LFF REVIEW: ‘Relic’ (2020) is an Unfurling Terror of the Haunted House as Diseased and Dying Mind

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“A film that, in every frame, feels likes its waiting for you around the corner”

Mental illness is ripe for horror analogy and there is nothing scarier than losing your mind – a stark reality that many, if not first-hand, will experience at some point in their life. As it stands, there is no cure for dementia, it is one of the most frightening diseases in the world. In her impressive directorial debut, Natalie Erika James has made a film that, in every frame, feels likes its waiting for you around the corner. In much of the same way that Hereditary (2018) explored grief to a suffocating, visceral level, Relic is a prickly examination of unconditional love in the face of dementia as a relentless, all-consuming terror. The scares are minimal, with a heavy reliance on atmosphere, but stick with it and you’ll find this stylish horror film wanders close to home and burrows underneath the skin.

After a disconcertingly festive opening that leans into the tried and tested formula of an overflowing bathtub as a signal for something awful taking place, Relic efficiently sets out its stall of permeating dread. Brian Reitzell’s thudding drone of a score drapes the film in tension and further hammers the point home. This film is going to take it slow. Its scares aren’t going to jump out, they are going to fester and bloom – just as dementia does.

After Edna (Robyn Nevin) fails to answer worried phone calls, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive out to the house to investigate. When they get there, they’re surprised to the find the house falling to ruin; a fruit bowl rots on the counter, the walls are consumed with a poisonous looking black mould and Edna is nowhere in sight. Convinced that she’s probably wandered off somewhere and forgotten her way back, Kay and Sam decide to nestle in until into their grandmother shows up. As they clean the house, they find post-it notes stuck all over the place, a sign of Edna’s unreliable memory and perhaps something altogether more insidious.  “Don’t follow it” one of them reads. Eventually, after a few bangs in the night and wandering tours of empty corridors, Edna reappears, dishevelled and disorientated. A black bruise has blossomed across her chest: clumsy fall or evil leaking from inside out? This is not the Edna that Kay recognises, nor is it the Edna that the old woman herself remembers.

The house is a metaphor for Edna’s mental state, riddled with a creeping infection that darkens the once familiar walls, morphing into a shell of its former self – a relic. Edna, too, has become infested with something nasty. She flits between caring grandmother and, quite harrowingly, an afraid but scary woman that’s changing into something nobody can recognise or help. Kay has not been the most attentive daughter; her relationship with Edna a decaying wound all on its own. All three women, standing in for three different generations, are terrific. In a scene of surprising heart and unsettling force, they curl together side by side, a distorted picture of Darwinism and the cost of generational heritage.

Nevin handles Edna with a difficult, fragile blend of a woman terrified out of her mind and one that feels capable of hurting anybody who gets too close. In the film’s most distressingly all-too-real scene, she is a tortured prison of despair and loneliness. “Where has everybody gone?” she cries out to Kay in a moment of desperation. Kay shouts back, “I’m here, mum, I’m here,” and Edna seems to respond, but how much she really understands is an unsettling mystery. Whatever it lacks for in terms of out-right scares, it’s the film’s moments of humanity that frighten the most. Both Emily Mortimer and Heathcote are brilliant in their respective roles, displaying love and compassion in different ways. Taken with the rest of the film’s metaphorical state, these women are practically a timeline of the aging process. Heathcote brings much needed vigour and warmth to the wintry ruin, meanwhile Mortimer gets better and better as it goes along, sinking all the way into her character and to the deepest, darkest pits of daughterly affection.  

The film is a slow-burn, only coming to life in its frenetic final act, which in turn acts as stunning showcase for Danielewski’s form-bending novel House of Leaves (200), where the walls of Edna’s home start folding, pathways to dead-ends open up, and one house becomes another: the real house, the one that’s been growing secretly in the dark, and the one that’s about to take over. Narratively, this aspect of the film has problems, but through the excellent performance and tremendous production design, Relic overcomes its shortcomings with the sheer conviction of its haunted house as a metaphor for a diseased and dying mind.

Director: Natalie Erika James

Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote

Release Date: 2020

Featured image courtesy of IFC MIDNIGHT