Relic is the rare horror film that might comfort those who identify with its characters. In her feature-length debut, director and co-screenwriter Natalie Erika James opts for atmosphere over gore, creating a situation that is heavy with symbolism and metaphor. There is a lot in common between this film and The Babadook, another Australian horror film by a female director. They use genre tropes to examine how family responsibilities can be suffocating, with a monster borne out of deep, barely understood drama. If The Babadook is about a mother’s responsibility, then Relic is about a daughter’s. But the similarities stop there, and James creates situations with borderline unbearable tension. When the story finally resolves, it happens with genuine catharsis.
The set-up is simple enough. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are worried that Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) is missing from the secluded mansion where she lives. They file a police report and check the usual spots, although there is a sense of routine to their search. Edna’s behavior is erratic – the script never diagnoses her condition – and she is prone to fits of memory loss. She finally turns up, to the relief of Kay and Sam, except she brings a sinister force along with her. It is as if Edna’s presence creates an infection in the house, poisoning it from the inside out. Before long, Kay and Sam finds themselves in bizarrely inescapable situations, and Edna lashes out like she’s possessed.
The look of the “haunted” house is key to the overall effect. This is not a gothic mansion, where every step creaks and the statues cast devilish shadows. Instead, it looks like an ordinary house that has been crippled by decay. Everything looks forgotten, unwashed, and moldy. It is recently abandoned, which is frightening because it is reminds Kay and Sam just how far gone Edna has gotten. You’re used to seeing houses like this in a post-apocalyptic stories like The Walking Dead, except the crucial difference is that the rest of the outside world is getting on normally. It is only in this particular place where reason and hope can be lost. Along with cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, James creates a palette of shadows and sickly greens, so it is little surprise when the decay extends to Edna’s body.
Many films have explored the difficulties of dealing with someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s. Away from Her, The Notebook, and Still Alice have all considered the cruel implications of the disease, although they have been limited by respectability and good taste. Relic has more wiggle room, because what we see – rotting flesh, claustrophobic walls, self-mutilation – represent how Kay and Sam feel about Edna. There is nothing subtle here, to the point where the film is highly allegorical, and that is kind of the point. There is a bracing acknowledgment that for many adults with aging parents, the lack of options starts to feel exactly like this.
If this film was not also scary, all the thinly-veiled subtext would be immaterial. Relic does a good job of ramping up the tension, using its limited budget as an asset. James’ never goes for the easy jump scare, and instead creates unease through uncertainty. Sometimes Edna is herself, sometimes she is not, and it is utterly random which version Kay and Sam must face. Still, the most effective sequence involves little more than careful editing. Sam finds herself in a hallway, and only a flashlight illuminates her way. She retraces her steps, only to find she is back where she started. Sam starts to run out of options, until she has little wiggle room left, and there is no explanation for her tight quarters. This kind of sequence has been done before, although rarely this effectively.
The performances are what ultimately tether Relic to reality. As Kay, Mortimer careens between being sympathetic and at her wit’s end, while newcomer Nevin is more cautious and curious. They are believable as a family, which is why the final scenes land with such poignancy. At long last, these three women realize what they once had can never come back. There is a tragedy to such acceptance, and some freedom, too. And James ends with a well-earned image, one that suggests the events of Relic are a cycle that all families will someday undertake. There is comfort in that, and maybe even a dogged sense of hope.
Relic is available on your preferred VOD platform starting July 10.