It’s fair to say that we’ve been blessed with some remarkable horror films in recent years – Hereditary, The Babadook, It Follows, Midsommar, Get Out and many more. But what has been a recognisable shift has been the depiction of horror from a female perspective. That’s where we find Natalie Erika James’ Relic, a generational and exploratory look at dementia but through the astute genre lens that’s undergoing a modern-day renaissance.
It’s the second film of London Film Festival to tackle dementia as an invading evil threat and enemy. Harry Macqueen’s Supernova is a tender and touching encapsulation from the POV of two male lovers (played superbly by Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci). James’ interpretation is more visceral, where anguish and dread manifest into a haunting presence.
Relic is not a ‘scary movie’, but the atmosphere it generates is something to appreciate. James creates haunting layers of cognitive dissonance and uneasy tension to contextualise the rising emotions of a rapidly decaying mind and the fragility of old age. It’s chilling opening where Edna (Robyn Nevin) stands naked in front of the family Christmas tree, Edna’s post-it messages placed around the house, the mysterious bruises on her chest, or talking to herself – instances of a character slipping away into the inevitable. And when news of her disappearance occurs, the police are called, and her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) visit the family home to investigate.
Horror movies tread a fine line between genuine fear and clichéd moments. Relic is no exception, with its slow-burn pacing, its atmospheric cinematography by Charlie Sarroff, and its curious flirtation between the two extremes. Occasionally, it’s a little too ‘on the nose’ in that exploration, bombarding the screen with familiar creaks and noises. But you sense that James (in her first feature-length film) understands those conventions and subsequently plays with them. Something as predictable as ‘something is under the bed’, becomes an audience in-joke in expecting the worst, offset by unintentional humour in watching Mortimer’s Kay hit her head as she investigates.
But essentially, Relic is about a family looking inward (both figuratively and literally) to cope with the oncoming tragedy. Already, the active comparisons to Ari Aster’s Hereditary or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (with some notable homages to body horror) leap to mind. Relic – across three generations of perspective – engages in the same tapestry of energy, making that subsequent horror take place on two fronts – the physical manifestation of fear and the unresolved questions of regret, estrangement and disconnection that linger with its central characters at how best to manage her care.
When Edna eventually returns home (leaving more questions than answers), Kay, practical by approach, believes its best to send her to a care home in Melbourne. For Sam, the young, rebellious teen, suggests moving into the family home and monitor her grandmother’s lapses. James engages in an artful gaze of switched perspectives, where each encounter is a harsh revelation of inescapable truths and where fears begin projecting onto themselves.
The allegory is not lost when the crumbling house becomes a symbol of Edna’s deteriorating mind, struggling with sides of her personality where it haunts her, or occasionally (due to Nevin’s measured performance), to stare blankly into the screen. It shows confidence Natalie Erika James’ intimate direction when such intricacies and detail feature so prominently. The script (which she co-writes alongside Christian White) often indulges in eerie spiritualism where the slow deterioration of thought is directly tied to the memories a home contains. When Kay stares longingly at her mother’s chair, it might as well be a ghost that used to sit there. Mortimer is more attuned of this fact, instantly recognising those subtle nuances in her performance amidst the chaos and trauma that it encapsulates.
It, therefore, becomes somewhat disappointing that Relic slowly loses its intriguing momentum and mystique as it cascades towards its climax. The film’s credible and patient infusion of subtext is abandoned for moments of predictability. The crazier the film gets, the more active those comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook (and many others) will feel, inevitably sensing that its respective counterparts did it better. It’s noticeably light on character development, and while there is solid work in capturing their essence, they are merely avatars, vessels to the forthcoming madness and terrors they experience without pushing beyond their lives outside ‘the house of horrors’. And when you’re looking for a connection to care about them, it eventually comes in its poignant ending. No doubt, it’s a brilliant yet empathetic subversion on the audience’s expectation that will undoubtedly stay with you as its signature moment. But the payoff comes far too late to be fully invested. And that is where it misses a trick.
As feature-length debuts go, James weaves together an ambitious project with a strong eye for thematic context. The good outweighs the bad. But missed opportunities means not all its concept hits the mark.
RELIC screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 30th October 2020.