‘Relic’ Shows us a Haunted House with an Aching Heart

3 generations of women are in a drab, gray living room. It is as thought they are being photographed for a family portrait. The grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin) sits on a grand armchair, her silver hair framing an incredibly stern look upon her face. Standing behind the chair is 40 something daughter of Edna, Kay (Emily Mortimer). She is pale and slim, with office wear and dark hair. She also looks displeased to be in the picture. Her 20 something daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) flanks the family on the fight, her hand on her grandmother's chair. She is wearing an orange sweatshirt and has a short, blonde-tipped bob and a vacant expression.

The elderly have been portrayed as creepy in numerous horror films, from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit to The Taking of Deborah Logan. Perhaps it is their withering bodies, the slow erosion of their mind, and the idea that they are closer to the other side that makes older folks inherently frightening. Relic explores this trope with a deep, emotional authenticity that does not sacrifice bone-chilling thrills. Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James processes her own personal traumatic experience with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s through this stunning debut. 

Relic has a simplistic, theatrical quality in its small cast of three female generations: a grandmother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), mother, Kay (Emily Mortimer), and a daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote). The film focuses on their tense but ultimately loving relationship. Kay and Sam travel from Melbourne to the ageing Edna’s stately country home in Victoria’s woodland area after the local police and neighbours inform them that she has been acting strangely—leaving water running for extended periods of time or disappearing into the woods for days on end.

Kay (Emily Mortimer), a 40 something woman stands in the rain in her blue raincoat. The shot is a close up of her face looking into the distance. Her dark hair is wet and a red turtleneck jumper is pulled up close to her chin.

They arrive to find her home in complete disarray—cluttered, dirty, and filled with strange pieces of evidence that reflect a clouded mind such as food left out for a pet that’s been dead for years and odd post-it notes reminding Edna about simple, everyday tasks. The production design nails the dizzying clutter of a senile senior’s jam-packed home while the cinematography captures the stifled, unsettling dimness of the uncomfortable environment. Strange occurrences eventually convince the mother and daughter that something is dangerously amiss.

Edna eventually shows up with no explanation about her whereabouts, nor the origins of a large black bruise in the centre of her chest. The doctor instructs Kay not to leave her disorientated mother alone in the house for a few days. Emily Mortimer brings her classic tight-lipped concern to the role as Kay struggles between her fears for her mother, professional ambitions, and the growing urge to place her mother in a nursing facility. Heathcoate and Nevin round out the trio with emotionally-charged and brilliantly nuanced performances. Kay and Sam eventually realise that Edna has been taken hold by a sinister force. All of this leads up to an impeccable finale and action set piece where the haunted house becomes a living nightmare as the walls lead to secret alleyways and rooms, the frightening maze eventually crumbling before their very eyes. This dark, terrifying labyrinth is reminiscent of a decaying mind’s inner workings. Relic has a remarkable pace, moving from the slow-burn of a domestic drama into an elaborate chamber of horrors, then ending with an emotionally gut-wrenching finale that twists a knife in your heart. James’ nimble transition from tense, pulse-pounding terror into a genuine moment of piercing heartache is truly exceptional. Relic is a powerful depiction of what it is like to watch someone you love age into their twilight years, leaving their true selves behind and transforming into someone you barely know. There is a mournful, sentimental core beneath the chilling scares that elevates Relic to something deeply profound—a work of art that will cut you to the bone.

Relic is available on VOD on July 10th

by Caroline Madden

Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day AfternoonBaby It’s YouInside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. 

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