Directed by Natalie Erika James
Starring Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Steve Rodgers, Catherine Glavicic, Jeremy Stanford, and Christina O’Neill
A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
First-time filmmaker Natalie Erika James is following in the footsteps of the Ari Aster (Hereditary) horror playbook with her debut feature Relic, where the terror comes more from the mind and mental illness rather than violence. It’s a major reason why the recent renaissance of the genre has taken off, with this film adding to that quickly growing pile of horrifying modern gems. Relic is also a personal endeavor given the fact that Natalie Erika James’ own grandmother had also battled dementia, which is the driving sickness behind the eerie atmosphere and unnerving tension here.
Edna (Robyn Nevin) lives in the British countryside and serves as the matriarch of the multi-generational family of women present in the story, although her neurotic functions are gradually slipping away. One night, she wanders off into nowhere, calling local residents and the police force to not only alert her remaining close relatives (daughter and granddaughter) but to conduct a thorough search around the surrounding area. It’s not necessarily a spoiler to say this considering it happens only 20 minutes into the movie, but Edna does mysteriously return unharmed save for a black and painful-looking bruise over her chest that she claims is nothing more than from a nasty bump. Other than that, she is physically active and, even if she has no interest in explaining her misadventure, appears to have a healthy memory and working brain.
It’s quickly made evident that this is not necessarily the case. One of the more intriguing photography touches (the cinematography from Charlie Sarroff is excellent all-around at using space and distance to reflect the dissonance from family member to family member, painting a portrait of people that are nowhere near as close as first impressions might give off) sees Edna looking at herself in the mirror, but with camera angles expressing this as an audience looking at two different individuals entirely. Edna’s behavior throughout the rest of Relic confirms this, which is everything from unpredictable to achingly sad in its exhausting portrayal of mental deterioration. The slow-burn is deliberate, making the finale pay off not only intense but surprisingly poetically beautiful in a way that invites a rewatch to further analyze the narrative.
Relic doesn’t just rely on the strong performance from Robyn Nevin, however, as Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote carry a mother-daughter dynamic that is altered as they oppose one another about what to do with grandma. Naturally, Edna’s perspective also has an influence on things, making for a situation where there are no easy solutions as characters deal with baggage of their own. Such problems are not made any easier by Edna’s growing confrontational attitude towards other residents of the town, referring to a once friend with Down syndrome as something insulting and offensive. Upon uttering the word, her daughter is visibly hurt that her grandmother would say such a thing, trying to wave away hateful words in order to keep focusing on caring for the elderly woman. It’s a complex and touching moment that’s not exactly scary in this horror movie. Additionally, there are plenty of those moments of familial love, rendering this also one of the more unique films for the genre of the year.
Don’t worry, it all ends with some gnarly body horror, but even that is done with grace and delicacy. The practical effects are nothing short of extraordinary, fully realizing a gripping and profound ending that lies somewhere between terrifying and oddly calming. There are also some incredibly clever things done with the actual house during the climax that is also interwoven with the grander themes at play. Relic is going to put some viewers off (even I grew a little impatient until the third act started), yet it’s all justified and worth seeking out for anyone that likes their horror to pack a meaningful punch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com