While at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, this writer had the opportunity to take in a variety of genre films while in Park City, including Amulet from first-time feature filmmaker Romola Garai, Jayro Bustamante’s haunting La Llorona, as well as the latest project from Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar, Impetigore.
Here’s a rundown of my thoughts on this varied trio of terrors from around the world.
Amulet: For her feature film debut, writer/director Romola Garai gives us an unconventional cautionary tale of sorts, although I’m not sure if the lesson here is: a.) you reap what you sow, b.) nothing in life is free, or c.) if you find a weird bat creature in your toilet, it’s time to get the hell out of the house. Or maybe the lesson here involves all of the above. In any case, Garai has crafted a film that defies convention, and while it goes to some shocking places in its third act, the first two-thirds of the film are a bit messy and lack any sense of narrative urgency. At the same time, I absolutely loved just how wickedly weird things get in Amulet once the story gets fully amped up, and I think Garai shows a lot of promise here as a director who isn’t interested in just giving us the same ol’ horror-centric song and dance.
Amulet follows Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a former soldier suffering with PTSD who is homeless and feeling rather helpless about his predicament, until a kindly nun (Imelda Staunton) comes along, suggesting he stay with a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri), who has been tasked with taking care of her sickly mother, who stays tucked away on the third floor of their home. As Tomaz begins to settle into his new living situation, trying to make himself useful to his host, he becomes conflicted between his growing feelings towards Magda and the feeling that he’s caught up in the middle of some sinister circumstances.
And the destination that Amulet builds toward is absolutely bananapants, but that’s what I admire about what Garai does here. I’m not a fan of when directors play it safe, and Amulet is anything but safe filmmaking. It’s somber, heartwarming, repulsive, jaw-dropping, and has an acerbic sense of humor at times, and I’d much rather watch a movie where the director takes a ton of chances than none at all. Is Amulet messy at times? For sure. Does it tend to spin its narrative wheels during the film’s first half? It does. But as a whole, Amulet is a ballsy debut from a filmmaker who feels like she’s only getting started, and that truly excites me as a genre fan.
Movie Score: 3/5
La Llorona: For La Llorona, writer/director Jayro Bustamante continues bringing the stories of Mayan culture to the big screen, this time creating a supernaturally charged fable centered around a corrupt Guatemalan general named Enrique Monteverde (played by Julio Diaz), who is standing trial for genocide after callously ordering the slaughter of thousands of Mayans in his country. Initially, Monteverde is found guilty, but the decision is ultimately overturned, which angers thousands of protestors who descend upon the general's family compound. After the staff flees, a mysterious maid named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) appears, which coincides with a string of spooky events that begin to occur, forcing Monteverde and his family to come to the realization that no matter how hard you try, you cannot outrun the ghosts of your past.
While La Llorona certainly has a steady infusion of genre elements in it, I think the power of Bustamante’s story lies in the family drama he builds throughout his genuinely thought-provoking narrative, as Monteverde’s wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter Natalia ( Sabrina De La Hoz), and granddaughter must come to terms with the monstrous head of their clan. What’s also striking about La Llorona is the fact that it might be the general’s heinous crimes that are fueling the story here, but Bustamante’s narrative is extremely focused on telling the stories of the women he’s affected over the years. In one particularly harrowing scene, we watch as one of the female elders of a village that Monteverde wiped out recounts the vile nature of his actions, and in a film filled with powerful moments, her testimony left my mouth agape, proving that real-life horrors can be even more potent in cinema than the otherworldly ones.
There’s so much to admire about La Llorona, including the script, performances, and Bustamante’s confident direction, but I must admit that the cinematography from Nicolás Wong and the film’s sound design are both impeccable and help amplify the tensions that are rippling through each and every scene. In fact, when the protestors show up outside of Monteverde’s estate, their angry chants loom through so many scenes, resulting in a cacophony of sounds that left me feeling disconcerted as a result.
By utilizing the Weeping Woman folklore for La Llorona as his statement on post-colonialism in Guatemala, Bustamante serves up a cinematic reckoning with his latest film, a harrowing and haunting reminder of the horrors that humanity can and will inflict on others when given too much power.
Movie Score: 4.5/5
Impetigore: After seeing his previous feature, Satan’s Slaves, I knew there was no way I was going to miss seeing Joko Anwar’s Impetigore at this year’s Sundance, and it did not disappoint. A gruesome and tension-filled descent into madness, Impetigore shares some cinematic DNA with the aforementioned Satan’s Slaves, but Anwar opens things up here in some very surprising ways.
Impetigore kicks things off with easily one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve seen in a horror movie in years now, as we’re introduced to toll booth workers Maya (Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita), who are chatting with each other on their respective phones late one night during a particularly quiet stretch in their employment. That is, until a creepy dude who had been repeatedly showing up at Maya’s booth once again makes an appearance, leaving her fearful for her life. Her instincts are right, as the mystery man brandishes a machete, chasing her down in a sequence that gives any of the franchise slashers a run for their money. But instead of killing her, he only slices her leg, leaving Maya with more questions than answers about why this man would want to harm her, and seems to know her by a different name altogether.
From there, Maya begins to piece together the truth about who she is and where she comes from, taking her on a journey to a remote village where she hopes to reclaim her family’s property in an effort to fund a better life for herself and for Dini. But once she arrives, Maya is only met with hostility, and she begins to realize that she’s in far more danger than she ever could have imagined.
Even though I very much enjoyed myself during Impetigore, and found Anwar’s blending of various motifs and thematic elements to be highly entertaining, I will fully admit that the film does have a few issues, especially towards the latter half when the narrative feels a bit too hectic for its own good. There’s also a flashback sequence that runs on for an unnecessarily long amount of time (where it keeps coming back to Maya sitting behind a tree, and then repeats that same moment again and again each time the story comes back to the present), and considering most of that part of Impetigore’s story had been firmly established by this point, it really would have benefitted the overall narrative by being a bit more streamlined.
That being said, as someone who just wants a few surprises with her horror, Impetigore absolutely delivers up quite a few unexpected thrills and chills, with several moments in Impetigore feeling like Anwar’s love letter to the horror genre as a whole, and it was hard for me not to get swept up in that love fest, admittedly. I’m sure others will feel differently about Impetigore than I did, but as far as a gnarly and disturbing horror that isn’t afraid to get DARK, Anwar shows us with his latest that he’s unafraid of taking his films into some very disturbing cinematic territories, resulting in a ghastly experience that will leave your skin crawling.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
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[Photo Credits: Above photos courtesy of Nick Wall (Amulet), Ical Tanjung, I.C.S. (Impetigore), and Sundance Institute.]