Film & Television

‘Relic’: The Demon is Dementia in this Sophisticated Horror Debut

Ten years before his death, the horror film pioneer Wes Craven said, “Everybody’s making horror films and, to me, not especially well. I don’t know if it’s the corporations taking over studios or what it is. But it really calls for some young filmmakers to come in and just do something from their hearts.”

If there was ever a horror film made from the heart, it’s writer/director Natalie Erika James’s haunting feature debut, Relic

“I started writing Relic when I was visiting my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s,” James recently told Guardian Australia. “And on this trip, it was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was. It made me think about the ways in which, over time, her relationship with my mother and me had shifted.” The young filmmaker, who is Australian and Japanese, grounds her film in the matrilineal relationship of Edna (esteemed Australian stage actress and director Robyn Nevin), Kay (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns), and Sam (Bella Heathcote, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women). Each experiences the all-too-real horrors of aging and dementia in her own way.

The film starts with a domestic scene that transitions from warm to chilling. Christmas lights glow on and off in a cozy home. But, as the camera pulls back, we see the elderly Edna with her long gray hair loose about her naked shoulders and back. She stares into the room, vague and disassociated, as sinister shadows creep about the edges. Is her home haunted? Or are we being issued an invitation into her mind?

Daughter Kay and granddaughter Sam arrive from Melbourne because of a concerned call from a neighbor. Edna hasn’t been seen for days, and he’s worried. When they arrive, there’s no trace of the older woman, but the shadowy house is filled with disturbing clues. Fruit sits rotting in a bowl in the kitchen. Kay’s childhood bedroom is filled with hoarded keepsakes and trash. Carved flesh-toned candles hang half-finished like skinned game around a small work area. Black mold festers in corners. Extra locks have been installed on both exterior and interior doors. And, adhesive notes throughout the house advise “Flush toilet,” “Take pills,” and, more ominously, “Don’t follow it.”

There’s a brief scene at a police station, where Kay guiltily admits she hasn’t spoken with her mother in several weeks. Members of the community join together to search the surrounding woods. Kay is haunted by dreams and sleeps close to her daughter on a couch downstairs, while the house itself seems to breathe and groan, and literally bump in the night. 

Then, one morning Edna is back. She’s disheveled, with dirty feet, blood on her dress, and a large, sinister bruise on her chest. “Where have you been?” Kay demands. “I suppose I went out,” her mother responds. “Tea?”

Over the following days, Edna slips in and out of reality. Kay considers moving her into an assisted living facility. But Sam, who, unbeknownst to her mother, has quit her job and doesn’t plan to return to university, asks if she can stay with and care for her grandmother. One moment, Edna is kind and gives Sam a ring, only to soon after accuse her of stealing it and wrench it violently off her finger. Kay finds her mother on her hands and knees burying family albums in the dirt. Kay and Sam adjust to the waking nightmare of Edna’s growing dementia, but Edna alternates between terror—insisting Kay check under the bed before she agrees to sleep—and disdain. When she’s forbidden to leave, she quips, “House arrest it is, then.” Meanwhile, an evil presence continues to grow in the house.

Whether the house is truly haunted or the eerie, unexplained incidents are manifestations of the cobwebs growing in Edna’s mind is never clear. Hidden doors, tunnels, and stairways appear in the backs of closets and Sam, determined to solve the mystery, gets lost in a maze of memorabilia and mold behind the walls, which close in on her until she is hysterically crawling, looking for an escape. An act as simple as taking a bath becomes an exercise in terror as Kay tries to break down the bathroom door while her mother lets the water overflow and frantically claws at the bruise on her chest. These scenes, which escalate dramatically in tension, don’t make sense to the viewer and perhaps make even less sense to Kay and Sam. But the desperation is unmistakable.

The first two-thirds of Relic burn like a slow fuse, and the last act is truly terrifying. A monster appears, finally, but not in a form you’re likely to have seen before. And in the film’s finale, which I will most certainly not give away, James achieves the near impossible: blending sheer horror with absolute and selfless tenderness. The supernatural meets the human experience in an unforgettable final scene.

As James explains, “The film talks specifically about Alzheimer’s, but it also applies to anyone who is experiencing loss in all its forms — in having to parent their own parents, or seeing their decline. It’s a really emotionally fraught situation because there’s often the sense of the grandparents needing help, but being unwilling to ask for it as well . . . There’s a sense of simmering resentments between the three [characters]: the idea of one family member’s expectations, another’s guilt, and a judgment of inaction.”

Relic debuted at Sundance last January, where it was met with acclaim; Variety declared it “impressively scarifying.” Reviewers compared it to the recent female-led metaphorical films Hereditary, The Witch, and The Babadook, as well as other “smart horror” masterpieces, Get Out and A Quiet Place

James’s script (co-written with novelist Christian White) is taut and appropriately lean. (What is there to say, really, as you watch a house and a person deteriorate in front of your eyes?) Charlie Sarroff, Denise Haratzis, and Sean Lahiff deserve praise for cinematography and editing. And the music by Brian Reitzell and sound design by Robert Mackenzie phenomenally create a fourth character, giving the house its own relentless, pulsing voice.  

The cast is perfection, especially Nevin, who seems to both observe and embrace her own growing monstrousness. Mortimer’s Kay clearly lives in a world of stress and is pushed to her very limit here, unwilling at first to even name her mother’s condition. (“She forgets things,” she insists.) And Heathcote’s Sam walks us slowly through her awakening, from a careless and somewhat judgmental innocence to the realization that she too will eventually decay like her grandmother and mother before her. 

Relic bridges the gap between fictional horror and the ultimate horror of real life, which is diminishment and death. There are some (very) scary moments, as well as scenes that will feel familiar to anyone who has watched a parent or grandparent age.

James sees an opportunity to bring these issues of human reality to life onscreen. “It’s a really exciting time because audiences are more receptive to the idea that horror can be the perfect space to talk about social or deep, emotional issues in an accessible way. I think we’re seeing an influx of films stand up on their artistic integrity, as well as being these thrilling genre rides. The meeting point between the two is my favorite type of film – and certainly the films I want to continue making.” She is currently working on her next feature, Drum World, which will leverage the horror genre to examine an unconventional look at motherhood.

In 1981, author Stephen King wrote, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” 

Natalie Erika James would surely agree. Her impressive debut, Relic, deals with one of life’s “real” horrors in an utterly fresh and genuinely frightening way. 

I, for one, can’t wait to see what this talented young voice does next.

Relic is available to rent on Amazon. (Take my advice, though: watch it during the day.)


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