Relic is an immensely impressive debut feature from Natalie Erika James that explores generational tension and the impact of ageing on a family unit in surprising and emotional ways.
Synopsis: A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are called to travel to their mother and grandmother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) home after she mysteriously disappears. When they arrive they are greeted by a house showing how her state has deteriorated. New door locks have been installed to protect Edna from what she believes is trying to get into the house. Post-it notes around the house serve to remind to carry out basic tasks and even bodily functions. Edna returns almost as quickly as she disappeared and sporting a suspicious bruise, but refuses to talk about where she has been, leading to the growing tension in the house.
All three central performances are completely absorbing and the actors include so many smaller details that contribute to a complete understanding of their characters, even when we aren’t given a huge amount of backstory. Sam’s more hopeful attempts to deal with Edna’s deteriorating condition are spurred by nostalgia and without Kay’s sense of pain and guilt. Natalie Erika James and her co-writer Christian White centre the three women for much of the film and the more time we spend with them, the more we come to understand their relationships. The cyclical relationship they have with one another supports the similar relationship the family to the land and house. The desperation to cling to memories permeates through everything, punctuated by Edna’s rapidly encroaching dementia.
Refreshingly, in her more lucid moments, Edna is presented as a fully rounded woman, energetic and playful but also capable of sniping and using outdated language that Sam finds particularly difficult to hear. Edna references Kay’s failed marriage with bite, but also flippancy and even before the more challenging aspects of Edna’s care are raised, their estrangement and Kay’s distance makes sense. Kay’s recognition of the difficulty in caring for Edna that prompts her to seek out care homes is challenged by the guilt of not wanting to abandon her or remove her from her home, however alien the place has become. The care home she visits is functional and not even the person giving the tour sounds like they believe it when they say it is ‘5-star living’. There is a comment on the inadequacy of so much elderly care that means families are forced to make difficult choices that often don’t feel comfortable or right.
The overall production design is impressive and immersive. Brian Reitzell’s composition brings the sounds of nature into the score but in doing so, turns them into something distinctly unnatural. The set design of Edna’s house is cluttered, reflecting Edna’s wider loss of control. An early scene where the house is lit by Christmas lights uses moody tones and shadows to up the creep factor. The muted colour palette lends everything the same sense of things becoming more dull and drab, even outside of the more explicit rotting imagery employed. This attention to detail in design extends to outside spaces, made to feel vast and open in comparison to the increasingly maze-like interior.
One of my favourite things about horror is how the uncanny and unpleasant come to interact with deep, emotional concerns and Relic packs a punch in both these areas. The last twenty minutes or so include some of the most staggering imagery I’ve seen in horror for some time. Callbacks to earlier elements are used to incredible emotional effect, giving way to a stunning, jaw-dropping conclusion. With the craft shown here in a debut feature, Natalie Erika James has a very bright future.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Relic is released by IFC Midnight in the USA in select theatres, drive-ins and digital/VOD on July 10th.