It’s extremely rare that any film – particularly a horror can make you wince at its macabre themes one moment, to then make you weep tears of sorrow and sadness the next.
One of 2020’s most beloved and talked about horror films does just that.
Backed by both Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories Productions and the Russo brothers‘ AGBO, Relic marks the feature-length debut for Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James whose work previously consisted of a handful of short films, music videos and television commercials.
Starring British national treasure Emily Mortimer, Aussie veteran of both screen and stage Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote, the “Down Under” horror drama tells the tale of a grandmother, a mother and a daughter who’re plagued by the manifestation of dementia that consumes their family home.
When Edna (Nevin) – an elderly, widowed lady is assumed missing, her daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) travel to their remote family home in search of her. Upon arrival, the house is locked from the inside, the walls of the house are covered in mould and much of the home is plastered with Post-it notes with reminders for Edna.
With a few days passing and no joy of finding their matriarch, Kay and Sam grow increasingly distressed. Noises are heard from inside the walls of the family home and the black mould begins to spread tenfold. Furthermore, Kay experiences nightmares of a withered, decaying corpse in (a now demolished) cabin in the woods.
The next morning, barefoot and muddied, Edna is questioned by her daughter on her absence. Unaware of her own disappearance, Kay calls for a doctor to stop by and check-up on her confused mother. Edna is found to be physically stable and mostly of sound mind with the exception of a large bruise on her chest (resembling the mould on the walls of her home).
Kay and Sam have a heated argument about the mental well-being of Edna. And to the contempt of Sam, Kay plans to move her mother into a retirement home in Melbourne.
Later that night, Kay discovers Edna sleepwalking, whispering, “It’s nothing”. Leading her mother back to bed, Edna is convinced something is in the room with her. Pleading with her daughter to check under the bed, Kay sees a figure breathing but before she can further investigate, a book falls to the ground causing Kay to jump and knock her head on the bed frame. Confused by what she believed she saw, Kay reacts in a hostile way, convinced her mother is playing tricks on her.
The following morning, Kay travels from the Australian boondocks back to Melbourne to view a retirement home in the city for her deteriorating mother. Left in charge, Sam discovers her grandmother listening to her favourite records and dancing alone in the family home’s living room. Sam joins her grandmother. Not too long after, Sam confesses to Edna that her mother is viewing retirement homes. To Edna’s dismay, Sam consoles her grandmother by suggesting to move in with her and permanently take care of her. The tender moment between grandmother and granddaughter abruptly grows cold as Edna accuses Sam of stealing her wedding ring, which she had gifted to her the night before. Angered and confused, Edna snatches the ring off of Sam’s finger with surprisingly brutish force.
Following this violent affair, Sam retreats next door. Neighbours and father-and-son, Alex and Jamie are keeping their distance from Edna and the residence after an incident involving Edna mistakenly locking Jamie in a small room for several hours during a game of hide-and-seek.
Back at the house, a conflicted Kay returns from Melbourne not knowing what’s best for the future of her mother and depleted by the weight that the dementia is having on their relationship. Pacing around in the garden, Kay goes out to make sure her mother is okay. Catching up, Edna maniacally tearing out pages from a family photo album and eating them. Trying to intervene, Edna bites her daughter’s hand and frantically storms off to bury the photo album in the soil of the woodland out back of the family home. Claiming it’ll be safer buried than in the house, Edna eventually breaks down, asking “Where is everybody?”. Distraught at the deterioration of her mother’s mental well-being, Kay agrees to take responsibility of her and care for her.
With the knowledge that poor young Jamie was locked in a walk-in wardrobe within the house, Sam decides to investigate the room. Seeing where Jamie had scratched off the paint on the door in his attempts to escape, Sam and her perceptiveness discovers a hidden passageway to another part of the family home and without any hesitance, enters.
Downstairs, blissfully unaware of Sam’s whereabouts, Kay decides to cook dinner for herself and her mother. With her condition seemingly worsening, Edna refuses to eat and becomes sharp-tongued with her daughter. Trying to get her mother to eat, Edna rather sinisterly scowls at her daughter suspiciously, striking fear and panic into Kay. As she gets up to leave the dinner table, suddenly Edna comes to a standstill, to wet herself. Kay notices her mother’s urine is stained black and rushes her upstairs to bathe.
After cleaning up the black-stained urine downstairs, Kay goes up to check on her mother. With the door locked and the bath beginning to overflow, Kay uses a chair to look into the window above the bathroom door, only to uncover her mother scratching at what was the black bruise on her chest – now rotting flesh. As the bathwater overflows, it reacts with an electric heater causing a power cut throughout the house.
Meanwhile, Sam on her expedition becomes lost in an endless loop of corridors. The new-found secret part of the family house becomes a disorientating labyrinth. Ceilings begin to slope lower, forcing her to crawl for a way out to safety. The whole scene plays out like a haunted house attraction/escape room situation. It too could seemingly act as a metaphor for Edna’s ongoing battle with her dementia and how the disease is difficult, complex but ultimately detrimental to cognitive function.
In third-act-horror typical trope fashion, with the power cut in the house and all the lights off, Kay begins her search for her mother throughout the house, in due course leading her to the same part of the house that Sam has been trying to escape for the bulk of the third and final act of the film. To their horror, Kay and Sam finally stumbles across Edna who’s using a knife to pick at the rotting flesh on her face. Horrified at what they’ve uncovered and with the now disfigured and physically contorted Edna approaching, the two flee into a passageway that Sam has created by knocking through the decaying walls with a conveniently-placed lead pipe.
Now back in the living room of the house, Kay and Sam attempt to make their escape leaving behind their almost demonic-possessed maternal relative. Unfortunately for Sam, Edna pins her down before being beaten down by Kay. The lead pipe beating proves fatal for Edna as her body lies stiff on the ground, wheezing and further decaying. With one final gesture via a Post-it labelled “I am loved”, Kay realises that the walls of the house no longer resemble mould. Refusing to leave her behind, Kay carries her corpse-like mother up to her bedroom.
In Edna’s bedroom, her near-lifeless body sits at the tail of the bed. Kay begins to slowly peel away the last remnants of hair and rotting flesh to reveal her mother’s withered form (similar to the one in her dreams). Both Kay and Sam lay on the bed with Edna’s corpse-like final form until she presumably peacefully passes away. The film ends with Sam laying behind her mother, noticing a very small black bruise on her neck, suggesting that in time Kay will suffer a similar fate to her mother.
This is the scene [I mentioned at the beginning of this review] that makes you grimace at its gruesome and grotesque detail, but in quick succession makes blubber like a newborn baby. Quite honestly, the third act is one of the most devastatingly painful final acts I’ve seen in any film in recent years. I ugly cried watching the final moments of James’ film. Tears streaming down my face, outlandish faces, snotty nose, the lot! It’s that gut-wrenching of a finale.
Whilst short on practical scares, Relic will still find its way at getting deep under your skin, evoking genuine uneasiness.
With no jump scares. No over-the-top gore. No groundbreaking or shocking twists. James‘ “less is more”, slow-burning body of work and its strongest attributes are its profound storytelling, as well as its all-round captivating acting performances. All three actors put on a career-best masterclass worthy of a nod or two during film awards season this year.
Relic‘s very real, very accurate likeness of the horror it is like to live with dementia is what makes this film the all-too-real powerhouse it is. James masterfully conjures up enough tension and enough trepidation for it to play out more like a documentary as opposed to a work of fiction. It shakes you to your core, riddling you with mortality anxiety with its poignant depiction of the effects on an elderly woman living with a very real, very monstrous, debilitating disease – as well as her loved ones. As somebody who is rather foolishly susceptible to the fear of “growing old”, Relic made me afraid to grow old, more so than usual. And it is not a film I will be actively revisiting in the immediate future. The experience of existential dread that comes with it hits home a little too hard and is uncomfortably overwhelming. A feat many filmmakers struggle to achieve – with me. So job well done, Ms James!
Like Jennifer Kent before her with The Babadook, Natalie Erika James has a bright future as a feature-length filmmaker off the back of Relic.