Who’s afraid of fear? The real-life horrors of Relic

Natalie Erika James’s terrifying debut feature Relic sees three generations of women brought together following the disappearance of the grandmother, who has dementia. But what happens when the genre metaphors of ‘Horror’ become diversions from real-life horrors?

27 October 2020

By David Thomson

Sight and Sound

▶ Relic is on BFI Player and other digital platforms.

You do understand? The panic attack we’ve all been having these past months is not going to end or find a way back to ‘normalcy’. So the idea of an ‘attack’ is suspenseful but sentimental; it should be retired.

Anxiety has taken over the climate, and if I think of ‘Horror’ in that light, then in a ‘Horror Issue’ I feel my team spirit dwindling. Isn’t it tactless now to set out to make us afraid? Fear had me at hello.

But Relic caught my interest. I had enough sense of women in Australia being on a cutting edge. There was Jennifer Kent, of course, with The Babadook (2013) and The Nightingale (2018).

I would add Kitty Green because I think The Assistant (2019) is about a woeful maiden caught in a castle where a monster lurks, unseen but heard and trembled over. The Assistant doesn’t have what connoisseurs could rank as scary stuff, but the strained face of Julia Garner is a measuring rod for apprehension – it’s like the face of a spectator in the dark.

So, though I knew nothing about her, Natalie Erika James was not a surprise. Japanese-Australian, based in Melbourne, Relic is her first feature film. I’m not saying she is or is going to be great – I don’t know; I’m not sure that ‘great’ is really available now. I suspect Relic is caught between its competing desire to qualify for a Horror greenlight and to present a more pervasive, everyday unease.

Director Natalie Erika James on the set of Relic (2020)

What hooked me about Relic was a concern that haunts many families: it’s the principle that, if they once looked after us, what is our duty now when they are on the brink of deterioration? So Relic has three women, or one tripartite female.

You feel that unison early on, in a plaintive search scene as a daughter and a granddaughter call out, “Mum”, and “Gran”, the words echoing in the woods, and telling us that looking for a lost relative can take many forms. A time may come when this granddaughter will search for her mum, uncertain whether that parent is absent-minded or deranged, when the ‘going away’ is an unshakeable threat.

Bella Heathcote as Sam

The mum is Kay (Emily Mortimer, late forties), the granddaughter is Sam (Bella Heathcote, early thirties) and they are calling for gran, Edna (Robyn Nevin, mid-seventies). Edna lives in the country outside Melbourne, within driving reach, but all alone. And her house is large for an elderly woman on her own.

From the outset it seems likely that the house is a character, with rooms or closets bulging with memory and the corridors we are afraid to shut off because that feels like an abandoning of self.

The film begins with Kay and Sam driving to the country house because they’re worried. Edna has gone quiet, as if quiet is an unnatural state for anyone her age. The house appears empty, but it aches with odd sounds or an air of breathing. Houses in ‘horror’ are often more nervous than real abodes, but if you have time and solitude you may have noticed that edifices can creak or sigh as much as their occupants.

The younger women search around; they call a neighbour and speak to the police. Kay seems on edge (the place where Emily Mortimer the actress often lives), in fear of having been neglectful. Then her mother reappears; they find her in the kitchen cooking. A nurse checks her out and she seems unhurt, apart from a bruise on her chest. The real issue is whether Edna understands where she went. At moments she can turn a hard, suspicious gaze on her daughter and her granddaughter as if she has never known them.

Robyn Nevin as Edna

This only rates as lower-case horror, but it can be more than dismay for younger relatives who feel a parent is losing control of their thoughts.  How much greater the dismay for the older people wondering whether normal loss of short-term memory is a prelude to dementia. In America, ten per cent of us over 65 have what is called dementia – and that includes those said to be in charge of the nation.

‘Dementia’ is not just a medical description; it is a title sometimes, an italic cry, a term that conjures up Victorian asylums. ‘Cognitive dysfunction’ feels calmer or more manageable, more correct. But Horror is reluctant to give up the vibrato of ‘Dementia’. That heightened stress is our way of describing people like Mrs Bates – though her memory is still sharp.

Away from Her (2006)

One is not supposed to say too much about the plot of a film like Relic, in case that ‘spoils the fun’. We know how movie suspense is meant to function, but honouring those proprieties can spoil the chance of larger ideas or more challenging experience.

I’m only offering Relic as a promising debut: the actresses are first rate; there is a monstrousness in the story which I find distracting silliness; it leads the picture away from a more searching study of how lost mindfulness undermines attachment – things so well treated in Sarah Polley’s exemplary Away from Her (2006).

Never mind, there are exceptional benefits in Relic, most of all the idea of enlarging and dramatising the house itself in a conjuring up of claustrophobia – I’ll say no more, but I have felt so constrained at every viewing of the film, I can’t sit still. (Chronic irrational movement can be a symptom of cognitive dysfunction.)

Great credit to the production design of what was plainly a cheap movie. Then there is the very end, reaching an unexpected and moving family triptych in which the sounds of those searching calls in the woods become a tree of uncertain life.

Even so, I wonder what the writer-director was seeking. You might say – as is common in reviewing horror films – that the lurid screen horror is a metaphor for deeper anxiety. So the forces in the house are unleashed demons, and our dread of them? Maybe, or maybe the genre metaphor is a way of not going deeper in human examination. That’s where my worry surfaces – that Horror can be a strategy for diverting proper fear.

It happened one night, after re-viewing Relic, that I crossed over on Netflix to look at Immigration Nation. This is a six-part documentary, directed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, on the work of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in the Trump years.

On the one hand, it is ‘documentary’, actuality or its appearance, roughly filmed and recorded. On the other hand, we know now that documentary is just another genre. So it was in the spirit of metaphor that I found myself looking at Immigration Nation as an allegory for mindless cruelty and computerised indifference (Invasion of the Ice Snatchers) taking over modern America. These are the functionaries who detain illegal immigrants and separate parents from children – the high season for outrage over this was about a year ago; it has settled into place or forgetfulness now.

Immigration Nation (2020)

So I watched for the blank-faced agents in the show as versions of the Body-Snatched or Living Dead. And some framework of genre fiction made it easier to accept that these agents had agreed to be filmed, to talk for the cameras, and to air their theories of vacant irresponsibility. They had to be actors – wouldn’t real people have been ashamed to admit to such things?

But sooner or later, I had to admit that these ICE agents were the real numb thing, paid by the government, charged to ‘protect’ our border as a way of turning a blind eye to the decay in our interior. This was authentic horror, by which I mean not just the unpeeling of skin or the vision of demons, but the inescapable proof of degradation in our society and our being.

In my first draft, I had called these agents ‘thugs’. That was a measure of my anger, but I realised that it was not just unduly prejudicial, but inaccurate. I hate the ICE agency and so I read the blank faces as brutish, unenlightened and dismally obedient to cold orders. But in another documentary the same faces might be ‘salt of the earth’, the basic ordinary folk from a director like Capra – though Capra could be terrified by that crowd.

Here’s my point: the agents in Immigration Nation sound like Germans after 1945, the people who could hardly credit what had happened or how they had gone along with it all. Immigration Nation is partisan: it believes ICE is a Very Bad Thing, and one more instance of what THEY are doing to US. I share that feeling; and I suspect most readers will too. But there is a deeper regret to own up to: that under ordinary pressures of survival, so many of us will behave badly. We will compromise and pick up the tricks of looking the other way while crossing our fingers that it will all turn out well – like a movie.

We may not be blessed with virtue, and we may have misled ourselves in a melodramatic scheme of goodies and baddies. Let me place this worry in the light of our classic of horror, the picture that lifted the genre away from Dracula-ism and relocated it to the backroads of Arizona and eastern California, the way from Phoenix to Fairvale in Psycho (1960).

Psycho (1960)

That was a business coup and a naked tribute to the god Gotcha! It opened a way for violence and menace, worthy things in ‘entertainment’ but not necessarily of benefit to our real experience. But Psycho precedes its infamous shower rite with a lengthy, beautifully written and acted sequence – the cold supper scene – that outlines the traps in which two people are living. Marion, too poor to live with the man she loves. And Norman who is overshadowed by the voice of his mother – we hear her, so particular and aggressive, long before the letdown of seeing her.

Of course, for the 1960 coup, Norman had to slaughter Marion, and that set off a rollercoaster of scary movie that has not slackened. But the humdrum anguish of those two was brushed aside – including the subtle psychic struggle of parents and children.

No one disputes the malicious audacity or the melodramatic game-change of 1960, but if we are still watching Psycho can’t its situation live anew? Go back to that supper scene, and feel the uncovering of two trapped people whose minds have no reliable grasp of being Good or Safe or Home.

What impresses me in Relic is its intimation of a similar anxiety. And that is as disturbing as the prospect that when we are Safe again, when Normalcy returns, ‘after Trump’, we face enormous problems of survival and decency, most of which are rooted in human insecurity and its refusal to face reality.

‘Horror’ can be a terrific genre, as transporting as the musical, but don’t let its zest mask the everyday advance of our common horrifics.

Further reading