The best horror of the last decade has been as influenced by international art film as it has by the genre’s more commercial conventions. Yet for every indie horror masterpiece like Get Out or The Babadook, there are several more like writer-director Romola Garai’s vague supernatural thriller, Amulet, a film that strains for unearned thematic significance at the expense of competent storytelling with borderline offensive results.

Though the film is mainly set in London, a disorienting, vibe-y opening montage centers on an ethnically ambiguous soldier’s (Alec Secareanu) traumatic confrontation with a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) in a geographically ambiguous wilderness during an unnamed war. Aside from their names, Tomaz and Miriam, and a few clues suggesting Eastern Europe, little else is ever revealed about these characters’ backgrounds or where they met. Which is just as well, as the only motivation Garai seems to have for choosing them is to keep us from mistaking this Serious Film About Refugees for a mere horror movie. 

Refugees being miserable in London is all the film seems to be about until almost halfway through. A nun (Imelda Staunton) offers to help the semi-homeless Tomaz by introducing him to a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri), who also happens to be from an unspecified foreign country and needs help looking after the large, decaying house where she cares for her dying mother (Anah Ruddin). Tomaz’s awkward flirtations with Magda and PTSD-fueled flashbacks about Miriam take up long stretches of screen time, but without filling any gaps in their characterizations or making us care what happens to them.

The inevitable supernatural events are technically well-handled and impose some basic plot structure: Tomaz has to save Magda from some sort of demonic entity. A big third-act reveal is meant to make us rethink everything, but the larger themes of the film are so vague until then that even some imaginative special effects in the last five minutes feel anticlimactic: A story that seemed to be about nothing in particular turns out to have been about something else. 

Garai’s true intentions could have supported a fine horror film. Her decision to exploit the figure of the refugee for little more than fake gravitas and narrative misdirection undermines whatever potential Amulet might have had. Garai has the ability to build atmosphere, but without a minimal narrative backbone, what we’re left with is all distraction and no meat.

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