A daring and delicate debut from director Natalie Erika James, Relic is a horror film which is as consuming as its subject matter. It has now permanently lodged itself into my very psyche with a petrifying precision.
It tells a simple yet sinister story of three generations: a grandmother, mother, and daughter who find themselves all under the same roof. They are there after said grandmother disappeared for several days and upon returning is now undergoing a precipitous decline. Mother and daughter are left to make the difficult decision of how best to care of her while the world around them begins to descend into nightmare.
What follows is a film that feels like a spiritual successor to The Babadook by focusing on the real internal fears about losing one’s family, in this case to dementia, which manifest themselves as external fears. Even such a comparison, already one of high praise, still can’t capture the unique vision of Relic which becomes a beast all its own.
It is the best type of horror, the one which speaks to something deeply real and authentic. Where the tension and scares come from a irrefutable investment in characters who are so well written, it hurts to see them face down real life terror. Not only does the dexterous film develop an elegiac empathy with these characters, it is a masterclass in building tension.
Every scene, from hauntingly persistent visions to an unsettling conversation with a neighbor, ratchets up the stakes with such a light touch you don’t notice until it sneaks up on you that it is already too late.
Both mother and daughter, while they frequently disagree about the right method, care deeply for the eldest family member. They want to do the right thing, they are just struggling on how to go about doing it. The emotional core of this struggle is a devastating one as it isn’t afraid to reveal the trauma which can come from seeing a family member disappear before your eyes until they barely resemble a shell of their former selves.
Emily Mortimer in particular as the mother, Kay, brings so much to this role that it is hard to imagine it being anyone else. One scene where she is visiting a home with plans to move the grandmother, Edna, injects a subtle sadness to the occasion. Her breaking down in the parking lot as she is hit with the weight of the decision she has to make is captured from a distance but could not be more intimately heart wrenching.
With the risk I speak this into existence, Mortimer may follow in the path of Toni Collette or Lupita Nyong’o by giving a brilliant performance only to go largely overlooked due to her role being in a horror film. Yet it is these parts in horror movies which make them transcend genre and become just as capable of being as moving as any other drama. Mortimer instills her character with such compassion and care that it is impossible not to feel as she does.
The same is true of Robyn Nevin as Edna and Bella Heathcote as the daughter Sam. They have some of the more heartfelt and even sweet interactions which provide an occasional respite from the horror. Of course, this respite is due to the fact that their relationship as grandmother and granddaughter doesn’t carry the same baggage that Kay does with her mother. Edna even gives Sam a ring which is deceptively charming exchange between the two.
This only makes it all the more tragic that this respite is short lived and quickly devolves into darkness.
Above all else, the most praiseworthy aspect of the film is how disciplined and detail oriented it all is. Every shot is deliberate, every cut a perfect punctuation. On a technical level, there isn’t anything out of place and this commitment to craft is a standout. It feels not like the first feature film from a director, but more akin to the film of a self assured artist. This is reason enough to be in suspense for whatever James as a director hopes to work on.
Not only did James direct the film, but she also co-wrote it as well. The construction of the story is similarly nuanced by teasing out little details of the family which is so natural feeling it is brilliant to behold. There are some brief hangups towards the end which regrettably dull this brilliance though only slightly. As the characters get lost in the house, so too does the forward narrative momentum in an extended sequence which could have used some trimming.
This is the smallest possible of problems and doesn’t derail what is an otherwise well put together piece of work. Any salvation the film needed is found in the thoughtful conclusion. It is not hyperbole to say the ending is one of the most compelling conclusions to a horror film in recent memory. There is much to grapple with and the final frames are the quietest yet speak volumes about what we will do for family we love.
Relic is both powerful and painful as it finds a profound catharsis in its commitment to the honesty being put to screen.
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Director: Natalie Erika James
Running time: 1:29
Rated: R for some horror violence/disturbing images, and language
Available: Via VOD on July 10.