Synopsis – A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
My Take – Ever since writer/director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 psychological horror film, The Babadook, turned out to be such a hit with the audience and the critics alike, fresh filmmakers have been clamoring to build upon the riding wave of the highbrow sub-genre, to varied form of success and failure at the same time. With A24 releases like The Witch, Hereditary, The Hole in the Ground, It Comes at Night, and Midsommar being among the popular films being produced as such.
Termed as elevated horror, the sub-genre distinguishes itself from a stereotypical horror by being slow-burn and more into divulging the psychology of the characters rather than offering plain and simple jump scares. And this first feature from Natalie Erika James, which is co-produced by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nine Stories and financed by Anthony and Joe Russo’s AGBO, certainly aims to be new addition in to the category.
This one too is essentially a drama which disguises itself as a horror film by using a few of the classic horror conventions, after all it focuses on an issue that has, or will, touch many of us – aging and dementia. Which here gets re-imagined as a kind of creeping darkness which engulfs both sufferers and those who are left to look after them.
Making it a chillingly effective premise no doubt, as what can be more horrifying than watching a loved one gradually lose all his/her personality and memories?, however, its overly slow-moving story development, and an insatiable conclusion hampers whatever effect it was meant to make.
Maybe it was the hype that set unfair expectations in my mind, as following its January debut at in the Midnight section of the Sundance Film Festival, it was already being hailed as the next great horror film, with many praising its austere film-making.
While I do agree that director Natalie Erika James has done a considerably fine job for a first outing, the film’s faults along with an actual lack of fear factor, the most important ingredient of a horror film, will make it hard to stand out in the slowly crowding market.
Set in Australia, the story follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), who head into a comparatively rural area of the country to check up on Edna (Robyn Nevin), their mother/grandmother, after being alerted by the neighbors that she hasn’t been seen in a while. While upon arrival they are positive that Edna has indeed gone missing, but what surprises them more is the alarming amount of disorder and rot in the house.
With the local authorities called in to help, days pass by with all leads ending up going nowhere. However, one morning, Edna miraculously turns up, standing in the kitchen, calmly waiting to make a cup of tea, and without any recollection of where she’s been. But as time begins to pass by, it becomes clear that Edna is losing grip on her own mind, and turning sinister as supernatural forces begin to reveal themselves. What follows is nothing you haven’t seen already, especially if you’re a horror aficionado.
The set-up is presented quickly and in spare style, as director Natalie Erika James chooses to explore the ugliness and the nightmarish tendencies found within the deteriorating walls of dementia throughout. It’s this disease that alters its host changing them into someone neither themselves nor their loved ones are able to recognize.
The same is true of Edna, when she mysteriously reappears sporting a bruise but refusing to talk about where she has been. Sometimes, she’s sharp and lucid, her hair coiled in a neat roll. At others, she seems to be worlds away, straggly and unraveled, whispering urgently to herself and lashing out at her daughter and granddaughter like a cornered animal. Even scenes that are supposed to tighten our chests come across as ambivalent at best. In one early altercation, Edna bestows her wedding ring upon Sam, only to violently demand it back later.
What the script does well is present a sinister atmosphere that puts all three characters in what might be dangerous situations, and at the same time, makes viewers feel sympathy for all of them, as it shows them struggling with trying to do what’s best for a loved one with dementia.
What’s in a grandmother’s best interest may not be the least practical thing to do or what’s most convenient for her daughter or granddaughter. Kay thinks that putting Edna in a nursing home would benefit Edna’s condition while Sam is willing to move in with Edna so Edna can hang onto that sense of independence a bit longer.
The film also plays on claustrophobia as its keeps most of the setting inside the tight spaces of the house, which completely blows on our faces when both Sam and Kay find themselves getting trapped behind a shrinking maze in the walls of Edna’s home much like she probably did at the beginning of the film.
However, what the film lacks is, any sought of pace, making even a 89 minute long film feel rather dull, long winded and only finally picks up in the last 1/3rd of the film, all leading to a big reveal that is also nowhere near as good as being left to our own imagination.
Also what it doesn’t do well enough is explain things. There is a small house that used to be on the property, and a stained glass window that was repurposed from there to the main house, but aside from strange dreams and a few references, the audience never learns a thing. There’s a hint of a curse, we see something moving under Edna’s bed and the same thing stand behind Kay, but we never find out who are what that was.
Regardless, the three main leads, Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote deliver wonderful performances and do a great job of conveying the emotions of the story. On the whole, ‘Relic’ is a maddening psychological horror film which despite being emotionally haunting ends up lacking punches and doesn’t comes together in the end.
Directed – Natalie Erika James
Rated – R
Run Time – 89 minutes