A great horror film is often defined by its ability to engineer a specific kind of dread, one that slowly builds and takes on different forms during the course of its narrative. Predictable jump-scares and jarring background scores might offer easy entertainment to most audiences, but remarkable horror films over time have done away with these cliches and replaced them instead with gripping stories that astutely examine the human condition. The 2020 Australian horror-drama Relic directed by Natalie Erica James is one such example – it is a definitive psychological horror film that reinvents its genre by subverting tropes and crafting a narrative that is both terrifying and incredibly moving.
In Relic, Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly widowed matriarch of the family, suddenly goes missing, an event that brings her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to their family home in the hope of finding her. Upon their arrival, Kay and Sam find their home filled with little notes that serve as reminders for Edna to perform her daily tasks, signalling the old woman’s slow descent into dementia. Mysterious events begin to unfold as soon as Kay and Sam find Edna and decide to stay with the ailing woman until she gets better. Edna’s erratic behaviour and the presence of a strange black mould on the walls of the house leave Kay and Sam bewildered as they try and make sense of their strange new predicament.
Relic’s biggest themes revolve around inherited trauma that spans generations in the form of mental illness. The supernatural entity in the film is dementia itself, a disease so potent and insidious, that it has the potential to permanently destroy multiple lives. Relic expertly mines horror from the idea of a fractured, fragmented family of women struggling to identify with themselves and each other. Edna and Kay seem to have a difficult relationship and Sam serves as a buffer between her grandmother and her mother. These three women find themselves leaning on each other as they battle the uncertainties of a terrifying disease that manifests itself in equally terrifying forms.
In an interview with Forbes, Natalie Erika James traces the origins of the cathartic story of Relic to a personal experience. She says, “My grandmother actually had Alzheimer’s herself. I started writing the project on the trip to go visit her, and it was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was… and the first time I had a sense of someone who had only ever looked at you with love looking at you like a stranger. That feeling really stuck with me.” Watching someone you love and cherish transform into an unrecognisable person because of an uncontrollable disease remains at the heart of Relic. This single realisation informs the characters and their actions, as they watch a family member become a stranger right in front of their eyes.
The house, with its black mould that spreads, becomes a metaphor for Edna’s decaying mental health in Relic. She is trapped inside with no way out and is inadvertently drawing her family members in as well. As the film progresses, we discover the complexities of the house and the ways it has managed to trap Edna in its grasp, much like the mind does. A safe space that is expected to protect and nurture becomes the three women’s biggest adversary. Hidden doors and passageways serve as symbols for the human mind and we watch it morph and disintegrate, beyond the control of the protagonists in Relic.
While Erika James shows a keen eye for building a sense of unease with Edna’s unstable temperament, she is also careful to construct her as a sympathetic character in Relic, someone worthy of care and affection despite this terrifying transformation. In the same interview, Erika James adds, “For me, I guess it was always really important that we never see the menace in the film as something evil. I was really trying to recoil from this black-and-white view of things. And really what’s scary in the film for me is in the transformation, in the way that she lashes out and gets aggressive, violent. That’s what’s really scary.” Erika James’ distinct vision for her characters in Relic translates perfectly on screen, urging the audiences to reimagine the boundaries of horror cinema and the far-reaching potential it has to tell humane stories that go beyond gimmicks.
The feminist motifs in Relic are evident right from the beginning as its narrative relies solely on the three female protagonists and their frayed interpersonal relationships. While Sam and Kay find ways to care for Edna, they also revisit their difficult history with each. In spite of their circumstances, they find a way to come together in the time of a crisis. The director consistently builds an atmosphere of dread with a terrific background score that is never overpowering. Tension, fear and a sense of disquiet subtly occupy nearly every frame of Relic as it slowly builds to its devastating climax. The film successfully manages to mould a narrative that offers thoughtful observations on women, the spaces they occupy and how they overcome trauma within the realm of a horror film. It is also extremely universal in its exploration of familial grief that accompanies the realisation that you are slowly losing a loved one.
Featured image source: Bloody Disgusting