Is Australian director Natalie Erika James’ feature debut a haunted house movie? A psychological drama? A Babadookian “horror as metaphor” using ghoulish symbolism to explore mother and daughter relationships? The answer is all of these things and none of them, though – given the story revolves around a physically and mentally deteriorating elderly woman, Edna (Robyn Nevin) – it is about nothing if not matters of the mind.
And yet it is also very ... sticky. Not just sticky as in something that clings to you emotionally, but sticky in the way horror movies offer gross literal things you could reach out and touch were you to have the misfortune of belonging to the film’s narrative universe.
James feasts on dread from the film’s earliest moments, an early shot framing Edna in a way common in spooky genre pics: from behind, bathed in darkness, naked but for a towel, her exposed bare skin connoting vulnerability. Then the title appears on screen accompanied by a sound that wouldn’t be out of place in an Alien movie or in a video game like The Last of Us: a sort of phlegm-covered supernatural throat crackle, as if a demon were opening their mouths and preparing to speak.
The sound of demonic breath notwithstanding, it soon becomes apparent that Relic is a class act – the sort of film pundits sometimes snobbishly refer to as “elevated horror”, promulgating the silly idea that genre productions are of generally lesser worth. This debate is a tangly one, and includes a kind of reverse snobbery: the argument that B-movies are somehow more “pure” or “aware” for indulging in easy jump scares.
There are jump scares in Relic, but nothing in this film was slapped together by genre algorithm. The story setup (it was co-written by James and novelist Christian White) involves Edna going missing from her small, old house in regional Victoria. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive to investigate, finding the place empty, with notes strewn all around, from the innocuous and instructional (“take pills”) to the creepy and mysterious (“don’t follow it”).
The passing of time is a key theme of the film, which James depicts visually from the beginning – before she burrows into what it means for the characters. We see evidence of time passing in an immediate sense (a bath overflowing with water) as well as the slightly longer term (mouldy fruit in a bowl has grown mouldy) to the significantly longer term (the tennis court overrun with grass).
Also, importantly, we see it in the context of an entire life nearing its end, evidenced through the irreversible decline of Edna’s body and mind. She is suffering from the onset of dementia and returns home safe and sound, more or less, albeit with some blood on her nightgown and what appears to be a large bruise. Or is that a rash? When asked where she’s been, the huffy and standoffish Edna responds unhelpfully: “I suppose I went out.”
Her unexplained absence prompts conversations about placing the increasingly confused and distraught matriarch in a home, as Kay and Sam ponder how to care for her. However the film’s central location – the creaky, moss and stain covered house, where there are Poe-like sounds of something moving in the walls and a surrounding forest ensconced in thick surreal mist, like visions from a Vicki Madden production – is very much where the director keeps her focus.
The nightmarish atmosphere James builds, with no small amount of assistance from cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, reminded me of the way dreams, ghosts and memories intersect in the 1998 film adaptation of Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark. Playing an elderly man who lives in a remote valley and never got over the death of his baby son decades ago, Ray Barrett reflected via voiceover: “I started to have these dreams. Not mine, other people’s. Dead people, broken people, breathe things into me.”
Anyone who has seen a loved one cognitively deteriorate through conditions such as dementia knows the horror runs both ways: terrifying for the person experiencing it, and shockingly sad for those witnessing it. Edna is both the film’s source of emotion and empathy, as well as its lusus naturae, or even its monster – a person, or thing, growing deformed, feeding into the idea that time’s unstoppable march forward claims us all in the long run.
Fundamental to Relic’s psychological oomph are three excellent performances, perfectly complementing that sticky-icky ambience. Nevin has the meatiest and most intense part: full of fluster and pain, obstinance and wariness. Mortimer has a way of looking at her that channels a mother’s pain into a daughter’s grief; the horror of having to say goodbye to somebody who is still physically present. Bella Heathcote is also very fine, rounding off the trio.
If Relic sounds like an intellectual exercise; well it sort of is and sort of isn’t. The beauty of this film – like The Babadook and Hereditary, which are also scary movies that explore parents and children – is that you feel it first, and think about it later.
• Relic is available to stream now on Stan