by Justin Chang
Given how much time some of us are spending at home these days, there might be something a little perverse about watching a movie that takes place in a haunted house. That’s especially true of two terrific thrillers, Amulet and Relic, in which the characters’ living spaces are infected with dark spirits and become inescapable prisons.
The wilder and crazier of the two is Amulet, a strikingly assured writing and directing debut from the actress Romola Garai, known for her work in English period pieces like Atonement and the BBC series Emma. Amulet, an intensely creepy supernatural freakout heavily influenced by the Italian horror master Dario Argento, is a rather less well-behaved affair. It stars the charismatic Romanian actor Alec Secareanu as Tomaz, a man from an unspecified European country who’s now living in London. Tomaz suffers from PTSD, and he spends his days doing construction jobs and his nights sleeping in a refugee shelter.
One day, a kind nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), offers to help Tomaz and leads him to the nearby home of a woman named Magda. The house is practically a ruin: The walls are decrepit, the rooms are filthy, and Tomaz can hear loud wailing — the sound of Magda’s mother — coming from upstairs.
Magda’s mother lives on the top floor of the house and isn’t long for this world. Magda is tasked with the sole responsibility of her care, but it’s a tremendous strain — especially as her mother doesn’t like Magda to socialize.
Imelda Staunton’s delightfully mischievous performance as Sister Claire is an immediate sign that all is not as it seems. But that’s true of Tomaz, too. Throughout the film, Garai keeps cutting back to troubling scenes from Tomaz’s past, specifically his time as a soldier in some distant conflict. She undermines our instinct to sympathize with him and assume that he’s the hero of this story.
Tomaz agrees to stay and help Magda with odd jobs around the house, in exchange for room and board. But some jobs turn out to be odder than others. It’s not long before Tomaz makes a ghastly discovery while cleaning out the bathroom, in perhaps the creepiest backed-up-toilet scene since Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation.
But Amulet is more than the sum of its visual frights. Garai sets you up to expect one kind of movie, but she’s made something else entirely: a nightmarish story of male violence that becomes an immensely satisfying story of female retribution. Amulet is hardly the first revenge thriller to come along in recent years, but it left me admiring its fantastical moral logic: Given the reality of the world we live in, it might take an act of supernatural will to bring about justice.
Relic isn’t quite as ferocious as Amulet, but its brooding restraint may be even more effective. The Japanese Australian director Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote the script with Christian White, has crafted a slow-burning story about three generations of women brought together under the same roof.
Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote play Kay and Sam, a mother and daughter traveling from Melbourne to the countryside home of Edna, Kay’s mother. Edna, who’s dealing with the onset of dementia, went mysteriously missing a few days ago. A police search is under way, and Kay and Sam are desperate to find her and make sure she’s OK.
The condition of the house suggests that she isn’t: The place is a mess and the walls are covered with a strange, dark mold. They find little notes that Edna has scribbled to herself, which suggest she’s being haunted by something far worse than memory loss. And things don’t get any better when Edna, played by Robyn Nevin, suddenly reappears, alive but far from well.
There are no shocking twists or contrivances in store in Relic, and not a lot of gore, either. James excels at mining dread and tension from ordinary conversation, and she uses thriller conventions to get at something simple but shattering: the horror of watching a parent slowly deteriorate. The occasional flickers of tenderness that Edna shows Kay and Sam quickly give way to deep, implacable anger, some but not all of it rooted in past arguments and resentments. More often it stems from the fact that Edna no longer recognizes her daughter and granddaughter.
In the movie’s scariest and most ingenious sequence, Kay and Sam find themselves trapped in an ever-shifting maze of corridors and hidden passageways, as the house itself seems to mirror Edna’s increasingly unstable grip on reality.
But as impressed as I was by the craftiness of Relic, I wasn’t prepared for how moving it would be. It’s not an easy thing for a director to pull off terror and grief, to let these two emotional registers coexist rather than fighting each other. But that’s exactly what James does here. She’s made a disturbing and ultimately devastating movie about what it means to love someone unconditionally, even when they’ve lost the power to love you back.