REVIEW – ‘Relic’ is just as horrifying as it is devastating

In the horror genre, there is a litany of blood-soaked, jump scare-heavy films which exist to elicit screams from any audience and very little else. Every now and then, a horror film comes along that manages to terrify its viewer while also serving as a deeply insightful metaphor for real-world issues. Whether it’s the commentary on inherited mental illness in Hereditary, the biting social critique of race and class in Get Out, or The Babadook analysing childhood trauma, horror is often at its best when it has something more to offer than just blood and gore.

Arriving rather ironically at a time when the entire population has been stuck inside their homes for several months, Relic seems like your average “haunted house in the woods” nightmare we’ve seen numerous times before. But beneath its creepy setup lies a haunting portrait of dementia that’s unlike any seen before. By masking its ultimate intent within a horror film, Relic is just as horrifying as it is devastating.

After an unsettling prologue that somehow portrays pulsing Christmas tree lights as something inexplicably sinister, we meet single mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her 20-something daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), who are returning to Kay’s remote childhood home somewhere outside of Melbourne. Kay’s mother, Edna (Australian acting royalty Robyn Nevin) has been reported missing by her neighbours, with Kay concerned Edna’s lapses in memory may have led to a tragic accident.

At the dilapidated home, Kay and Sam find no trace of Edna, but something certainly seems off. Furniture is strewn around in odd locations, pet food is left for a dog who passed away years earlier, the walls are consumed by a mysterious rotting mould, and the house is dotted with Post-it notes that range from generic reminders (“Take pills.”) to something more ominous (“Don’t follow it.”).

As the police comb through the surrounding bushland, Kay and Sam are left in the home with little choice but to tidy up and search through Edna’s belongings for potential answers to her disappearance. As Sam begins hearing strange noises from the walls and Kay experiences horrifying dreams at night, it’s clear something is not right. When Edna mysteriously returns out of the blue, she refuses to discuss where she’s been or how she came to sport a large bruise on her chest.

While Sam is thrilled her grandmother has returned, Kay’s concerns grow stronger by the day, as Edna’s cognitive function swings wildly from entirely lucid to completely lost. At times, she’ll happily chat with both Kay and Sam, while at others, she appears to be slowly unravelling, often muttering to herself and unexpectedly lashing out at the smallest of things. As Edna’s condition deteriorates and the growing rot further consumes the house, Kay and Sam are thrust into a battle to save Edna from herself.

There will be inevitable comparisons between Relic and The Babadook, especially given both are Australian films directed by female filmmakers making their directorial debuts with a piece of horror cinema. Both films centre their action within the claustrophobic confines of one home haunted by a menacing unseen presence, while presenting a narrative rooted in familial drama. But Japanese Australian co-writer/director Natalie Erika James offers a fresh take on the haunted house genre with a personal story influenced by her own experiences with her grandmother’s decline as the result of Alzheimer’s disease.

In a dazzling debut that stamps James as a director to watch, the horrors of Relic ultimately stand as an effective and heartbreaking metaphor for dementia, crafted by a filmmaker who knows it all too well. A slow-burn film that slowly takes its time to unveil its true intentions, James innately understands the importance of an audience forming a strong connection to the film’s characters to elicit compassion when everything begins to fall apart.

James frames the first half of Relic as a typical spooky house melodrama, filled with unexplained creaky noises, ominous shadows, and a few well-placed jump scares to build a level of dread that threatens to unleash at any time. It’s in these moments we learn more about the complicated family dynamic of all three women, particularly Kay and Sam’s fractured relationship and their differences of opinion over how best to deal with Edna’s fading mental health. James deftly crafts an intimate look at the effect dementia has not only on those afflicted by the disease but also on the souls surrounding them who are forced to helplessly watch the rapid decline of a cherished loved one.

In its third act, Relic rightly shifts to an intense descent into absolute hell, as the house becomes intent on trapping the three women inside its disorientating maze of dead-end hallways and all-consuming mould, mirroring the unravelling of Edna’s psyche at every harrowing turn. Throughout the entire film, the house has been a supporting character itself, thanks to sublime production design from Steven Jones-Evans, but it’s only in this terrifying conclusion that we finally see the homestead for what it truly is and understand James’ razor-sharp decision to utilise a decaying house as the ultimate metaphor for an elderly woman’s crumbling mental state.

There will likely be much discussion and interpretation of the film’s daring epilogue, which, for obvious reasons, cannot be discussed in great detail. James ends Relic in decidedly divisive fashion, but it’s a moment that may hit you like a freight train if you’re willing to open your mind to what the filmmaker is ultimately saying. It’s a haunting finale that will linger long in your mind, and may even elicit more than a few tears from many viewers, particularly those with personal experience with dementia. To see such confidence from a first-time filmmaker to close her film in this way is incredibly impressive.

With a pitch-perfect and understated Australian accent so many actors get woefully wrong, Mortimer is typically impressive, offering a heartbreaking performance as a daughter struggling with her mother’s ailing health. Kay’s deep love for her mother is clouded by her own fear that she’s witnessing a fate that may lay in her future, gifting Mortimer with a richly complex character that she handles with aplomb. Heathcote continues to prove she’s a star on the rise, with a physically demanding performance that must have been hell to endure. Sam’s youthful optimism perfectly counterbalances Kay’s more grounded realism, allowing Mortimer and Heathcote to craft a mother-daughter dynamic that consistently feels authentic and genuine.

But Relic ultimately belongs to the marvellous Nevin, who may be unfamiliar to international audiences but has been a treasured mainstay of Australian television, film, and theatre since the 1960s. As the fading Edna, Nevin’s layered performance is both tragic and disturbing, with the role requiring the actor to flip uncontrollably across a variety of emotions that range from endearingly sweet and violently unsettling. Edna is trapped in a battle with her own mind, and Nevin expertly portrays the crippling confusion and overwhelming fear of a woman in the grips of the latter stages of a debilitating brain affliction.

With a necessary dash of nightmarish and grotesque imagery and a healthy dose of scares to make an audience recoil, Relic is undoubtedly a horror movie that stands as one of the best of recent times. However, after a series of terrifying moments, James’ true personal intentions are blindingly obvious, with Relic clearly crafted as the director’s catharsis from her own experiences with dementia. There are more levels to this film than its haunted house surface, and it’s a powerfully affecting experience to witness a filmmaker in complete control of her intended journey. The ravages of age are as inescapable as they are harrowing, and Relic captures the decay of the mind like few others.

Distributor: Stan
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford, Steve Rodgers
Director: Natalie Erika James
Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker
Screenplay: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Cinematography: Charlie Sarroff
Production Design: Steven Jones-Evans
Costume Design: Louise McCarthy
Music: Brian Reitzell

Editing: Denise Haratzis, Sean Lahiff
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: 10th July 2020 (Australia)