Film Review: ‘Relic’ & The Horror Of Growing Old
If you’re looking for clumsy jump scares and buckets of gore, Relic is not the film for you. Natalie Erika James, in one of 2020’s most auspicious directorial debuts, focuses on atmosphere, tension and emotional nuance. This is the kind of fright fest that slowly seeps under your skin, and then lingers long after the final credits roll. Which is no small feat for a body horror that — on the face of it — covers familiar ground. Namely, the very-real terror of growing old and, in this case, succumbing to dementia.
In fact, there’s an entire sub-genre of horror films about the elderly (think Adam Robitel’s excellent The Taking Of Deborah Logan and M. Night Shyamalan’s career-reviving The Visit). Relic is singular, however, in its approach and execution. At its core, this is as much a love story as a scary movie. Relic not only captures the terror of physical and mental decline, but also the way it spills over onto loved ones. Who, in turn, go through their own hell by bearing witness.
The film begins with two generations of women, Kay and Emma, going to check on a third. Edna has been missing for a couple of days and there are worrying signs — post-it notes reminding her to flush the toilet, rotten food in the fridge and curiously placed furniture — at the elderly woman’s house in rural Victoria. After notifying police and coming to grips with her likely death, Edna reappears. But she is changed. For starters, there’s a giant rotting wound in the middle of her chest and a newfound cruelty to her manner.
And that’s just the beginning. Edna begins to think there’s an intruder in the house and descends into self-harm. Kay and Emma do their best to offer support. Her daughter goes to look at nursing homes, while Edna’s dutiful granddaughter offers to move in. These are among the film’s strongest scenes. Erika James has an uncanny knack for building tension through lingering shots of the surrounding forest and fleeting shadows. A largely green color palette, the color of mould and decay, contributes to the film’s grim beauty.
Relic stumbles somewhat when it gives into supernatural elements. The changing, maze-like structure of the house is fascinating, but it feels like it belongs to a different film. As do the flashbacks to Kay’s grandfather and allusions to a cursed or haunted shack that has been incorporated into the family home via renovations. Just when you think Relic has lost its way, Erika James pulls it all back together with a riveting and genuinely moving final act that walks the line between hope and hopelessness with rare skill.
As Edna, Australian screen and theatre great Robyn Nevin, delivers a bravura performance. She captures the insidious way dementia robs a once-proud person of their identity, while allowing embers of the character’s old self to occasionally flicker to the surface. Emily Mortimer is equally impressive as Edna’s daughter as is Bella Heathcoate, who takes another step towards seemingly inevitable movie stardom as the youngest family member. Their bond makes every twist and turn all the more unnerving.
By treating the subject matter with the gravity it deserves, Erika James conjures a horror film that permeates the darkest recesses of your mind. In turn, unrelentingly ugly and profoundly beautiful, Relic promises big things for the director and contributes to the revival of Australian cinema in 2020 along with mini-masterpieces True History Of The Kelly Gang, Judy & Punch and Babyteeth. Relic is now available on VOD. It’s only a matter of time before it garners a cult following like The Babadook.