In this summer of blockbuster eclipse — no new Bond, no Pattinson Batman, no deliriously expensive Christopher Nolan movie — we've been afforded unlimited time to consider more modest offerings. Some of these new films, as you may have noticed, are entirely deserving of the attention they might otherwise never have gotten. And at least one of them — an English horror item — approaches classic status.
"Amulet" is a first feature by writer-director Romola Garai, and it's a work of dark and powerful originality. Its story, told on two levels (partly in the recent past, mostly in the present), concerns a man named Tomaz (soulful-eyed Romanian actor Alec Secareanu); a strange young woman named Magda (ethereal Carla Juri, of "Wetlands" and "Blade Runner 2049"); and Magda's mother (Anah Ruddin), who is stranger than her daughter by a couple orders of magnitude. There's also a very odd nun called Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton — Dolores Umbridge in the "Harry Potter" films), who is not what she at first appears to be, which later turns out to be most unfortunate.
In brief flashbacks throughout the film, we learn that Tomaz, a veteran of a recent war in an unspecified part of Europe, did something terrible during that conflict. We also see him discovering a mysterious amulet buried in the ground — a palm-size female figurine with a stylized shell headpiece. Then, after the war ends, we see Tomaz as a refugee in London, where Sister Claire scoops him up and brings him to stay at the big, decrepit house occupied by Magda and her mother, whom Sister Clair says is dying up in the attic. (Magda objects to the unannounced addition of Tomaz to her dismal household, but Clair is adamant. "It is time," she says.)
Things get bad very quickly (the movie runs a brisk 99 minutes). The house is a grim assemblage of shadowy rooms and water-stained ceilings, and home to an electrifyingly repulsive toilet creature — a flesh-colored bat that only David Lynch might find unalarming. ("They're born with teeth," Magda tells the freaked-out Tomaz, who'd just as soon not know this.) Tomaz runs away from Magda, but he keeps coming back. She hasn't asked to be rescued, but he's going to save her anyway. "Mother won't like it," she says with an almost-smile. (This is no lie — and Mother's displeasure, as we see in the movie's later innings, is a terrifying thing to behold.)
Director Garai, better known as an actress in such films as "Suffragette" and "Atonement," makes understated points over the course of the film about the status of women in war, and in love and in movies, too. (Her collaborators, all aces, include cinematographer Laura Bellingham, composer Sarah Angliss and production designer Francesca Massariol.) But in its black heart, "Amulet" is an unflinchingly committed horror movie in the tradition of Cronenberg, Argento and Carpenter, and its director is a new master of the form.
"The Rental" is an unblushing genre exercise, made in the mold of a slasher film (four friends in a remote location getting picked off one by one) but with a lot more smarts than usual. Director Dave Franco is another actor making his first feature, and he neatly accomplishes exactly what he set out to do.
Dan Stevens and Sheila Vand play a pair of entrepreneurial business partners named Charlie and Mina. They've just launched some sort of startup. To celebrate, Charlie and his girlfriend, Michelle, and Mina and her boyfriend, Josh (also Charlie's underachieving brother — watch out!) decide to take off on a weekend getaway, renting a ridiculously fabulous Airbnb home on the foggy coast of Oregon. All's looking good when they arrive — until the rental guy, a middle-aged creep named Taylor (Toby Huss), shows up and starts snarking at them.
Franco establishes the slasher mood by traditional means — a long shot of the house from the nearby woods, accompanied by heavy breathing, and a closeup of a suspicious ceiling vent. But what really cranks the tension is the uncomfortable interplay among the four characters. Shortly after Charlie joins Mina in the shower for a late-night bonk, we see Josh giving Michelle the lowdown on his brother's long history of cheating on previous girlfriends. We watch the wine being poured and the ecstasy being brought out, and after a while, we can't help noticing the ominous figure clumping around in the background.
The movie was scripted by Franco and Joe Swanberg, and it earns every one of its scares by rooting them in personality. The bodies fall and thud as they must, but they do so with fresh conviction. It's like watching the first slasher film, before things got stale.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.