Review – Natalie Erika James’s RELIC is One of 2020’s Best Horror Surprises

I had a neighbor, once, who suffered from dementia. As we lived next door for nearly ten years, we watched her mental state sadly degenerate over time. Every time we’d go outside we were unsure of whether she’d be smiling and waving, or throwing broken glass or years-old Christmas tinsel at our house. When she was eventually removed from the house (by force, because mental health support around these parts are a joke – but that’s for another article), her kids sold the house and the next owners renovated, gutting the house she’d lived in for nearly 90 years. Being nosy, I peered in every now and again while this was happening, and saw a cluttered, decaying home that seemed to eerily emulate the owner’s weakening brain.

If you’ve known someone afflicted with this ailment or something similar, you’ll probably recognize how unpredictable it can be, and how you necessarily approach nearly every interaction with that person with unease. Temperament and even their whole personality can turn on a dime, evoking the feeling of something supernatural. It’s like talking to various different people in one, and you never know which one you’ll be faced with. There’s something equally scary and sad about these interactions, and that’s a feeling that Natalie Erika James deftly taps into with her breakout debut, IFC’s Relic.

Relic focuses sharply on three generations of women; the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin), her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), and Kay’s daughter and Edna’s granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). Edna lives in a large home in rural Australia and wanders off one night. Kay and Sam travel to Edna’s home to try to find her, and in going through her house, find various signs – notes that Edna has written to herself, old photos, and general clutter – that point to Edna’s declining memory and cognition. The notes are particularly illustrative, from instructional (“take pills”) to something more foreboding (“don’t follow it”).

But after days of fruitless efforts, Edna just shows back up one night. But she’s not alone. Apparently, in the throes of dementia, there’s a supernatural element to her reemergence. There are no answers to be found about where Edna’s been, but the scars on her chest suggest something sinister. Edna really is different people with every interaction she has with Kay and Sam, sometimes well-put-together and indignant, other times babbling and almost feral. For me, this feels authentic to my admittedly-limited experience with dementia and drives a ton of the fear and sadness that James is mining for horror in Relic.

Like the very different but equally scary 2014 films The Taking Of Deborah Logan and Still Alice, Relic taps into the fear of losing agency over your mind and your body. It really does feel supernatural, like you’re watching these characters (or real-life people) be possessed by something otherworldly. A lot of the time, films like this aren’t afforded ample credit to older actors, but Nevin’s performance here does so much of the heavy lifting in Relic. Her ability to switch from composed to frighteningly unhinged, often in the same scene, is a marvel. Mortimer and Heathcote are nearly as important, and their pain and despair at Edna’s outbursts round out Relic’s emotional rollercoaster perfectly.

Some of the nightmare imagery here, from cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, is transfixing in its grotesqueness, even when you’re looking at something banal. A door slowly closing or a moving shadow might be juxtaposed with a rotting body sinking into a carpet, or black mould creeping up a wall. Kay’s nightmare scenarios feature much of this imagery and have a bit of a music video sensibility. Think Marilyn Manson or Prodigy. These scenes are often sharply focused while the rest of the film has a murky, slightly distorted feel – again, evoking the uncertainty of interacting with (or being!) a person with dementia.

Like in many of my favourite, most nerve-clenching horror outings, Relic features a house that is as much a character as any in the film. From the beginning, Edna’s house is both clean and filthy, modern and museum-like, and large and small in a House of Leaves way. Each shot changes your perception of it and disorients, especially at the end when the house begins to mimic Edna’s deteriorating mind – all shifting walls and rotating rooms that induce a crushing claustrophobia. It brings back chilling memories of watching 1991’s The People Under The Stairs (for my money, the scariest movie I’ve ever seen) or 2014’s Housebound.

Natalie Erika James’s Relic isn’t a slow burn, it’s a just-right burn. Never revealing any more than it has to, it unravels at exactly the right pace to burrow into you. Everything has weight and significance, and while it’s moody as hell, there doesn’t seem like a wasted shot in its 90-minute runtime and it never feels meandering. Relic builds and earns every one of its scares – some of-the-moment, and others that linger after the movie ends. At the same time, it resolves in a way that made me change the way I thought about dementia and Alzheimer’s, providing a wholly unexpected revelation that’s strangely hopeful for a movie this bleak. Relic is one of the best horror surprises of 2020 – high praise for a year full of horror surprises like The Lodge, The Color Out Of Space, The Wretched, and more – and a debut for Natalie Erika James that more than whets the appetite for more of her work.

Relic will be available at select theatres and on VOD on July 10. You can find out where to watch at this link

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