By Leah Greenblatt
July 23, 2020 at 08:30 PM EDT
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Don't call it a comeback; scary movies hardly went anywhere. But the last few years have seen a sort of small renaissance in independent horror — films like Hereditary, The Witch, The Babadook, Mandy, In Fabric, and Midsommar haunting the artier corners of cinema. (Writer-director Ari Aster almost deserves his own category at this point; Jordan Peele certainly does.)

Like those movies, Amulet relies less on skittering creatures and franchised jump-scares then a sort of auteur's mood board: long atmospheric shots of mist-shrouded trees and dusty teacups; odd angles, scant dialogue.

Like many of them, too, the plot is less full-fledged story than heavy suggestion. In one world, a nervous young man named Tomaz (God's Own Country's Alec Secareanu) stands lonely guard at a military outpost in some far corner of unnamed European countryside; in the next, he's slightly older and seemingly homeless in yet another anonymous city, his eyes hollow and jaw shadowed by a straggling beard.

When an accident takes even his temporary shelter, a kindly-looking nun (Imelda Staunton) seems to come to the rescue: How would he like to trade room and board for occasional help with a local congregant's terminally ill mother? Even in his desperation, Tomaz is reluctant to impose — until he sees how overwhelmed Magda (Carla Juri, who looks a little like a young, Swiss Patricia Arquette) appears to be, and how pretty.

Exactly what ails her mother is a mystery, shrouded somewhere in the upper reaches of the crumbling attic. So is Tomaz's interaction, in flashbacks, with a desperate woman who comes across his outpost, and the small figurine — it could be fertility totem or just a strange, ancient souvenir — he always keeps close by.

As her twining story lines work their way inevitably toward one another, writer-director Romola Garai allows a few more traditional terror elements to slip in: the viscous black goo that seems to seep from every corner of the house, things that go bump in the too-quiet night. And the specter, of course, of that classic slasher staple, a nun who may or may not go with God.

Amulet is the first film from Garai, the British actress whose sunny blond beauty in projects like Emma and BBC's The Hour wouldn't seem to portend this kind of bleak, surreal body horror. But it's clear too that she's far more interested in audacious fables like Suspiria or Rosemary's Baby than in anything on the modern Insidious/Purge/Saw axis of evil.

At times, Amulet can feel a little too in love with style over story; immoderately hung up on gooey close-ups of gutted fish or Magda engaged in a sort of jerky, mesmerizing dance whose offbeat rhythms rival Elaine on Seinfeld. But even as it builds toward a more conventional climax — only the first, it turns out, of several twist endings — the movie casts a grim sort of spell; a brooding, stifled dread that creeps in quietly from the margins, and lingers long after the last triumphant frame. B

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