Relic finds fear in a labyrinthine house of horrors – and in intergenerational illness

Director Natalie Erika James’s feature debut is a dread-filled horror of the human condition, starring Emily Mortimer as one of three generations of women affected by grandmother Edna’s dementia.

30 October 2020

By Anton Bitel

Sight and Sound

▶ Relic is on BFI Player and other digital platforms.

Edna (Robyn Nevin) is missing. A concerned policeman has summoned her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Kay’s own young adult daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) from Melbourne to the family property in Creswick, 80 miles north, but they cannot find any trace of Edna there, only some strange noises coming from the walls. Then, one morning, Edna reappears as abruptly as she had disappeared, without saying where she has been, but insistent that someone – or something – has been coming into the house for her.

In truth, Edna had already been missing for a while, her mind and memory drifting into old age, forcing Kay to face difficult decisions over how best to provide care in this time of terminal transition. Meanwhile the property, in the family for generations, has a grim history of loneliness, abandonment and despair built into its very architecture, gradually making everything disappear.

Natalie Erika James’s feature debut, Relic is expanded (and gender-switched) from her short film Creswick (2017) – also co-written with Christian White. It conjures the spirit of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), which also used haunted-house tropes to expose the creaking, cracking structure of a matriarchy in crisis. This family’s inheritance, though, is not madness, but the more basic deterioration, physical and mental, of old age.

James proves unnervingly adept at introducing dread to this old dark house through off-camera noises, canted angles, the seamless incursion of Kay’s nightmares into the narrative and, ultimately, the emergence of a horrific, aggressive, wheezing creature from within Edna that Kay will insist is “not her any more”.

Bella Heathcote as Sam, Robyn Nevin as Edna and Emily Mortimer as Kay in Relic

The real bogeyman in Relic, far more terrifying than any genre monster, is the decline and death that are part of the human condition. As Kay and Sam watch it coming, and we watch them watching, the dark rot gradually staining the house and its occupants serves, no less than the family’s hand-me-down relics (the widowed Edna’s wedding ring and the stained-glass window that once belonged to the separate cottage of Kay’s great grandfather), as a macabre memento mori.

The great-grandfather’s demise is seen in Kay’s dreams – a slow rotting death, in isolation from the rest of his family. “Apparently his mind wasn’t all there in the end, and nobody knew how bad it was,” Kay tells Sam. “I don’t think he was cared for like he should have been, you know.”

The manner of his passing has left a psychological scar, if not a curse, down the generations – and even if that cottage has long since been torn down (“I was happy to see it go,” Kay says, “Mum used to threaten to lock me in it when I was being a brat”), its window has been preserved and incorporated into the front door of Edna’s house, as a physical reminder of the anxieties about ageing and neglect that have become a part of this family’s tradition.

Her mind fading and her body showing signs of dark decay, Edna herself appears to be next in line for her grandfather’s fate – and Kay now has nightmares where her own mother replaces her great-grandfather in the same old cottage, alone and unloved.

Relic (2020)

Relic itself falls into a relatively recent tradition of films – including Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), Keith Wright’s Harold’s Going Stiff (2011), Perci Intalan’s Dementia (2014), Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases (2014), Mike Testin’s Dementia (2015) and its sequel-in-name-only Dementia Part II (2018), Jordan Graham’s Sator (2019) and Xia Magnus’s Sanzaru (2020) – whose horror is rooted in our contradictory feelings about support for the elderly and the addled.

This has been a largely post-millennial trend in horror, reflecting the break-up of the family and the outsourcing of care that have come to mark our age. It is an issue so deeply riddled with personal feelings of anguish and guilt as to lend itself perfectly to the discomfiting confrontations of genre; and while it is easy to project these anxieties on to previous generations, their legacy – as James makes all too clear – will eventually visit us all.

The climax of Relic takes place in a maze of impossibly large cupboards, paradoxical corridors and shrinking crawl-spaces, as the spaces of Edna’s home reorganise themselves into a cluttered, confused labyrinth of lost memories and dementia-stained detritus, all reflecting the crumbling interiors of their owner’s mind and body.

The final sequence is harrowing precisely for its tenderness; James brings the same kind of emotional intelligence to horror that her fellow countrywoman Jennifer Kent did in The Babadook (2014), showing that the monster of mortality must be accommodated and loved, for it will eventually take everyone in succession. The result is creepily affective, hitting hard anyone who has witnessed a grandparent or parent slowly vanish.

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