Worldwide studies show that over 50 million people suffer from some form of dementia, with cases rising by around 10million each year. Debilitating, destabilising, and continuously evolving, it is an invisible disease that can change people almost instantly but the structure of it and how it works inside a human’s brain is both perplexing and fascinating, becoming more and more potent as we age. It may sound odd talking about such facts and the science surrounding it in a film review but Relic, the directorial debut of Natalie Erika James, deals with this such subject and the horrors, so to speak, that comes with being around or indeed caring for with the disease. It’s scary, for sure, but not how you might think.
Set in Australia, we are first introduced to Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) who have been alerted to the disappearance of Edna (Robyn Nevin), Kay’s mother and Sam’s grandmother, and travel to her home to help track her down. It’s locked up from the inside and in all sorts of disarray and disrepair, so much so that a black mould that has invaded much of the inner walls, as well as multiple Post-It Notes set around as reminders to Edna. She returns, seemingly unaware of the fuss being made over her leaving nor indeed even seeming to know that she had wandered astray but as her condition deteriorates further, she begins to suspect her family of a variety of things. All the while as a black bruise on her chest begins to surround more and more of her body.
So, yes, Relic is a horror film to many degrees but what is smart and alluring about James’ film is how she deals with the disease and its impact rather than simply intending to scare us at every turn. It’s certainly an atmospheric and chilly film – helped along by Charlie Sarroff’s tantalising cinematography and Brian Reitzell’s score – with tension and suspicions heightening around the three women inch by inch, and we are treated to some pretty eerie images but this is so much more. It doesn’t always work – the third act does skate close to cliche territory but James’ handle on the film just about wrestles it back from the edge.
In fact, this is a much more tender and emotional film than you may be expecting, with many moments that hit harder than any cheap scares could have. And from this come three brilliant central turns from the cast, with Nevin in particular tremendous, but all three are fully immersed in the family dynamic and together and apart, are the heartbeat of the film and the emotions – sorrow, affection, and happiness they show to one another – give the film its added dimension.
Normally such dark, spooky fare is exactly what it says on the tin but removing itself from such things and the tropes that go hand-in-hand are what make Relic such a unique and brilliant experience: the horror is mainly insular, heartfelt, and genuine as you watch a loved one become somebody else, whilst the few haunted house motifs will be enough to please the more bloodthirsty of its audience. A real surprise, this one.