‘Since your grandfather passed, this house seems… unfamiliar’
Relic achieves something so many horror films try and fail to do: it finds horror in the simplest things. From empty houses to rotting fruit to even Christmas decorations, director Natalie Erika James – in her first feature – crafts a film that’s so unsettling, so electrifyingly tense, yet so human.
The film follows three generations of a family headed by Edna (Robyn Nevin), a woman suffering from dementia, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), as they come to terms with Edna’s illness, trying to decide where her future lies. The film begins as more of a missing-person thriller, which in itself is handled with panache, exuding a real tension and atmosphere around Edna’s circumstances and whereabouts that you’ll forget the horror elements teased at the film’s very opening. It’s in this opening act where the terrific performances from these leads shines through: the script, penned by James and Christian White, brilliantly conveys the history shared between the family, the underlying distance, the hidden thoughts, and the secrets.
Yet the film certainly embraces the horror in its DNA, with some gritty and visceral scenes of body horror and sheer paranormal terror. Without giving away specifics, Relic does a terrific job of making the horror allegorical of real life: the best comparison is Jennifer Kent’s spectacular The Babadook, inflected with elements of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. This film takes dementia down that same line of investigation, looking not only at how it impacts the family – to the point where their loved one becomes someone they can no longer recognise – but the inner frustration felt by the actual sufferer. It’s that blending of horror and real-life drama that proves James’ directorial proficiency, with concepts such as age and loneliness handled with such care, yet still made to feel absolutely terrifying.
But it’s also a thrilling exploration of the power of memory: how people can revel in memories of the past, but also lose them, and what the loss of memory does to a person. Robyn Nevin’s performance here is truly outstanding, evoking both pathos and fear, meaning even when the film takes a turn for the grisly, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Edna, despite where James takes the character, which is credit to both the writing and the performance. The other characters are perhaps left to play second fiddle once the narrative is put in full thrust – neither Kay nor Sam are given quite as nuanced a role, somewhat reduced to horror caricatures – but the decision to have such a small cast certain plays to the film’s strength. Not for one second will you question the love and bond between these three, which makes the experience all the more engrossing and focused.
It all combines to make Relic an incredibly intelligent and powerful horror film. It’s hugely allegorical; a message ultimately of love and hope, despite the terror that manifests itself, and it plays brilliantly upon horror tropes like the haunted house or the Exorcist–style possession of a loved one – but it’s the human message behind it that’s the film’s biggest triumph. It portrays dementia in a light unlike anything we’ve seen before – as something corrosive, destructive and lingering – and the way James ends the film exudes directorial instinct and boldness. In a year with plenty of great horror films, Relic is certainly in the mix: a frightening, gruesome but unflinchingly sentimental watch.