The scariest aspect of “Relic” isn’t the unseen presence supposedly lurking in the rural Australian home of elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin). Rather, it’s something that many people have experienced within their own families: watching dementia or an illness such as Alzheimer’s overtake an older relative until they no longer know who you are. They’re still alive, but feel like they’re already gone.
Edna’s dementia is what sets the story of “Relic,” a horror film that’s Natalie Ericka James’ directorial debut, in motion. At the start of the movie we see Edna’s daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Kay’s daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to Edna’s home after a neighbor says they haven’t seen her for a few days. When they arrive at the house, they find it in a state of decay, with notes in Edna’s handwriting lying around reminding her to do—or not do—certain things. Edna returns home shortly thereafter, but won’t reveal to her family where she’s been or what happened to her. Over time, Edna’s behavior becomes increasingly volatile and so unlike her normal self, it becomes apparent that another force may be possessing her.
“Relic” is a multi-generational tale, carried by its three leads who are almost the only characters we follow throughout the film. We see quite a lot of tension in each of the mother/daughter relationships, and Kay and Sam both deal with the situation with Edna in different ways. Both are concerned, but Kay takes the more practical route, even going into town to tour a retirement home for Edna. Sam, meanwhile, becomes increasingly curious about the creepy home and her family history (her great-grandfather died on the property of dementia years ago after being abandoned by the rest of his family) and suggests she move in with Edna. Each actress delivers a stellar performance; Mortimer in particular illustrates the heartbreak associated with watching your parent become like your child. Nevin delivers a quietly haunting performance; her stare alone is enough to turn one’s blood cold. Another star of the film is the set, which is drab and dimly lit but also amazingly detailed, making Edna’s home feel that much more lived in, while also revealing information about her current state.
While “Relic” may possess themes and a set of characters that are unique in a horror movie, it isn’t immune to some of the usual horror tropes. “Relic” is a slow burn (occasionally a little too slow) that from start to finish is filled with the creepy sights and sounds associated with most haunted house movies, and the climax is unnecessarily action-packed. But James, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Christian White, makes the most of these sequences in ways that may not necessarily be obvious on first viewing. One scene that comes to mind is when Kay follows Edna into the woods and finds her eating photographs of her family. Maybe it’s a way for Edna to try to retain those memories as they slip away from her, or maybe she’s trying to prevent another presence on the property from taking them away from her. Regardless, it’s a heartbreaking scene, as is the film’s haunting final shot, which celebrates familial love over everything else.
James’ film is partly inspired by her own experiences with her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and she makes it clear that as scary as supernatural occurrences can be, reality can be even more terrifying. She leaves a lot of the film’s final act up to interpretation—maybe a bit too much, resulting in some sequences feeling unnecessary. But overall, for a film that runs just under 90 minutes, James makes use of every scene to reveal something about her characters while ratcheting up the suspense. “Relic” is a solid debut feature for a promising and talented director, as well as an impressive use of the horror genre to explore a very human topic.
Runtime: 89 minutes. Rated R. 3 out of 5 stars.
“Relic” will be released in select theaters and will be available to watch on demand on Friday, July 10.
Media review link courtesy IFC Films.