There is something distinctly unappealing about the houses of elderly, lesser-visited relatives. Peeling wallpaper, yellowed crockery and the whispered suggestion of piss stains; a kind of mustiness that recalls the slipping of decades past, heavily blanketed with forgotten perfumes. With her feature-length debut horror, Natalie Erika James invokes and twists these sensations to their exaggerated conclusions, examining in the process the excuses we give for not attending to our vulnerable dependants as often as we perhaps should.
In a boondocks town outside of Melbourne, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sammy (Bella Heathcote) have returned to their ancestral home. Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen for several days and a concerned neighbour has phoned it in. It’s not the first time Edna has had episodes but nothing like an outright disappearance. The house and backwoods are searched to no avail and so it is surprising and unsettling when Edna returns some days later, bruised and dirtied but acting like nothing has happened. She’s somewhat… changed, though. Whether this can be ascribed to progression of dementia during the “several weeks” since her daughter last visited or whether something darker lurks beneath is the central dilemma of the piece.
The metaphor of cognitive decline is inspired fodder for the horror treatment and, thankfully, it doesn’t play as cut and dry as “the real horror was mental illness all along!” However, in providing a broader approach, there is an overburdening of ideas that muddies the water and shows up those elements that could do with greater finessing. These slow burn, intimate family horror flicks live and die by how well they layer increasing levels of tension upon one another within a cohesive overall structure. To take the obvious comparison of Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) as an instructive example, there lies a perfectly constructed diorama of a film where all elements feed into one another like clockwork. In the pursuit of perfection, slight mistakes are therefore egregious. The sound design of Relic is particularly at fault, a speaker cone-rupturing intro giving way to a tone that tends big and overly-portentous in otherwise dead-end moments. Intriguing concepts and clues as to the overall picture are thrown up at such a rate that they cannot all quite resolve in time.
Not to say that there aren’t some expert flourishes. Twisting angles and stuffed corridors create the illusion of telescoping space and a sequence of in and out fades gives a sighing sensation from the mouldering, decrepit dwelling. The house takes on an animus of its own and it is unclear whether the delusions of Edna are ultimately feeding it or vice versa. This choice to display the sometimes toxic codependency between the elderly and their habitual homes as a major theme is a beguiling one and helps to establish Relic amongst the more cerebral horror offerings of contemporaries Ari Aster and Robert Eggers.
The family element is delivered well, too, with believable inter-generational casting helping to carry the point. Kay and Sammy have one of those first-name basis relationships that speaks to past troubles but are pragmatic enough to pull together when needed. Mortimer and Heathcote sketch this out well and Robyn Nevin capably manages the mood swings and mutterings that could speak to dementia but could also allude to something darker. In all, Relic is a great first showing for Natalie Erika James – a thoughtful horror that might lead you to visit your grandparents more often. Whilst you’re at it, maybe take some cleaning products with you and do something about that black mould… Before it’s too late.
Relic is showing at the BFI London Film Festival. A theatrical release is scheduled for Friday, October 30th. On VoD Monday, January 18th.