Spoiler alert: This interview reveals plot points of “Amulet,” including the ending.
Romola Garai stole the show at the 2013 BAFTA Awards with a very unexpected story – slipped in during the presentation of a comedy award – about her recent childbirth. “I had the misfortune of having 23 stitches in my vagina,” she told the audience. “So I didn’t think I’d be laughing at anything for a long time.” The subversive quip wasn’t the laugh line the awards show producers had given her; Garai had written something of her own that was personal, relatable, hilarious, horrific, and shocking, all at once.
Given Garai’s combination of these ingredients, her creative confidence, and her willingness to tell uncomfortable truths, it’s no surprise she’s expanded her professional ambitions to writing and directing. Her first feature, the horror film “Amulet” (now available on DVD) shares the maternal concern of that BAFTA joke. Garai was pregnant with her second child while writing the script, and she was dreading the prospect of re-traumatizing her pelvic floor. “And I think you can tell when you watch it!” she told The Playlist, laughing. “I did this writing exercise where I tried not to dam up my feelings and just see what came out. And what I vomited out was clearly a fascination with the extreme experience of birth, and a profound rage at the inequality of birth. There’s an undeniable horror to it.” Indeed, our first inkling that something is terribly wrong in the dismal house in which most of “Amulet” takes place is the discovery of a gruesome creature clogging up the toilet: a bloody, bat-like thing with what looks like an umbilical cord attached to it.
Garai’s “Amulet” plays with and then explodes a number of traditional fairy tale and horror tropes, making them stranger and darker. The film’s main character Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) seems like a hero at first, rescuing and protecting two damsels in distress, Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) and Magda (Carla Juri). Later, we realize that Tomaz is actually a rapist, a soldier who attacked a woman during a recent, unspecified European war. In creating this character, Garai did much research about war criminals like former Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, and about the use of rape as a weapon of war. She wondered about the psychological splitting or dissociation people like Tomas would have to undergo, enabling them to view their crimes as the work of other people, and to feel like they still deserved to be seen as heroes. This led her to contemplate “the tendency to remove ourselves from our analysis of our failures as human beings.”
Instead of Tomaz’s victim becoming pregnant, he finds himself enduring that fate. This is his punishment, watching his belly swell and then giving birth to hideous creatures like the one found in the toilet — the personification of his own evil. These horrors are born with teeth, Magda tells us, which allows them to chew their way into this world, through Tomaz’ flesh. Birth is a common enough body horror trope, one in which people are often split open by parasitic entities, usually after involuntary fertilization. Think about the chestburster scene in “Alien“, which can be read as a rape/birth metaphor by women in the audience — even if that’s not what the (usually male) filmmakers intended.
Unsurprisingly, female horror filmmakers are uninclined to “shut it out.” “This is a gross generalization,” Garai said, “but I feel like men always have a tendency to beautify the act of birth, you know? Maybe some men are uncomfortable with something so grotesque being associated with birth. But no woman would be uncomfortable with the assertion that birth is a horrific and disgusting thing! It’s miraculous in its own way, but it’s raw and it can be vicious.”
Garai was only days away from her second natal experience when she wrote the ending to “Amulet”. Originally, she had just wanted to show Tomaz giving birth. The idea was to keep him screaming in close-up for “an unbelievably long take,” she said, and then to roll the credits over the entire scene. She later opted for a more upbeat denouement, with Magda visiting Miriam to let her know she had been avenged.
“There’s obviously a deep desire to take revenge on the protagonist and make him suffer,” Garai said. “But any film that has a rape in it, you’re already on rocky territory in terms of the abuse and victimization of women. And I didn’t want to use [Miriam] and not give her any closure.” The ending of one of her favorite horror films, “Let the Right One In,” had inspired Garai with its “dark, slightly twisted optimism,” so she decided that her film, too, could end on an optimistic note. “Because there was a rape in this film, I thought, ‘Yeah — that’s what I’m going to do.’”
Garai hopes to make another film as soon as the pandemic allows. She has several scripts ready to go, from period romps “like Barry Lyndon” to supernatural horror stories. (One of these is a story called “Refrigerator Mother,” about a 1950s woman who is blamed for her child’s autism.) She has other ideas in mind, too – although times are tough for filmmakers right now.
“Your own private psychodrama about whether you’ll get to make the kind of space film you always wanted to make is kind of selfish when the entire industry might fall apart.” she said. “Which isn’t to say that I’m not also obsessed with my own psychodrama!”
“Amulet” is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD.