Written by Chris Murphy
Whilst I am an enormous fan of horror films strewn with gore and laden with jumps scares, I also adore the more cerebral side of the genre. The Babadook for instance is not only one of my all-time favourite horror movies, but also one of my all-time favourite movies ever, period. I love a horror movie to ask questions and allow the viewer to think more deeply, not spoon feeding the tiniest pieces of plot minutiae, foreshadowing every jump scare with swelling music and the eventual fake-out, instead to gently lead you down a path of narrative and terrify you along the way. The lingering feeling of unsettling suspense is just as effective an experience as an adrenaline infused one.
Directed by Natalie Erika James, Relic is very much a horror of the cerebral kind and it shares a similar atmosphere and colour palette with its aforementioned antipodean movie relative, The Babadook, along with similar emotional heft and re-watchable appeal.
Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) is Kay, returning to her childhood home after her elderly mother is reported missing. She is accompanied by her adult daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) and following a couple of days pondering her whereabouts, the grandmother mysteriously turns up, dirty footed and with an unusual bruise in the centre of her chest. What follows is an exploration into the effects of dementia on a family, as grandmother Edna, astonishingly acted by Robyn Nevin, slowly becomes more and more cognitively impaired and the mother and daughter duo try their best to care for their ailing loved one. But is there something else lurking in the shadows? And is there more than first appears going on in the old house?
Relic can be viewed and then explored post watch as an allegory of memory loss and the devastating impact of dementia on a family. As the illness takes hold of Edna, she tries desperately to cling to her memories and in one scene heartbreakingly buries a family photo album in order to save them from being lost forever. She is changing and only gains insight into this in fleeting moments that are tremendously sad. The audience, like her family, can only sit by and watch as she changes unpredictably. She is at one moment a loving grandmother and then there is a shift, a darkness fills her eyes as her mind loses control, something else taking hold, the question is, what is it? Nevin acts these scenes beautifully and she is both a terrifying and wholly sympathetic character. As Kay and Sam do what they can to plan the future care of their loved one, something begins to change in the house and not all may be as first believed.
It is difficult to discuss Relic further without getting into spoiler territory. The movie is, for two thirds at least, an unsettling exploration of family and the slow loss of a loved one to an illness that renders someone increasingly impaired, but the last third changes significantly. To many this may understandably be quite jarring. As the movie establishes its own lore only to turn things upside down is quite a stark contrast. It is however, something I loved, and I felt it allowed the movie to breath and go down an interestingly original route. There is nothing like the last half hour of this film. Is this still an exploration of dementia or has it gone into full blown horror territory? That is left for you to decide. Nothing is clear cut and ambiguity is peppered throughout. In fact, sometimes to the movie’s detriment. There is a sub plot featuring windows and an old lodge that is so briefly touched upon and yet seems so key to events yet gets very little explanation. It is I imagine part of the puzzle that the viewer is to piece together, yet a little more exposition would have been welcome. If only just to help fill in some gaps.
Performances are excellent throughout and the trio of lead actors are utterly compelling. The characters feel fleshed out and as if they have a past, even though we are allowed only a glimpse in terms of back story. The relationships between them are real, tangible in their interactions and full of unspoken history. Though the movie focuses on the here and now and the events that are taking place in the present are what is important. The past experiences of the family are hardly alluded to and what little information is given is just enough to formulate an idea of their closeness, or lack of it as it may be. The camera does hover over the odd photograph and Kay has a recurring dream that fits along the arc of the plot, but again very little is given away. Edna is convinced something is coming into her house at will and at first it is clear to see she is not lucid, yet slowly there are questions arising of what is real and what is not. It is captivating and truly exceptional filmmaking. As the ‘thing’ becomes more and more prevalent she is powerless to stop it. But her daughter and granddaughter believe this to be a manifestation of her declining health. Again, it is the audience that has to decide what is really going on. The ambiguity is a powerful tool here but may put off those who want their horror to be easy to access and air on the side of escapism and less a deep study of the human condition.
Relic is a beautifully acted, slow burn horror and whilst the ending may split audiences, it is brave and extremely original. An absorbing and unsettling movie that demonstrates enormous talent from all involved, especially director Natalie Erika James.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars