Edna (Robyn Nevin), the widowed matriarch of a family, goes missing. Daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to the remote homestead, hoping to find her somewhere in the surrounding area. Before long, Edna reappears of her own accord, but she’s barefoot, covered in mud and unwilling – or unable – to recount much of her time away from the place.
Kay and Sam discover Post-It notes stuck all over the house, some clearly reminding Edna to carry out various tasks, some containing more obscure messages. It’s clear that Edna is suffering from the effects of dementia but there also seems to be a potential malevolence within the house itself as noises can be heard within the structure and an ever-growing black mould visible on the walls. Kay and Sam stay to help Edna but are they placing themselves in danger?
An intriguing mix of J-horror influences and quietly devastating family drama, Relic is admittedly not the easiest movie for me to review, as it’s a ghost story in which the phantom manifests itself in the form of dementia. Having lost a close family member to this cruel condition earlier this year some of the scenes struck home extremely hard but it’s a testament to Natalie Erika James’ skill as a director and co-writer that none of the developments in the story feel merely added for effect.
It helps, of course, that the trio of central performances are nothing short of superb. As the once formidable but now increasingly fragile Edna, Robyn Nevin’s deft portrayal gives us glimpses of the woman she once was underneath the often-impenetrable layers of anger and confusion. One particular moment, in which Edna is found burying a photo album, is heart-breaking and a fine example of how Relic is so loaded with raw emotion that we’re occasionally diverted from the effortlessly creepy hum of horror underpinning it all.
It is only a brief diversion, as the oppressive atmosphere of the sprawling property gives rise to several sequences which prove that it’s what you don’t see – or may have possibly glimpsed in the gloom – which scares you the most. You’ll be looking for shadowy figures lurking in the background or on the edge of the frame or, at one point, under the bed as Kay is ordered to check there by an increasingly fraught Edna.
Emily Mortimer is outstanding as Kay, attempting to stay practical and exploring all of the options -including the possibility of finding a suitable retirement home for Edna – while trying not to be worn down by the frustration and upset caused by daily contact with someone who is becoming less and less of the mother she knows.
As the third generation, Bella Heathcote brings a directness and a warmth as Sam, her grandmother responding to her energy and streak of rebelliousness. However, the unpredictability of Edna’s condition will even leave its mark on Sam, eventually prompting her to investigate just why Edna’s young neighbour Jamie won’t visit the place anymore.
The final act may not be to everyone’s taste, as the delicate suggestion of the previous chills tip into outright horror, but even as Relic leans into a more conventionally shocking showdown it’s still tempered with an emotional punch that’s missing from so many others of its ilk and never loses its grip on the motivations of the three women involved.
The climax could have blown the careful build up in a maelstrom of shrieking and gore but the conclusion here is beautifully judged, delivering in escalating terror before hitting the viewer with a one-two punch of mournful acceptance and a portent of things to come. You may need the credits sequence just to sit there and have a damn good cry.
An interesting take on a condition which unfortunately affects so many people and those close to them, Relic treats its subject matter with sensitivity and never stoops to using it as a peg on which to hang jump scares. It’s more concerned with the human effects of dementia and the situations it portrays have the ring of truth – I’ve been Kay.
Once again, the horror genre proves its ability to tackle a wealth of issues and, in this case, the haunting ramifications and overwhelming changes associated with the degeneration of our loved ones form an obvious connection with the rambling, decaying property in which Edna and her family find themselves, trapped with an unseen monster. Relic is by no means an easy watch – for some of us, it’s downright bloody difficult, I’m not going to lie – but it’s a heartfelt, well-observed, piece with stellar performances and a thoroughly eerie atmosphere.