden upstairs not only keeps her daughter a virtual prisoner here, but violently abuses her as well.
The two shy strangers gradually begin to warm toward each other. But this unhappy home is hardly a place for Tomaz to forget the past that torments him. As it unfolds in flashbacks, this involves his taking in Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a mother who collapsed at his guard post in the dangerous war zone, while trying to rejoin a daughter across the border. Meanwhile, things grow ever more sinister at Chez Magda, where black mold covers the walls, a hideous batlike creature is found clogging the toilet, and the equally monstrous Mother (Anah Ruddin) makes her malevolent presence felt well before Tomaz lays appalled eyes on her.
The climax, which makes a leap into CGI fantasy imagery, draws obscure connection between that fatefully intervening nun, a strange talisman young Tomaz once found in the forest, and some eternal evil that requires self-sacrificing human caretakers. As a mythology, it’s a bit too little too late, and as scary cinema, it isn’t, very. Yet it’s easy to forgive “Amulet’s” ultimate story shortcomings while wallowing in the oft-queasy yet sumptuous atmospherics Garai lays on before things first get a little ponderous, then a bit gaga.
“Amulet” may recall some other out-there auteurist horror opuses, from Zanussi’s “Possession” to two other striking recent debut features, the Brit “Possum” and German-Austrian “Hagazussa.” But it has a feel all its own, with a range of imaginative conceptual and technical strategies each deployed by DP Laura Bellingham, production designer Francesca Massariol, editor Alastair Reid and composer Sarah Angliss. If the highly worked aesthetic package sometimes risks mannerism for its own sake, these accomplished, often near-abstract individual elements mostly mesh in a way that marks Garai as a filmmaker with a sensibility that’s fully formed on arrival.
Her actors also work very well in what must have been a somewhat challenging context, having to maintain various character ambiguities and tease viewer doubt with limited dialogue or explication. Best-known abroad for Francis Lee’s superb 2017 “God’s Own Country,” Romanian co-star Secareanu gives another powerfully sympathetic performance here, lending Tomaz plenty of haunted depth. Juri and Staunton are fine in differently-scaled parts that both have considerable transformative arcs — albeit not in the shape-shifting sense. That role falls to other figures here, to occasionally icky effects which may partly console horror fans for whom “Amulet” will otherwise be just too much of a weird mood piece.