Intergenerational trauma and illness is a theme that’s been explored in horror films for decades, most recently in Ari Aster’s “Hereditary,” and Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James, pushes this unsettling sub-genre forward with “Relic,” her haunting feature-length debut about watching a loved one lose their grip on reality. Starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, and veteran theatre actress Robyn Nevin, “Relic,” also employs the haunted house genre to tell the story of three generations of women who must deal with the decline of their family home and the vanishing mental health of the family’s matriarch.
Set somewhere outside Melbourne in the country, in a decrepit family home, when the octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her distressed adult daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) rush home in a panic to try and find her. Soon enough, Edna mysteriously turns up out of nowhere with no recollection of where she’s been and covered in disconcerting black bruises on her chest. As the troubled Kay and Sam try to figure out how to take care of Edna—friction between them as the younger woman is just happy to have her grandmother back while Kay is extremely concerned— they are haunted by voices and visions signaling something is going very wrong. Meanwhile, the worse Edna’s dementia gets, the more terrifying and violent she becomes, just like the house, that’s creeping towards something more insidious inside.
Often times, the ideas of hereditable mental health issues are explored by creating tension and estrangement between distinctly different generations. While there is some early conflict in the levels of concern, “Relic” generally eschews that trope, and instead, these women understand one another with the issues at hand once Edna returns. Though they are sometimes scared by Edna’s behavior, Kay and Sam do not fear Edna’s illness. So, while, horrifying and tense throughout, “Relic” has a sharp awareness of stigmatizing mental illness and disorders like dementia and refuses to lean into easy exploitation. When Edna’s body, and mind, are decaying, the deterioration is approached with empathy.
James’ slow-burn horror is an incredible achievement of patience for a first feature, and the gradual suspense and increasing eventually builds to a monstrous climax in the end. James often frames her characters in close-ups with still backgrounds and lingers there for far too long, creating a transfixing atmosphere of discomfort. Through all her aesthetic craft, the house transforms into a physical manifestation of dementia with forgotten rooms, claustrophobic spaces, and walls that slowly close in on each other.
The menacing house comes alive and eventually becomes the fourth character. And the manifestation of dementia is everywhere visually. “Relic” is filled with delicate symbols that signal Edna’s mental decline. Everywhere in the house are candles that Edna made, slowly burning and melting away, just like her memories.
The main cast gives top-notch performances that respond and feed off each other. Nevin’s performance takes Edna beyond the terrifying old woman cliché with her delicately balanced performance imbuing sympathy with her character’s sadness. Mortimer is impeccable as always, portraying Kay’s struggle with helping and loving her mom even when she’s frightening. And Heathcote once again gives another convincing performance that brings the film and ideas of generational lineage and legacy altogether.
An impressive first feature, humanist in its compassionate consideration of mental fragility and the melancholy inherent in spiritual degeneration, yet never forgetting to deliver spooky frights, “Relic” could quickly go down as one of the best horror movies of the year when 2020 is over. It’s a terrific, unsettling subversion of the haunted house movie too, and the well-crafted horror ensures, James is a filmmaker all eyes will be glued on going forward. [A-]