de facto film reviews 2 stars

If you are a horror fan, you are probably conscious of the contrasts between American and foreign genre films. Mainstream Hollywood productions frequently offer a commercial look and feel, while independent projects straddle the line between commercial and arthouse and attempt to avoid classic tropes. Foreign pictures tend to be quite dynamic and far more risqué on average. Portuguese writer/director Gabriel Abrantes creates an intriguing amalgamation of both styles with Amelia’s Children, a primarily English-language shock thriller set in his home country that visually resembles conventional American horrors but scales bolder thematic plateaus.

The movie opens with a tense scene at a palazzo, where a young mother drips a mysterious liquid into baby bottles and puts her children to bed. Before she knows it, another woman infiltrates the home and kidnaps one of the children; the mother runs out screaming, eyes white. Flash forward to Ed (Abrantes regular Carloto Cotta), who gets a disappointing call from his foster home but later receives an ancestry test from his girlfriend Riley (Brigette Lundy-Paine). The DNA results connect him to his long-lost brother, Manuel, and Ed and Riley fast-track a trip to Portugal. When Ed meets Manuel, his identical twin (though a touch more flamboyant), and his mother, Amelia (Anabela Moreira), who has had heavy plastic surgery done, the American couple immediately feels uneasy.

Amelia's Children - Amelia and Baby

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

As you may have guessed, Ed is the child stolen away from Amelia at the beginning of the film, and Abrantes does a commendable job building up the mystery of why that tragedy occurred in the film’s first half. Amelia’s prosthetic makeup (credit to artist Rita Anjos) is unsettling, and Moreira is fantastically creepy behind the mask as she stares envious daggers at Riley from the shadows. Secret conversations between Manuel and Amelia, illuminating photographs, and confessions via tertiary characters fortify the disturbing nature of Amelia’s family and their desire for Ed to integrate.

The resulting events and reveals venture into multiple taboos and the supernatural, with a distressing third act that mostly satisfies, even if it is familiarly structured. The subject matter Abrantes portrays is unnerving, to say the least, and relatively unique among most conventionally shot horror films. The melding of Portuguese folklore with unnatural family relationships and some sufficient tension and mystery allows Amelia’s Children to feel “other” despite its more traditional production design. However, one can not help but see the film’s few flaws through the complex branching of Amelia’s messed-up family tree.

Amelia's Children - Manuel

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Although this is Ed’s story, first and foremost, the character generally feels like a byproduct of the plot. He is rather boring to follow and receives little meaningful development, which is likely why we follow Riley’s efforts to uncover the truth and escape Portugal more often. Lundy-Paine puts on a respectable performance as the would-be heroine of the story, but there is little to care about regarding her shallow character either. Luckily, Cotta’s double-duty role—triple-duty, technically, but the other character is barely relevant—as Manuel is far more interesting and varied, and Amelia is a genuinely alarming enigma of an antagonist.

Sadly, while the shock and awe of the plot’s underlying material is disturbing and compelling, Abrantes’s efforts to produce it often overshadow anything else. The film’s few supernatural elements are unfortunate victims of this, as they feel randomly strewn about and conceptually underbaked, and confusing or dangling story threads later on never feel as tightly wound as they could or probably should. Ultimately, I missed the pure horror that some scenes—and certain stock tropes throughout—promised, and I wished some story elements did not feel like afterthoughts.

Amelia's Children - Riley

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Regardless, there is plenty to enjoy with Amelia’s Children if you can appreciate the different textures and tones Abrantes and his crew present and the audacious themes different from most Western horror. The beauty of the Portuguese countryside and the architecturally-minded cinematography, plus some excellent sound design, are worth taking in. Amelia’s Children, despite its shortcomings, is a commendable entry into a relatively lacking Portuguese horror scene and will undoubtedly set the bar for local talent for the foreseeable future—at least, to invite them to stretch the bounds of trauma-inducing horror even further.

Amelia’s Children is now available on VOD and in select theaters.