I was trying to recall when last I saw an Australian horror film but how could I forget The Babadook, the film that started my whole obsession with horror? Relic is the debut feature by director Natalie Erika James and similar to The Babadook, the metaphor is the monster.
Kay (Emily Mortimer) gets a call from the local constable in her mother's town. Her mother Edna is missing and hasn't been seen by neighbours for several days. Kay drives to her mother's house with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) and they find no sign of Edna. The house is in disarray, with fruit rotting, beds unmade and a creeping dark substance on the walls. The days stretch out as Kay and Sam rattle about the house, unable to do anything but simply wait.
Suddenly, Edna (Robyn Nevin) returns home, seemingly lucid but unwilling to shed light on where she's been. And that's when the walls of the house begin to close in.
Relic is the kind of film that gets under your skin and is deeply unsettling. While normally I steer well clear of spoilers, I don't think I'd be able to do justice to this film and my thoughts on it without spoilers, so stop here if you haven't seen the film yet. My one-line review? It's a solid horror but with extremely dark cinematography, so recommend viewing on a big screen rather than a home cinema.
Relic is a film about the horror of dementia and it is portrayed visually and spatially through Edna's house. We see walls closing in, hoarding, decay, getting trapped in endless loops within the house, and rooms closed off, inaccessible and too scary to explore. It is a dark, claustrophobic horror dealing with the cloying feeling of dementia taking hold; the creeping rot as day by day, another part of the person, of their mind, is lost to the condition.
It's also equally a film about a haunted house and an extremely good one because there is nothing supernatural about it, no one running around for rushed, hackneyed explanations involving medieval Christian torture to explain the haunting (I'm looking at you The Banishing). It's an old woman, alone with her failing mind and her feeling of a palpable presence that has come to torment her.
The acting in Relic is superb, with Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote giving credence to the women they portray. Throughout the film there is a strong script and a subplot about the estranged relationships between mothers and daughters, the breeding resentments and the failure to communicate or understand one another.
The setting is great too, from the clutter of the house to the claustrophobic closets and those long, narrow passageways.
I wish I could have rated this film higher but the cinematography was incredibly dark, making it very difficult to see many of the scenes. With it being a slow-burn horror, I found my attention straying and I wish I could have better seen the impressive set design and special effects.
Relic is an excellent allegory for dementia with great performances and a devastating finale. I'm utterly conflicted because director Natalie Erika James has delivered a creepy and disturbing horror but the lighting means that I can only give three out of five stars. ★★★☆☆
A Shudder Exclusive, Relic will be released on 11 May 2021.