DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic, Justin Chang, recently turned off all the lights and stayed up late watching two independent horror movies, "Amulet" and "Relic." He says they're both artful films from talented first-time directors now available to stream on major platforms, including Amazon and Apple TV.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Given how much time some of us are spending at home these days, there might be something a little perverse about watching a movie that takes place in a haunted house. That's especially true of two terrific thrillers, "Amulet" and "Relic," in which the characters' living spaces are infected with dark spirits and become inescapable prisons. The wilder and crazier of the two is "Amulet," a strikingly assured writing and directing debut from the actress Romola Garai, known for her work in English period pieces like "Atonement" and the BBC series "Emma." "Amulet," an intensely creepy, supernatural freakout, heavily influenced by the Italian horror master Dario Argento, is a rather less well-behaved affair.
It stars the charismatic Romanian actor Alec Secareanu as Tomaz, a man from an unspecified European country who's now living in London. Tomaz suffers from PTSD. And he spends his days doing construction jobs and his nights sleeping in a refugee shelter. One day, a kind nun, Sister Claire, offers to help Tomaz and leads him to the nearby home of a woman named Magda. The house is practically a ruin. The walls are decrepit. The rooms are filthy. And Tomaz can hear loud wailing coming from upstairs. That's Magda's mother, who isn't long for this world, as Sister Claire and Magda discuss.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMULET")
IMELDA STAUNTON: (As Sister Claire) Did she eat today?
CARLA JURI: (As Magda) Nothing passed her lips all week.
STAUNTON: (As Sister Claire) Something has upset her?
JURI: (As Magda) She knows the end is coming.
STAUNTON: (As Sister Claire) Magda's mother lives on the top floor. Unfortunately, she's an invalid. She's very ill and in great pain, unable to leave the house. Magda is tasked with the sole responsibility of her care. It is a tremendous strain, especially as her mother doesn't like Magda to socialize.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Mother, yelling).
STAUNTON: (As Sister Claire) The Lord will take her soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
CHANG: That's the great Imelda Staunton as Sister Clare. And her delightfully mischievous performance is an immediate sign that all is not as it seems. But that's true of Tomaz, too. Throughout the film, Garai keeps cutting back to troubling scenes from Tomaz's past, specifically his time as a soldier in some distant conflict. She undermines our instinct to sympathize with him and assume that he's the hero of this story. Thomaz agrees to stay and help Magda with odd jobs around the house in exchange for room and board. But some jobs turn out to be odder than others.
It's not long before Tomaz makes a ghastly discovery while cleaning up the bathroom in, perhaps, the creepiest backed-up toilet seen since Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation." But "Amulet" is more than the sum of its visual frights. Garai sets you up to expect one kind of movie. But she's made something else entirely, a nightmarish story of male violence that becomes an immensely satisfying story of female retribution. "Amulet" is hardly the first revenge thriller to come along in recent years. But it left me admiring its fantastical moral logic. Given the reality of the world we live in, it might take an act of supernatural will to bring about justice.
"Relic" isn't quite as ferocious as "Amulet." But its brooding restraint may be even more effective. The Japanese Australian director, Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote the script with Christian White, has crafted a slow-burning story about three generations of women brought together under the same roof. Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote play Kay and Sam, a mother and daughter travelling from Melbourne to the countryside home of Edna, Kay's mother.
Edna, who's dealing with the onset of dementia, went mysteriously missing a few days ago. A police search is underway. And Kay and Sam are desperate to find her and make sure she's OK. The condition of the house suggests that she isn't. The place is a mess. And the walls are covered with a strange, dark mold. They find little notes that Edna has scribbled herself which suggests she's being haunted by something far worse than memory loss. And things don't get any better when Edna, played by Robyn Nevin, suddenly reappears alive but far from well.
There are no shocking twists or contrivances in store in "Relic," and not a lot of gore either. James excels at mining dread and tension from ordinary conversation. And she uses thriller conventions to get at something simple but shattering, the horror of watching a parent slowly deteriorate. The occasional flickers of tenderness that Edna shows Kay and Sam quickly give way to deep, implacable anger, some, but not all of it, rooted in past arguments and resentments. More often, it stems from the fact that Edna no longer recognizes her daughter and granddaughter.
In the movie's scariest and most ingenious sequence, Kay and Sam find themselves trapped in an ever-shifting maze of corridors and hidden passageways as the house itself seems to mirror Edna's increasingly unstable grip on reality. But as impressed as I was by the craftiness of "Relic," I wasn't prepared for how moving it would be. It's not an easy thing for a director to pull off terror and grief, to let these two emotional registers coexist rather than fighting each other. But that's exactly what James does here. She's made a disturbing and ultimately devastating movie about what it means to love someone unconditionally even when they've lost the power to love you back.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be Mike Birbiglia, writer, actor, performer and contributor to "This American Life." His latest book, "The New One," is about reluctantly becoming a father and what it felt like not to feel so immediately bonded to his daughter. We'll also hear from his wife, who tells her side of the story in poems included in the book. I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MADRE VACA'S "LONELINESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.