Director Natalie Erika James' horror debut, 'Relic', explores the indignities of growing old and the inevitability of death, but only as a means to an end, a phenomenon that reveals its characters' true nature.
The thought that loving relationships end peacefully, with a slow fade into the twilight of shuffleboard and 5 o'clock dinners, rarely describes the reality for most families; people often have to face the hardship of seeing their parents deteriorate and die before they do. Not only do people have to care for loved ones in low moments, when they've lost control of their bodies, but they often have to do it when they aren't in peak shape, either. Death dictates the terms. Human beings have to adapt to them.
Set in Australia, 'Relic' follows Kay (Emily Mortimer, 'Mary Poppins Returns'), a single woman who returns to her mother's house in Victoria after she goes missing, bringing her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, 'The Neon Demon') along with her. The film revolves primarily around the three women, and the spectre of inherited mental decline reverberates down the generations. The matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin, 'The Matrix Reloaded', 'The Matrix Revolutions') is haunted by an unseen ghoul, writing notes to and eventually harming herself, as her increasingly fearful daughter and granddaughter attempt to reach her through the haze.
Erika James cast her three leads perfectly: Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin have a rapport together that's uncannily real. Mortimer stars as an emotionally weary mother who struggles mightily to find her footing amid her job, an independent adult daughter and her new commitments. Resigning herself to a much grimmer existence, Kay moves with Sam to Edna's gloomy house, haunted by more than just black mould and an antique stained-glass window, searching for clues that might help them locate the old woman. Edna reappears as inexplicably as she disappeared, seemingly normal but then showing startling symptoms of dementia and offering no explanation for where she went. Meanwhile, Sam attempts to support her mother while attempting to forge new connections with her grandmother, even when she is accusing Sam of taking things from her when they were given as gifts.
For much of its duration, 'Relic' generates creepy, atmospheric dread by subtly ratcheting up the most sinister aspects of domestic living, from creepy cluttered closets (a la 'Rosemary's Baby') to the cozy messiness of an abundance of antique furniture. Thanks to some immaculate production design, the house is a metaphorical manifestation of the maze-like passages and disarray in Edna's mind. Under the lense of cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, the film is cloaked in shadows and dim light, and you can almost smell the musty air.
Erika James cast her three leads perfectly with Mortimer, Heathcote and Nevin, who have a rapport together that's uncannily real.
Erika James has cited Juan Antonio Bayona's gothic 'The Orphanage' and a slew of Japanese horror films as influences. For me, the film that 'Relic' recalls most strongly is Hideo Nakata's 'Dark Water', another cerebral, atmospheric horror movie that looks at the terror and isolation of being a single parent largely without resources in a frightening location devoid of comfort and security - the highlight of the movie is the mother/daughter relationship and the hardship they have to overcome, while the paranormal stuff kind of gets second place. Like 'Dark Water', Erika James' film never really relies on any form of jump scares or gore to scare the viewer. The tension steadily grows, like a water stain spreading on a wall, enhanced by the presence of likeable characters who make you care for them. Like Nakata's film, 'Relic' is also surprisingly touching and builds up to an emotional gut-punch.
'Relic' isn't just an impressively eerie horror movie debut from a first-time director, it's a test of devotion and love that lurks in the unforeseen distance for parents and their children.