Actor-turned-director Romola Garai makes her feature debut with this accomplished upscale British horror with touches of Eraserhead and Alien; it’s that particular kind of crepuscular indie chiller which you could call “body horror”, where the body in question is every single manky, mouldy surface and inanimate object. The film might not fully absorb all its images and ideas, and the dynamic between the male lead and two different female co-stars in the story’s “past” and “present” sections feels in some ways like a slightly redundant duplication. But it’s stylish and well-acted, and leads up to a surreal image of evil.
Alec Secareanu plays Tomas, an ex-soldier from a central European war zone haunted by his memories. While in uniform, he had befriended a fugitive civilian called Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) and in that field of conflict he had become guilty of violence and evil – symbolised by his unsettling discovery in the woodland of a pagan amulet buried in the soil, whose shell motif eerily recurs all around him. Now Tomas has made it to the UK as a refugee, carrying his anguish around with him, and twinkly-eyed nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) appears to take pity on him, offering him a place to stay in a crumbling, derelict old house with Magda (a very good performance from Swiss actor Carla Juri), a young woman who lives there with an invalid mother dying, in agony, from some nameless disease in the topmost bedroom of the house.
Naturally we hear this woman’s unearthly screeches and groans, and we’re permitted increasingly explicit glimpses of her monstrous appearance. But there is something strange about Sister Claire, and it’s an enjoyably unsettling and startling performance from Staunton. Could it be that Garai has studied Kathleen Byron’s performance in the Powell/Pressburger classic Black Narcissus? Amulet is flawed, but it does a good job of alchemising drear into fear.