Director: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Words – Daniel McMonagle
Nothing is more harrowing than experiencing the death of the ones we love. Relic, the feature debut of Australian-Japanese director Natalie Erika James, blends a haunted house story with body horror to delve into themes of death and decay.
Relic follows a mother and daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who set out to take care of Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in her countryside home. At first, Edna is nowhere to be found and Kay and Sam gradually realise that something is very wrong with her. The house has become dilapidated, walls are leaking and rotting, alarming post-it notes are scattered around the house and ominous pounding noises can be heard through the walls.
After a failed search party, Edna finally appears, but she is unable to explain where she has been or why she has suddenly developed a mysterious mark on her chest that starts to grow and spread to the rest of her body. From this point, we are slowly immersed in a world of portentous shapes, creeping mould spores and images of decomposition.
Robyn Nevin expertly performs Edna’s transformation from frightened and confused elderly woman into a violent and unpredictable creature who seems to possess unnatural physical strength. Sam is a warm and likeable character and Bella Heathcote gives a compelling performance as Edna’s grief-stricken granddaughter, but it is Emily Mortimer as Kay who stands out. Mortimer’s performance accurately captures the distressing emotions felt by anyone who has had to witness a loved one become a stranger.
Relic is a slow-paced, unnerving mood piece that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax. The art and production design are a worthy highlight: grotty interiors mixed with eerie diegetic sounds evoke a nauseating sense of place that oozes gothic atmosphere. Edna’s home doesn’t make geographical sense and the hidden corridors, contracting walls and creaky rooms create a pervading sense of claustrophobia throughout. Water constantly leaks and drips, the walls bang and fold into themselves and black mould spreads rapidly as Edna’s condition worsens. The cluttered, volatile and darkening house serves as a visual metaphor for Edna’s deteriorating mind.
There are echoes of Hereditary (which was released whilst Relic was being written) in this intergenerational horror. The film also shares similar themes with The Babadook – in particular, the way in which mental illness is depicted as a type of possession. Moreover, there are echoes of David Cronenberg’s early body horror films, particularly The Brood.
Relic is ultimately an exploration of what we inherit from our families and how we process grief, a metaphor for diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The bond between the three generations of women make the ending unusual for a horror film as it moves from terror to empathy, climaxing with a final scene that stays with you long after the film is over.