Plowing new ground in the horror genre is a bit of a challenge. It’s almost impossible to watch a horror movie and not see things that have been used before. Yet this genre above all others has proven that smart, inspired filmmakers are still finding ways to take something familiar and make it their own. That’s what we get from director/co-writer Natalie Erika James and her new film “Relic”.
This American-Australian chiller has all the markings of your standard haunted house picture – creaky doors, bumps in the walls, eerie noises at night. But what separates “Relic” is the deeply human heart at its core. Everything in the movie from the family drama to its unsettling horror flows from the same raw emotional center and its brought to light through three absolutely stellar performances.
Emily Mortimer plays Kay, a workaholic who gets a phone call saying her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen for days. Kay and her twenty-something daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive out to her mother’s rural homeplace but find it empty. They file a police report, question neighbors, and form search parties but to no avail. The only real clues are in a number of Post-it notes scattered around the house. They range from common reminders (“Take my pills”) to more troubling warnings (“Don’t follow it”).
Through these early scenes James (and her co-writer Christian White) cleverly let us in on several key details. We learn that Edna has been showing signs of early-stage dementia. While talking with the police Kay reveals that she doesn’t regularly speak to her mother hinting at past family tension. There are also hints that Edna friendship with a neighborhood boy with Down syndrome has mysteriously soured.￼
And then Edna suddenly reappears – her hair disheveled, her feet caked with dirt and grime, and a fresh bruise on her chest. Even worse, she gives no indication to where she has been. She’s clear-minded and lucid one minute, lost and frustrated the next. Kay and Sam chalk it up to dementia because sadly that’s often our first impulse. But is there more going on than just a frail failing mind? Absolutely.
James’ movie is soaked in feelings of guilt and regret. Remorse over time wasted on family grudges and past traumas. Helpless attempts to make amends as a loved one deteriorates right before your eyes. Even worse is the sufferer’s loss of identity and crushing sense of isolation. This is most vividly seen in the house itself – a painful allegory for the devastating effects of dementia. DP Charlie Sarroff’s camera creeps from room to room with unsettling effectiveness capturing eerie signs that something is amiss. Black inky mold spreads across its walls (both symbolic and a wink to Japanese horror). And like Edna’s mind, the house grows increasingly cluttered, becomes harder to navigate, and slowly begins to collapse. Meanwhile, composer Brian Reitzell’s low ominous rhythms ensure we’re never fully at ease.
“Relic” isn’t a movie of big scares. Instead it burrows under your skin, patiently building and then sustaining a chilling sense of dread. It’s a savvy and assured debut from Natalie Erika James who covers some immensely personal ground that many will be able relate to. It’s cryptic final scenes could be an obstacle for some, but I appreciate its open-ended finish which (just like everything else in the movie) has a lot more going on under its surface. “Relic” premieres July 10th on VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS