Directed by Natalie Erika James.
Starring Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Steve Rodgers, Catherine Glavicic, Jeremy Stanford, and Christina O’Neill.
When Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) visit the home of their grandmother (Robyn Nevin), her strange behavior starts to cause things to go bump in the night.
Horror is always intrinsically linked with provocative themes. Hereditary was about guilt and existential fear, while Midsommar could be seen as a female empowerment parable, and the most recent Australian genre breakout, and best of this triumvirate, was Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which was scares laid over a bed of guilt and the idea of motherhood. Now we can add Relic to the coven, because Natalie Erika James’s debut feature is a terrifying and touching family horror about the insidious encroachment of dementia, and coping with the slow-burn disappearance of someone you love. It’s also creepy as hell.
It’s the immediate disappearance of Edna (Robyn Nevin) that brings her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) to the isolated woodland home in search of her. So far, so horror.
It’s here that the drama unfolds like a stage-play three-hander, although you could easily count the house as an additional character, with it’s secret doors, labyrinthine corridors, and cacophony of noises acting as one of many metaphors for the destructive neurological disease at the core of this multi-generational horror story.
When Edna finally reappears, disheveled and seemingly none-the-wiser as to where she has been, it triggers a process that fractures the mother-daughter relationship, both of whom have different approaches to how she should be treated; care-home or live-in help from one of them. It’s testament to the script and performances of Mortimer and Heathcote that we don’t need much exposition or histrionics to understand that these are two people who love eachother very much, but may have a fraught backstory. They immediately feel very real and relatable.
At the same time cracks also begin to appear in the house, with horror-movie bingo staples like creaking doors or rising damp providing the requisite amount of bump-in-the-night chills. Where these might ordinarily be trite clichés, the exemplary sound design and the way its executed, particularly the strange thrum of the house, which seems to give it an eerie heartbeat, ensure that the set-pieces get under your skin as much as the thematics. There is a sequence in which a character is trapped in the walls that eschews any screaming or need for cat-in-the-cupboard scares, and is all the more frightening because of that.
All the way through you feel this burgeoning sense-of-dread building, and while it’s occasionally punctuated by shadows in the background, or in one wonderful instance the simple use of Edna’s long grey hair, it all pays off in the most emotionally satisfying way imaginable. The final moments are so unexpected and beautifully handled. Viewers faces that were contorted in horror, will slip into a state of realisation, and ultimately sadness at what’s unfolding before the them. It’s a stunning emotional beat that bests any attempt at a shocking twist.
With a trio of measured, affecting performances from Mortimer, Heathcote, and Nevin, as well as heralding a major talent in Natalie Erika James, Relic is a disarming horror story that’ll get beneath your skin in the best and worst possible ways.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt