Written by: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Aging gracefully is an ideal, but it’s ultimately a myth. If we’re fortunate enough to endure late into old age, our faculties will inevitably break down, our bodies becoming slowly decaying husks of creaking bones and leathery flesh. The mind, too, will begin to wither with the passing years, coaxing more existential fears: just who are we if our memories fade and our brains betray us by twisting us into completely different people? One of the most heartbreaking—and terrifying—experiences in my life was watching cancer claim my grandfather’s body and mind before it reduced him to a shadow of the man I knew my entire life. Nature and disease don’t discriminate, but it felt like cruelty: at a certain point, the inevitable dread of the end slipped into something like relief because his release from such suffering was merciful. I’d say I hope to never experience it again; the reality is that I’m likely to do so more than once.
With her lyrical gothic horror film Relic, Natalie Erika James captures the totality of this bleak rite of passage, locking three generations of women in the ruthless grips of dementia and its fallout. It’s a haunted house movie where the unquiet spirits have the familiar face of a relative and lurk insidiously beneath that façade, working to slowly tear away at a beleaguered family eager for answers that never emerge. Because that’s how aging and disease work: they’re an inevitability that are simply embedded in our genes. Particulars and reasoning might technically exist, but they’re a matter of clinical fact and offer little comfort, a notion Relic casts in sharp relief.
When her mother Edna (Robin Nevin) goes missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) descend upon their decaying family home in search of answers. No clues present themselves: other than the post-it note reminders strewn across the house, there’s little evidence of Edna’s whereabouts. What’s more, the house is in utter disrepair, as its loud creaking sounds grow more disquieting with each passing night. Edna may be gone, but something seems to be lurking within these decrepit walls. The old woman’s sudden reappearance is more unsettling than it is relieving: she can’t account for where she’s been, as her dementia seems to have worsened since Kay last saw her. What’s more, those unquiet forces within the house begin to simmer with an even more sinister intent, prompting Kay and Sam to wonder if Edna has awakened some evil force.
Relic is a sharply realized haunted house picture, one that leans on all of the familiar hallmarks of the genre: mysterious noises, cryptic suggestions, fleeting visions, and cavernous, labyrinthine spaces. James’s take is especially minimalist to boot. While A24 is far from the first to utilize such a sparse approach (Robert Wise and The Haunting would like a word), they’ve so firmly established it as a house style in recent years that you feel compelled to draw a comparison any time you see one of these deliberately paced mood pieces. There are slow burns, and then there’s a movie like Relic, which mimics the sensation of watching a filmmaker carefully remove a matchstick before meticulously lighting a fuse with the faintest of flames. The blaze slowly creeps its way down in the form of ominous tracking shots, somber lighting, abstract nightmares, and a soundtrack that hums with a perceptible menace. It’s remarkable how effortlessly James creates the sensation of dread almost entirely through suggestion: Relic is one of those movies where the true threat seems to lurk off-screen, waiting to reveal its horrors.
Some less charitable viewers might argue that Relic is also another movie where nothing really happens. It’s true that the script doesn’t rely on much narrative development: a couple of asides involving a neighboring boy’s disturbing recent encounters with Edna hint provide some hints that her behavior has grown more erratic before this most recent incident, and much of the film’s drama revolves around the pressing issue of how to care for her. Dismissing this as “nothing happening” is wildly misguided considering, well, everything is happening: years of trauma, regret, guilt, and resentment mout, all of it unfolding in the space of three captivating performances that capture the desperation, confusion, and horror of reckoning with a loved one’s deterioration.
Nevin is particularly crucial as Edna, a role that finds her walking a tightrope of maternal warmth, confusion, paranoia, and anger. She often seems like a completely different person from one scene to the next: one moment, she’s gifting Sam a family heirloom, the next she’s violently reclaiming it because she’s forgotten the earlier exchange. As Kay seeks solutions involving a nursing home or Sam moving in full-time, Edna grows more bitter towards the younger duo, whose own tension bubbles to the surface during this ordeal. Without explicit dialogue, Mortimer and Heathcote depict a mother and daughter at a crossroads of sorts: much to her mother’s dismay, Sam hasn’t quite figured out her life yet, firmly wedging Kay in the middle of managing two crises. With a mother who can’t figure out where she’s come from and a daughter who can’t figure out where she’s going, she’s left to delicately tiptoe around both in search of answers that aren’t quick to arrive.
In fact, they never do arrive: Relic grows increasingly laconic just as most movies of this sort would be coming into focus. James and co-writer Christian White deftly subvert the typical verve of haunted house stories, which usually climax with some kind of mind-bending explanation or a cathartic purge of the spirits. Relic isn’t quite interested in either, though. When Sam finds herself trapped in the labyrinthine walls that impossibly sprawl in the bowels of the house, it feels like a prelude to a discovery. Surely, some Rosetta stone awaits below, waiting to tie together the cryptic clues strewn throughout: Edna’s ominous notes, the mysterious shack in Kay’s nightmares, the curious pane of stained glass on the door, and the black mold seeping through the house. But it soon becomes clear she’s just lost in this demented funhouse, and all of these clues are simply fragments shored against the ruins of a life that has nothing left to do except crumble. All that waits within the house is the grim realization that there are no answers. There’s no exorcising the inevitable.
Instead, Relic insists on acceptance, the final stage of grief, confronted here with a quietly devastating coda. The most affecting body horror intertwines the brutal trials of the flesh with the metaphysical terrors of the existential, and James nimbly stitches both together in a stunning but ghastly display of empathy. Relic somehow becomes literal and metaphorical all at once in this moment, laying bare its ultimate, sobering message: when the end comes, we may not recognize our loved ones, but we can provide whatever love and comfort we can offer. A devious final shot also doubles as one last twist of the knife, reminding us we’re also destined to endure this awful ritual throughout our lives. We might not know how or why it’ll happen, but, eventually, we all end up as rotting flesh, our decaying bodies now in need of the same comfort they once provided. This film shook me up in an existential way that few horror films do: I’m not exactly eager for new reminders of my impending mortality, and Relic is nothing if not a primal, bone-chilling whisper that creeps into the ear and skulks right down the spine, insisting upon the inevitable each step of the way.
Relic is now available on Blu-ray from IFC Midnight and Scream Factory.
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