Hunter Hunter (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 25, 2021

A backwoods survivalist pursues a rogue wolf that threatens his family—and finds something infinitely worse, in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter

Somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and daughter Renee (Summer Howell), grind out a primitive existence by trapping critters and selling their pelts. 

While this lifestyle is ideal for Joseph, a laconic hunter and woodsman, Anne is tired of hauling furs to the store to bargain for food, and communicating with her husband via Walkie Talkie. Most of all, she wants Renee to go to school and have real friends.

Joseph has been arduously training his daughter to be self-reliant in nature, so Anne’s pitch for a return to civilization doesn’t mesh with his mission. 

“We don’t run from our problems,” he reminds her. 

“You’re scared of people,” she counters.

“This is our home,” Joseph declares. “And nothing pushes us out of our home.”

Future plans are put on hold when Joseph finds carcass evidence of a vicious wolf stealing from their trap lines. As expected, Joseph, the seasoned hunter, disappears into the forest primeval to track the animal and kill it. A solid plan except for one detail: He doesn’t return. 

“Joseph, are you there?” Anne despondently asks her Walkie Talkie, as hours turn into days.

In his absence, Anne nervously tries to put food on the table, relying on Renee’s advice on skinning a fawn for their evening meal. Eventually, Anne hears someone calling for help in the darkness. Instead of the long-missing Joseph, she comes upon Lou (Nick Stahl), a badly injured stranger. Anne loads Lou onto her sled, brings him back to the cabin, and nurses his wounds. 

Renee doesn’t see the point. “He’s a stranger. Dad says we’re not supposed to trust strangers.”

“We’re helping him because that’s what you do when you find someone who needs help,” her mother explains.

But where’s Joseph? And who is Lou?

Writer-director Shawn Linden brings the great outdoors down around the viewer like a shroud. He employs his camera as a stealthy tracker shadowing Joseph, Anne, and Renee through the woods blurring the line between stalker and quarry.

Linden is unsentimental and straight forward in his depiction of frontier living, which includes knowing the correct way to skin and dress prey, so that it won’t ruin the food that’s necessary for survival. 

Anne is not as skilled as her husband and daughter, but she understands necessity.

Hunter Hunter maintains a heady tension for the duration of the film, which builds to a shockingly bloody conclusion. Anne’s final confrontation with the dangerous predator is not as a hunter, but a terrible avenger, and it will leave a mark on your psyche. 

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.

We Summon The Darkness (2019)

Three metal chicks meet three metal dudes at a metal show. When they take the party back to Alexis’s (Alexandra Daddario) posh country house, things go horribly wrong in We Summon The Darkness, a cautionary tale of our times, if it were still 1988.

Alexis, Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), a trio of leather-clad hotties are on a road trip to a heavy metal concert in the late 1980s. Despite televised warnings of murder and Satanic corruption from an outraged preacher (Johnny Knoxville), the girls just want to have fun.

When they fall in with Mark (Keean Johnson), Ivan (Austin Swift), and Kovacs (Logan Miller), the two threesomes decide to pair off. Alexis suggests her nearby mansion for the after-party, and the boys eagerly follow them for implied good times, which needless to say, never materialize.

Instead, the lads are drugged and trussed up, unwilling participants in one of those Satanic rituals that nervous parents are always reading about.

Will a hero emerge? Depends on your definition of the word. The tables get turned, some people switch sides, and there’s a surprise reveal. There’s bloody murder and burning heads, which helps compensate for the lack of supernatural sizzle.

Written by Alan Trezza and directed by Marc Meyers, We Summon The Darkness meets the minimum requirements of a dark-comic slasher. As cinematic events unfold, we learn there isn’t a compelling reason for it to exist in a bygone decade, as opportunities to lampoon ’80s culture are mostly ignored.

Fair enough, but WSTD could have used some pepping up. The young actors, particularly Daddario and Hasson, acquit themselves in noble fashion and tension is made available, but there’s not much popping here in the way of style points or zippy dialogue.

It’s the actors, and the lunacy that ensues after all the cards are on the table that rescues We Summon The Darkness. I admit, the scenes of metalhead boys reduced to whimpering victims and hiding from lethal women were oddly satisfying. Probably because in 99.9 percent of all horror movies, a reversed gender dynamic is the predictable norm.

Movie-wise, it’s an itch that needs scratching.

The Block Island Sound (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 4, 2021

Can a Rhode Island fishing family avoid ending up as Catch of the Day? That is the question posed in The Block Island Sound, an ominous maritime mystery conceived by Matthew and Kevin McManus, previously noted for writing several episodes of Netflix true-crime mockumentary American Vandal. 

This is a movie that only reluctantly divulges information, and the dangling possibilities we’re left with are not the least bit comforting. If you dig ambivalence and an atmosphere of constant dread, you’ll be hooked like a mackerel in no time. 

Consequently, viewers who prefer plausible scenarios may not have the patience to navigate these treacherous waters.

Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault), a hard-drinking boat captain, and his son Harry (Chris Sheffield), make their livings pulling fish from the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds their Block Island home. 

About the same time that Tom starts sleepwalking and blacking out, dead fish wash up on the beaches in record numbers. Tom’s daughter, Audry (Michaela McManus), a single mom who works for the EPA, arrives on the island—with her own kid (Matilda Lawler) in tow—to investigate the phenomenon.

It doesn’t take Audry long to notice that something is amiss with both the marine life and her pappy. Her daughter Emily wakes up screaming with Tom looming over her in the darkness. Tom subsequently disappears at sea and his boat is found abandoned. 

Be advised that the Brothers McManus do their best to distract and mislead the viewer by dropping plenty of red herrings, such as having the local police chief (Willie Carpenter) suggest to Harry that his father was no stranger to booze cruises.

When Harry experiences his own black-out symptoms, Audry and her less-pleasant sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer) discuss the notion that madness may run in the family—and that something will have to be done about it. 

The middle section of The Block Island Sound takes a tonal detour, concerning itself with the mundane details of mourning the family patriarch, and the further disintegration of Harry. The formerly stoic fisherman has become extremely agitated by nocturnal visits from the recently deceased Tom, commanding him to bring domestic and wild animals to the boat, and not in a nice, orderly, Noah’s Ark manner. 

Like his father before him, Harry awakens out at sea with nary a clue. Audry and Jen worry about their brother’s erratic behavior but are at a loss for solutions.

Whenever Harry starts doubting his own sanity, his drinking buddy Dale (Jim Cummings) appears to aggregate all the weird stuff that’s happening right under their noses on Block Island. Top-secret experiments, the presence of nearby wind turbines, sea monsters, government agents, weather anomalies, all get a day in conspiracy court. 

Later, Audry meets Kurt (Jeremy Horn), a reclusive local who shares her brother’s time-loss affliction. He in turn points her in a completely different direction, and urges Audry to grab her family and leave the island.

Instead, everyone ends up on the boat.  

Strangely enough, the closest thing to a reasonable explanation comes when Audry reassures Emily about the necessity of environmental research.

“Most of the fish we take out of the water, we put right back in just a few days later,” Audry tells her daughter. “We’re studying them so we can get to know them better. So we can help them better.

Emily protests that some fish don’t survive the experience.

“By taking some brave fish out of the water and learning about them, we can eventually help all the other fish,” Audrey concludes. “It’s a good thing we’re doing.”

Evidently, we’re not the only ones conducting experiments in the universe. As mentioned, the exact nature of the menace, whether aquatic, extra-terrestrial, or weirdly scientific, is never specified. 

But the implications offered by The Block Island Sound are more than enough to take seafood off the menu for a while.   

Synchronic (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, March 18, 2021

A pair of paramedics discover that the new designer drug that’s sweeping town has troubling side effects, namely, the possibility of getting lost somewhere in time.

Talk about a buzz kill.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are EMT BFFs who spend their professional hours hip-deep in medical emergencies, usually bouncing around in the back of a New Orleans ambulance. While cleaning up the aftermath of a messy party, the paramedics notice wrappers from a newly synthesized party drug called Synchronic. Instead of getting high, imbibers vanish, and either don’t come back intact, or they return as part of a wall or other solid object. 

Sometimes they’re gone entirely. 

Meanwhile, Steve gets an unwelcome brain tumor diagnosis and decides to experiment with the drug to locate Dennis’s gloomy daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) who’s disappeared after a Synchronic session gone bad. Through copious trial and error, he finds that Synchronic results in a localized time trip of seven minutes, and in order to return whole, you must be in the exact spot you took off from.

Needless to say, there were no instructions on the label.

We’re invited along to experience the mind/time-altering effects with Steve, as he visits the Big Easy during the Ice Age (thoughtfully bringing fire to early man), and nearly gets stabbed by a freaked-out conquistador during the years of Spanish conquest. Imagine Steve’s surprise, as a modern day African American, when he finds himself in pre Civil War New Orleans, nearly getting lynched and sacrificed in a voodoo ceremony on successive trips. 

With a limited supply of Synchronic, Steve is forced to take risky chances calculating his return trajectory with (hopefully) another living being. 

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” Steve intones, dutifully quoting Einstein.

Certainly Steve’s nobility and the convenience of a fatal illness help propel the storyline to its poignant conclusion, but Mackie carries the role of reluctant action hero to a nerve-wracking finale, and we’re with him every last step.

Synchronic is a superb piece of budget sci-fi filmmaking by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who also made the similarly time-trap themed The Endless, itself a movie that deserves more attention.

Benson and Moorhead make time travel a truly frightening prospect, tying it to a party drug in pill form that shreds dimensions. The scenes in which Steve trips look like they take place in an unstable and menacing parallel world, because … they do.  

Writer Benson always brings fully formed characters to the crisis, and in Synchronic, the best-buddy friendship of Steve and Dennis really fleshes out the time-ripping action sequences. Theirs is a comically dysfunctional relationship, but the bond is strong even when they come to blows. 

“I found out I was dying. My brain… has a tumor. And all those things just seem trivial,” he eloquently tells his friend. “That there’s meaning in the things I do have, and I want to spend the time I have preserving them. … When you’re staring down at the end you realize there are far worse things than death.”

Like banishment to a less-civilized world, for example.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, March 1, 2021

One floundering cop’s quest to stop a lupine-styled killer in a small Utah town forms the dramatic basis of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, an impressively atmospheric thriller written, directed, and starring Jim Cummings. 

Instead of focusing on the tortured soul who becomes a wolf when the moon is full and bright, the camera remains bound to Deputy John Marshall (Cummings), a tightly wound recovering alcoholic with more problems on his hands than Ted Cruz.

His father (Robert Forster, in his final screen role) the stubborn town sheriff has a not-so-hidden heart condition that’s slowed him down considerably as retirement looms. 

“This is scary. It’s new. I’ve never seen a body like that,” he tells John after a gruesome victim viewing.

On the home front, John’s teenaged daughter Jenna (Chloe East) is a budding gymnast who also likes to park in cars with local boys, a hobby that nearly results in her mutilation.

The Snow Hollow police force—except for his sturdy partner Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome)—consists of feckless nitwits. This proves significant because Snow Hollow is under siege from a “wolf man” who’s been brutally dismembering members of the community beneath the light of the full moon. 

Deputy John and his department of underachievers have been unable to find the man or animal that is making coleslaw out of the citizenry. They in turn, have no problem reminding the beleaguered boys in blue that they’re a bunch of incompetents.

“Where were you? Where were you?” a bereaved father yells at the frustrated policeman.

John takes this especially hard, often feeling like he’s the only one in town who doesn’t believe the prevailing rumors.

“Let me just make this perfectly clear,” he snarls at his assembled troops. “There is no such thing as werewolves.”

Yet as more evidence of wolfish carnage turns up in bloody piles, John’s anger builds while his grip on reality gets increasingly shaky thanks to a return to old habits and very little sleep.

He bottoms out after being discovered by a concerned police matron (Anna Sward) on the floor of the police station, stoned into a stupor, with a vape pen dangling out of his mouth. The frazzled cop’s personal psychodrama is laid out for the whole town to see in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. John’s increasingly erratic and destructive behavior runs parallel to the fear and horror spilling over in the community he’s supposed to protect.

After Jenna makes a narrow escape from the wolf man, John realizes he can’t even protect his own daughter, forcing him to sober up and get serious about his mission to rid the town of a beastly killer. This in turn becomes his means of personal (and professional) salvation.

“You want to be the sheriff? How about we start acting like one?” Officer Robson tells him.

As a filmmaker, Cummings has the visual flair to create chilling tableaux. Scenes of moonlit stalking and slaughter are tightly edited for maximum fright, and we get used to seeing the snow run red. As the leading man, Cummings acquits himself well, deftly handling the gradual disintegration of a determined deputy and dad by forces beyond his control.

 “When do I get to be right about something?” John wonders aloud.

It takes about three-quarters of The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s running time to find out.

12 Hour Shift (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 17, 2021

Who knew the shady goings-on at a third-rate Arkansas hospital would strike black-comedy gold?

In Brea Grant’s frenetic and scathing 12 Hour Shift, we spend a long day with Mandy (Angela Bettis in a tour de force), a harried, overworked nurse with a penchant for snorting crushed pain pills when the going gets tough. She and her quick-thinking supervisor Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner) have a profitable side hustle going on, supplying the Dixie Mafia with fresh organs that would otherwise go to waste.

Despite her dangerous and illegal sideline, Mandy proves to be the most (only?) compassionate soul for miles, especially when compared to her blonde cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth), an airhead sociopath who picks up the organs for burly crime boss Nick (wrestler Mick Foley).

Complications ensue when Regina stupidly misplaces a kidney prompting Nick to send violence-prone henchman Mikey (Dusty Warren) to fetch hers as a replacement. Stalling for time, Regina hightails it back to the hospital to find more organs, really fast.

How hard could it be?

At its best moments, 12 Hour Shift is an anarchic riot, held together by a righteous performance from Angela Bettis as Mandy. During her titular workday Mandy curses, threatens, flirts, pleads, freaks out, and commits gruesome acts, each requiring its own facial transformation. Bettis never misses a beat—her expressions and comic timing are never less than impeccable. Mandy stands tall as a complicated, resourceful woman with the enviable ability to compartmentalize her train wreck of a life.

Chloe Farnworth plays Regina as the dopiest loose cannon ever let loose in a hospital. After seducing a hapless skater boy and carving him up, Regina discovers the kidneys aren’t where she thought and ends up stealing the poor kid’s bladder.

“Why would you bring this cousin of yours into this if you knew she’d kill people and rat us out?” asks an exasperated Karen.

“I sometimes have too much faith in humanity,” Mandy answers.

“That’s what I like about you,” Karen admits.

The mercenary organ-legging operation merrily flips the script on the idea of medical professionals being selfless and saintly. Instead, the staff at this hospital spends its spare time hunting for spare parts out of dreadful economic necessity, rather like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as incompetent undertakers in Comedy Of Terrors.

The American Medical Association probably won’t be amused.

Between hair-raising scenes of bloodletting, Karen and Mandy find time to commiserate over crappy birthday cake in the break room and an annoying religious coworker.

Their mundane griping brings unexpected blue-collar verisimilitude to a zany plot about brutally invasive surgeries happening in the hospital corridors. 

Writer-director Grant is up to the task. She bakes up inventive, idiosyncratic characters that would be right at home in a Coen Brothers universe, while her opera-driven fight sequences jump like Tarantino on too much coffee.

12 Hour Shift is a freewheeling spectacle that oscillates between gross and quirky, accompanied by superb acting and quotable dialogue. As someone once said about a different film, it’s a cult movie in need of a cult.

True, it does require some adjustment on the part of the audience to root for a drug-addled organ trafficker, but by the time the end credits roll, it will be done.

The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 7, 2021

“There’s nothing worse than a soul left alone in the end.”

Texas filmmaker Bryan Bertino wrote the screenplay for The Strangers, a movie that made us feel unsafe in our own homes. In The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino gets downright metaphysical, worrying us about the state of our immortal souls.

The setting is a blighted patch of Texas prairie, but Bertino grazes the same bleak spiritual tundra as Ingmar Bergman, suggesting that a human soul bereft of love is vulnerable to attack by dark forces.

Somewhere in a particularly lonesome part of Texas, an old man (Michael Zagst) lays dying in his bed, wheezing out air supplied by an oxygen tube. A nurse (Lynn Andrews) sits nearby knitting and observing his tortured breathing. The old man’s wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) chops vegetables in the kitchen staring vacantly out a window at the grim landscape of the family farm. Their two children, Louise (Marin Ireland), and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr), now grown, have returned to lend comfort to Mother and watch over their fading papa. 

How did everything go so wrong? And how are they getting worse? The Dark and the Wicked never says for sure. Instead, we are left with symptoms pointing to a malady beyond the reach of medicine.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Mother hisses at her offspring.

With wolves howling in the distance (and getting closer all the time), there is no comfort or joy in the family reunion. Bertino illustrates this through dispassionate editing choices, settling on objects or desolate scenery for every shot with a person in it, as if the presence of human beings means nothing in this dreary place. But there is a growing menace in the household that can’t be ignored. Louise sees her comatose father in the shower, and Michael spies his mother floating in the air through a window.

It falls to the sympathetic nurse to try and articulate all the bad mojo.

“I think there are things in this world, horrible things, wicked. And they come for whoever they want,” she cautions Michael, explaining that a soul needs love to keep it safe. “I can smell the fear in y’all. I can feel it in this house.” she murmurs.

As previously stated, love, warmth, and comfort are in short supply around these parts. Louise and Michael are both clearly guilt-ridden about ignoring their parents for so long, and the guilt gets snowballed into a bad situation.  Rather than delve into the specifics of sin, The Dark and the Wicked drops clues, frightful images, and ghostly visitors that haunt the siblings till it becomes unbearable.

Save your pity for the one left alone.

Scare Me (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 28, 2021

In Scare Me, two writers stay up all night in a Catskills cabin during a thunderstorm, telling frightening stories by firelight. Unexpectedly, it proves to be an instructive, positive experience until one of them turns out to be too fragile for personal growth.

Fanny Addie (Aya Cash) is a successful horror novelist with a bestseller in the charts. Fred Banks (writer-director Josh Ruben) is an advertising copywriter with a vague sense of entitlement and zero credits.

During a power outage, the two are thrown together and neophyte writer Fred probes the famous author for anything he can use. His questions about her current project cause Fanny to assume a defensive posture. 

“I never discuss my ideas. Some people steal, especially desperate white dudes like you,” she tells him. This observation takes place while she’s showing him how to build a fire in a dark cabin in the woods.

Yes, this is a horror movie of our times, and white men are called out for making things generally shittier through their mulish obstinacy. Over the course of one enchanted evening in a single location, Fanny challenges wannabe author Fred to put up, or shut up in a storytelling showdown.

“Come on Fred, it’s story time,” she coaxes. “No judgies.”

To his credit, Fred soon learns that he’s out of his league, as Fanny dissects his lame attempts at a narrative about a werewolf, calling it “trodden.”

“Details!” she howls at Fred during his painfully amateurish recital, followed by a barrage of suggestions: Use your space, show me the shakes, how come the kid’s mom knows how to handle a gun so well?

Fanny schools the dilettante scribe and mocks his pedestrian oratorical skills, but she also forcefully demonstrates how to tell a better story, by telling him a better story, about a little girl and her creepy grandfather.

“School” is the operative word in Scare Me, and Professor Stephen King hovers like a ghost in the room. Fanny doesn’t care for King’s Silver Bullet (“childish, campy garbage”) but does agree with King’s assertion that reading other authors can improve one’s chops. (Also, a minor character looks and talks like Kathy Bates in Misery.)

After a shaky start, Fred gets the hang of it, and for a time, feels what it’s like to have his creative juices flow. At this point, Scare Me is running with a full head of steam, shifting mood and tone in cavalier fashion, which is not a characteristic that will endear the movie to linear thinkers.

It’s definitely a dark comedy, but it’s hard to tell where we’re headed.

Fred and Fanny share definite chemistry, bonding over their mutual love of horror, specifically the painful puns dispensed by TV’s Cryptkeeper. They duel, dance, and embellish each other’s tales, while Ruben, from the director’s chair, employs a deep bag of inventive camera moves to create space—and honest-to-goodness frights—on a small set. No blood, no carnage, no kidding.

Note: Spoilers ahead

There are vivid moments when the lighting, dancing shadow play, and perspective shifts are reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s moving ingenuity with Spaulding Gray’s stories in Swimming To Cambodia.  

Sadly, the creative honeymoon comes to an end, and Fred, instead of being grateful for getting a crash course in how to tell a decent story, decides his feelings are hurt, and that his own efforts will never be any good. So he devises a cheesy, horror movie finale, because he’s jealous and can’t think of anything more original.

The final act devolves into stalker boilerplate, and Fanny wants nothing to do with it, calling Fred out for a “bullshit” ending.

“You want my life? Do the work, do the work, do the work,” she yells, but by this time Fred is committed to his own ending, and has picked up a nearby fireplace poker.

Scare Me has a lot of things going on, not all of them are successfully realized. The ending, though it makes sense, still fizzles. And there’s definitely some fat that could have been trimmed along the way. Even so, there is much to admire. It’s both entertainingly told and long on ideas, particularly the joys and terrors of storytelling. 

Aya Cash is a fast-talking dynamo as Fanny, a demanding woman who just wants to hear something scary. Filmmaker Ruben portrays a no-talent schmuck in Scare Me, but in reality he’s clearly an artist on the ascent. His character Fred would be both proud and envious. 

Amulet (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 12, 2021

Some old war wounds never heal. In fact, they were designed to become more painful over time. Written and masterfully directed by BBC actress Romola Garai, Amulet is a slow-burn Gothic noir, about a homeless soldier trying to put the past behind him.

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a severely traumatized veteran of some nameless Eastern European conflict, finds himself in need of a place to crash after his London squat goes up in flames. 

Helpful nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a peachy situation: Free room and board in a dank, shadowy old house, in exchange for handyman duties. Tomaz is initially reticent, but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Magda (Carla Juri), the sweet, nervous girl who lives in the house, caring for a surprisingly ferocious invalid mother (Anah Ruddin).

The house itself has passed the state of disrepair and is well into a spiral of decay rivaling the ancestral home of Roderick Usher. There is almost no light, and the camera lands on the abundant mold and water stains like a lazy fly on the wall. The hazy air itself has a bilious green hue, as if infected with something terminal.

When Tomaz tries to sleep, he dreams of the war, apparently stationed in a remote forest outpost. There, his lonely routine gets interrupted by the arrival of Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a refugee mother in search of her child.

Tomaz allows her to stay and the seeds of tragedy are sown. He only wanted to help. He tried to help.

Spoiler Alert: The waking and sleeping narratives are connected. This means bad news for the young soldier. 

Our sympathy for Tomaz is never exactly on solid ground. His unspecified wartime trauma erupts in nightly terrors, and his desire to liberate the long-suffering Magda, bound to serve a dangerous and unstable mother, is evidently sincere.

Tomaz pauses in his work one day to watch Magda wrap a bandage around a fresh bite wound on her arm. As the cliché goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In this instance, his instinct to come to a woman’s aid is the worst possible course of action a man can take. There are abundant horrors to be mined in the aftermath of military service. Amulet demonstrates that the most terrible is the false hope of redemption.

Tomaz is a haunted man, brought back from the brink of despair by the vague idea that he can atone for a misdeed, through an act of sacrifice. It’s that distant, faint illusion of hope that cuts the deepest, much like the illusion of being “a good man” that’s eventually ripped from Tomaz like old skin.

The forces at work here are as old as the avenging Furies of Greek Tragedy, and they haven’t lost any power to punish transgressors with brutal clarity. Like Oedipus the doomed king of Thebes (or Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, for that matter), Tomaz can’t identify himself as the cause of his own misery until it’s far too late to escape an awful fate, one that befits an unforgiveable crime.

Amulet is seriously grim going—though handsomely filmed—and includes interludes of body horror that would give David Cronenberg the willies. It also progresses at a snail’s pace, which works to the film’s advantage, allowing the viewer to gradually get acclimated to the accursed atmosphere.

Even so, when we’re finally able to consider the grand scale of justice served at the conclusion of Romola Garai’s vivid and terrible revenge tale, the effect is breathtaking—and should not be missed.