[WIHM] The Horror of Dementia in ‘Relic’

Movie Review – Relic (2020)
IFC Midnight

A photograph of my Nana was recently rediscovered in the attic amongst a trove of family pictures and relics that had been boxed away for years. There were photographs that summoned tucked away memories – the way the living room used to look, old stuffed animals that accompanied my childhood, the stack of Disney videos we used to have. The photograph of Nana reflects my memory of her perfectly. She is in her kitchen, surrounded by a clutter of mismatched crockery and cups, holding an old kettle which she uses to fill a hot water bottle. A mundane task, but she does it with a smile on her face. She is wearing the same red and green knitted jumper that she wore for years (often over two or three other jumpers); it was always covered in dog hairs. I can almost smell from this photograph the musty wool of the jumper and hot rubber of the water bottle. She was Daisy Kirkwood. Mrs Beattie. Mum. Nana.

I was around twelve years old when my Nana was diagnosed with vascular dementia, which is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. Brain cells are destroyed which has a gradual effect on the person’s ability to concentrate, their mood, and their memory. By the time my Nana was in her late eighties she was barely recognisable as her plump, smiling self – a woman with infinite patience and strength who raised three children by herself when her husband died of leukaemia, and who was adored by those who sat in her primary school classroom for the decades that she was a teacher. Over the years she became thinner and smaller and more easily confused. We all became less recognisable to her too.

There are currently an estimated 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. It is unsurprising then that it is becoming an increasingly explored topic across film genres with Dick Johnson is Dead (Documentrary) and Supernova (Drama) being examples of films from last year which tackle the subject. Dementia has also noticeably entered the horror genre, with its effects being the central themes of horror films such as Harold’s Going Stiff (2011), Dementia (2014), and Sanzaru (2020). However, Relic (2020), the feature film debut of Japanese-Australian director, Natalie Erika James, is one of the first horror films I have seen to convey the true terrors and nuances of the degenerative disease. Drawing on her own experiences of watching a grandparent suffering from dementia, James relays the everydayness of the unease created by ageing and memory loss.

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Relic centres on three generations of women as they face the mortality of the ageing grandmother, Edna (Robyn Nevin). At the start of the film, the mother Kay (Emily Mortimer) and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to the grandmother’s remote house after receiving a phone call that she has gone missing. They arrive to a derelict house and stay to begin the search for her. Like in haunted house narratives, the large, isolated family home, tucked away amongst some forestry somewhere outside of Melbourne, is a living, breathing character. The cupboards and spare rooms are loaded with boxes, stuffed full of decades’ worth of family memories and possessions. The house already feels familiar, like everything has been in its place for a long time. But some things are off. Kay frowns at the armchair in the living room which is facing the wrong way and post-it notes are scattered throughout the house as reminders to “take pills” and “turn off tap” – something I found recognisable from the “close fridge” and “flush toilet” signs that were pinned up in my Nana’s house.

Decay is everywhere. Inside the house, Kay and Sam arrive to find a bowl of rotting fruit and black mould spreading aggressively across the walls. Outside, the autumn leaves, drained of their bright colours, are brown and damp, collecting into a sludge in the garden. Despite the muted muddy palette of colours throughout the film, viewers are given a sensory overload. You can almost smell the rotting carcass of the grandmother’s house and feel the cold dampness that seeps out of the decaying walls. The accompaniment of Brian Reitzall’s creaky and disorientating score at times makes it feel like the house is underwater.

When Edna eventually reappears in the house two days later, seemingly unfazed, she has no recollection of where she has been. Apart from a deep bruise on her chest, the doctor finds little to be concerned about after examining her. Increasingly muddled, she complains that someone or something was trying to get into the house. Kay logically puts this down to her mother’s age and begins searching for a care home. For most of the film, James treads the line between the supernatural and the common symptoms of dementia. Is there really some sort of presence in the house as Edna claims? Is the house haunted? Has she been possessed? Or is it Edna’s paranoia and loss of self?

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James’ portrayal of dementia is powerfully detailed. Throughout the film Kay and Sam witness Edna’s obscure behaviour. She throws away food, household items are left in odd places and in one scene Edna even tries to destroy family photographs by chewing them up and spitting them out. There is nothing supernatural or haunted about these actions. I remember finding whole packages of food in my Nana’s bin and she was once found tearing up old photographs from the collection she used to pull out to show us at every family gathering. Yet, Relic’s suggestion of the supernatural heightens the very real horror of losing someone in such a way. The reason dementia works so well at the core of  this horror film is because of the real feeling of unease that comes with witnessing someone lose their sense of self and the uncanniness and disorientation found in a house which was once completely familiar and at the heart of family get-togethers.

It is this ambiguity between the reality of dementia and the supernatural that makes Relic so horrifying. In one scene, Kay and Edna sit down to eat dinner. After not responding to Kay’s question, Edna looks up and gives her daughter a long, cold, unrecognising stare, resembling that of someone whose state of possession is about to be revealed. And yet, it is the stare of someone who no longer recognises their loved ones.

The dynamic of the family emergency allows James to effectively explore the intergenerational relationships between the three women. The roles of mother and daughter are reversed between Kay and Edna as Edna becomes increasingly dependent on the care of others. “Isn’t that the deal?” Sam says to her mum when she finds out that Kay is considering a care home. “They change your nappies and then you change theirs”. This cycle is reiterated by the ending of the film. Sam spots on her mother’s own shoulder the same dark mark that was found on Edna’s chest which grows larger and more supernaturally possessive through the course of the film. Just like a horror slasher villain who will not die or a belated sequel where the next generation of victims are terrorised, Relic leaves us with the dread of what comes next. 

by Rosie Beattie

Rosie (she/her) graduated last year with a Masters degree in Film Curation at the University of Glasgow. She is passionate about cinema, film history, and feminism and her favourite film is Some Like It Hot. She is the producer of Unmellow Movies, a new film collective based in Glasgow which can be found on Twitter and Instagram. Rosie can be found on Twitter here.

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