When Tomaz digs a small figurine out of the rich, dark earth in “Amulet,” he has no sense of the trouble it will bring. Students of the cinematic supernatural will know better, given the fantastic objects scattered throughout the horror genre, with its demonic dolls, cursed videotapes and enchanted fetishes. The object here is worn and pale as bone, with breasts and a shell-like disc fanning above its head like a mantilla.
Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) enters, wreathed in mystery and isolated in deep woods. The storybook setting makes a curious fit with his rifle, uniform and the roadblock he guards (sometimes while reading Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence”). My, what big eyes and brain you have, viewers may think, as they wonder where he is and what he’s doing there. The writer-director Romola Garai, though, keeps his background and the larger picture blurred, allowing your imagination to roam free as the trees rustle and the camera glides. That he’s a soldier without an obvious cause or country only adds to the spooky, anxious vibe.
A malevolent fairy tale about men and women, violence and power (and things that go eek in the night), “Amulet” frays your nerves beautifully for its first creepy hour. Working with a crack team both in front of the camera and behind it, Garai teases the story slowly, sprinkling in sharp, resonant details amid wails from a banshee chorus (courtesy of the composer Sarah Angliss). When Tomaz takes out a straight razor to shave, the moment sets off Chekhovian-Hitchcockian alarms in one wittily economic image. The brandished blade also suggests, simply by association, that Tomaz has something to do with the abrupt edits and destabilizing narrative fragmentation.
The plot thickens after Tomaz unearths the figurine, which is followed by a shot of him gasping awake as if from a nightmare. Now bearded and living in London, he seems to be a stray, though it’s initially unclear whether this is the present or another period. He flops at what looks like a squat, works in construction and seems wholly adrift, a meander that ends when he meets a solicitous nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton, in a brief, delicious turn). In short order, she delivers him to one of those creaking, squeaking houses with peeling walls and alarming stains, an apparent damsel in distress, Magda (Carla Juri), and a shrieking enigma inhabiting the top floor.
As Tomaz settles into his odd new digs, Garai regularly cuts to his time in the woods. There, after digging up the amulet, he meets a stranger (Angeliki Papoulia), who takes refuge with him, an arrangement that seems to mirror his relationship with Magda. Garai shifts back and forth smoothly between these parallel stories, giving each a distinct look and uneasy tone. She has invoked touchstones like Jennifer Kent’s claustrophobic freakout “The Babadook,” and, by extension, she’s also indebted to Roman Polanski and the diabolical Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg. (She also tosses in an albino critter that seems to have flown out of Roberto Bolaño’s novel “Amulet.”)
This is Garai’s feature directing debut, and it is as satisfying as it is promising, despite an unfortunate wind down. She has a great eye — and a real feel for the power of silence and visual textures — but she stumbles when she explains too much. An actress-turned-filmmaker whose credits include “Atonement,” Garai is clearly invested in creating juicy, complex gender roles. But her try at a gynocentric mythology falls lamentably short (and turns silly), even if her explorations of body horror and pulsating red walls have their perverse pleasures. Like a lot of filmmakers, she works too hard to make sense of a mystery that would be better left to fester and throb.