Anyone who’s had to care for an aging parent or grandparent knows the toll it can take on a family. In Relic, director Natalie Erika James’ feature-length debut, dementia becomes an all-consuming force that takes over the house. The slow-burn Australian film is one that you’ll think about for days after you watch it. It proves that the horror genre has long been the perfect vehicle to address issues like aging and dying. Relic does so in a horrifying, yet beautifully poetic and tragic manner. The result is one of this year’s best genre films.
The film opens with Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) trying to locate the widowed matriarch, Edna (Robyn Nevin), who’s been missing for days. When they return to the decaying country home to locate her, they find traces of her dementia everywhere, including post-it notes scattered around the house, reminding herself to complete basic tasks. When she does return, she either can’t remember or won’t tell where she’s been.
Some of the most effective scenes are the ones where nothing supernatural happens, per se, but rather, we witness the effects of dementia and the tough choices a family needs to make in dealing with it. In one scene, Edna accuses Sam of robbing her, after she sees a ring on her finger that she gifted her a few scenes prior. Nevin’s performance here is terrifying, as she turns malicious instantly and yanks the ring off. Furthermore, a few scenes feature tight close-ups of Edna’s face, with a sinister gaze, a look that Kay doesn’t recognize. Nothing needs to be said during these scenes to display the shock that Kay feels as she no longer recognizes her mom.
In another harrowing scene, Kay visits an assisted living facility in Melbourne, and even though the nurse mentions computer classes and ocean-view rooms, it’s clear the responsibility and weight Kay feels over having to make such a difficult decision. You see the strain in her face, especially when she lingers in her car afterwards and cries. The decision over what to do with Edna exacerbates the tension between Kay and Sam, especially since Sam is so opposed to putting her grandmother in a home.
The heaviness of the film is underscored by the bleak tones. Several exterior shots feature gloomy skies over the thick woods that surround the house. Many interior scenes take place at night, in shadowy rooms of the creaky country home. There are long silences between bits of dialogue and conversation that do much to convey tone and mood. With each passing night, Edna’s condition worsens. She’s convinced someone is entering her home. James, who also co-wrote the film with Christian White, brilliantly uses possession and a black, mold-like substance that overtakes the home as a metaphor for dementia and old age. By the last act, Edna becomes unrecognizable to Kay and Sam.
Yet, we also glimpse Edna living life as best as she can, remembering what she used to love. In one scene, she dances with Sam, teaching her the cha-cha. With her gray hair pulled back and her feet twirling around the room, Edna beams with sparks of life from her youth. She laughs with her granddaughter. However, just a moment prior to that, she calls her Kimmy instead of Sammy. Again, it’s these types of scenes and Edna’s slip-ups that showcase dementia well.
The closing minutes of the film are some of the most effective I’ve seen in a horror film in quite some time. They are poetic and tragic. There’s a haunting acknowledgement and resignation that nothing can stop the aging process. We’re all going to endure it with family members and then go through it ourselves.
Relic has been compared to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and in some regards, the comparisons are fair. Both are slow-burn horror films that deal with family tension and family secrets. Both build to a memorable climax and take their time getting there. Yet, James never relies on the shock scenes that Aster does (think of the telephone pole scene in Hereditary or the cliff scene in Midsommar). Even when the supernatural elements ramp up, including rooms and corridors that become maze-like and contain the black, mold-like substance, it all seems believable because the house becomes a striking metaphor for the ravages of dementia and the effects it has upon the rest of the family. Sam and Kay endure hell the more that Edna’s mind clouds.
Relic is a bone-chilling film that marks the debut of a director to watch. It reminds us that life’s real horrors are matters that we’ll all have to deal with at one time or another, in this case, taking care of an ailing family member and the tough choices that come along with it. Relic is one of 2020’s smartest and most memorable horror films.
The film is currently streaming on VOD.
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