Horror deals with fear of the unknown and in most cases that ‘unknown’ is death. Our own inevitable end is frightening on such a profound level that when horror films try to scare us, they usually have to dress it up with blood-crazed werewolves or giggling ghosts. In contrast Relic, by first time director Natalie Erica James, is all about that very human final end. Set in a bleak winter in the Australian countryside, our main character is the justifiably strained Kay (Emily Mortimer), who’s called back to her childhood home when her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing. Accompanied by her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), the pair move into Edna’s isolated house whilst they try to get some sense of where she might have disappeared off to. Edna has dementia and the apartment is covered in post-it notes to remind her to do basic tasks (along with not so basic ones such as “don’t follow it”), but why do so many of the doors have locks on the outside? What exactly is causing the banging that comes and goes from inside the walls and what does it have to do with the mould flourishing throughout the house?
This is a slow burn film that disdains jump-scares; the camera is forever catching something moving just within the frame whilst the house creaks and groans, but rather than an explosion the tension just keeps creeping higher. All of this is rather standard, if artfully done, horror fare but it’s when Edna turns up offering no explanation for where she’s been that Relic comes back into its own. Relic is clear-eyed about the deep struggles of caring for a family member with dementia, but as the film goes into the very real domestic horror of watching a loved one disappear into themselves in front of you, this is twinned with the supernatural element into something unique. Nevin is fantastic in the role of Edna, adroit at portraying the vivacious woman she was and still is on her good days, to the paranoid aggressive stranger she’s becoming as her grasp on reality slackens. The family dynamics between the three women are believably messy, even without the spectre of dementia and each character feels extremely lived in. It’s this grounded feel that means that when the explosion does come (impressively late in the game), it hits with force. The final third is a frenzied and existentially terrifying blast that both delivers the thrills along with a truly haunting ending that stuck with this reviewer for far longer than any rubber-masked ghoul ever could. Relic is a sobering and scary look at a monster that comes for us all.
Director: Natalie Erica James
Running Time: 89 minutes