Spoilers for ‘Relic’
Christmas lights blinking inside a dim, dilapidated house devoid of any life, barring a naked elderly woman almost frozen in time, such is the gripping and somewhat spine chilling opening shot of ‘Relic’. There’s an eerie blueness to ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, similar to the demonic redness of ‘The Taking of Deborah Logan’. And joining the list of monochromatic horrors is Natalie Erika James debut feature – a chilling tale of deteriorating mental health and dementia symbolized by a decaying country home and its labyrinthine horrors.
Ahead of its digital premiere, James had addressed the story as a personal one over a statement. Her own grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, couldn’t recognize her which “at a certain level, it felt worse than death- to see your loved one progressively lose parts of themselves, and slowly become a stranger.” Sailing in the same ship in her film is a devastatingly terrifying Robyn Nevin as Edna whose erratic disappearances bring her distant daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to the country home that turns into the most poignant element of horror.
The story opens with Kay and Sam arriving at Edna’s country home after she is reported missing. There’s an eerie sense of foreboding that the house reeks of death right from the get-go, unanswered mails make for pillars against the main door and dust settled home decor hints as a general wariness. It becomes clear Kay and Edna aren’t exactly the closest, but Sam harbors a special fondness for her. Sudden thuds and creepy groans between the walls leave the two suspicious, but what shocks them the most is Edna suddenly turning up out of the blue after three full days, refusing to talk about where she went or what she did, with a gaping bruise mid-chest.
Edna’s forgetfulness becomes more rapid and eccentric as she switches from remembering things and completely zoning out altogether. Her behavior towards Sam is crushingly real as most grandkids of people battling Alzheimer’s will have you believe. She goes from warm gifts to violent accusations. Her loosening grip on her reality is brought out by the way she protests and kicks Sam out of her own room screaming “It’s my house!”, and in Sam’s bewildered heartbreak lies the viewer’s confusion regarding what exactly is plaguing Edna. Heathcote as Sam is very, very different from her previous horror ‘Neon Demon’, where she was the cannibalistic, power-hungry vamp. Here she is vulnerable and suspicious, but all in good intent.
The same can’t exactly be said for Mortimer’s Kay. The seasoned veteran in the industry brings all her skills and expertise to channel her avatar’s helplessness as a working woman struggling to meet deadlines as her mother spirals. In her restrain and refusal to admit that what her mother really needs is company, Kay tries to replace warmth and compassion with professional care at old age homes – thus striking another clash in her and Sam’s already distant relationship.
It’s all a pattern though, the intergenerational dynamics mirror each other as James’s story explores how generational trauma plagues families so insidiously that only togetherness offers a prospective cure. James’s script co-written with Christian White is crisp and realistic; for the first time in a long time, White people acknowledge creepy houses with labyrinthine layers n all their evil glory and are ready to make a run for it when Edna begins evolving into a blood-hungry monster. And in the moments where Nevin’s silent stares aren’t piercing into you leaving you absolutely petrified for an attack that never comes, it is the creepy house of horror that steals the show.
Production Designer Steven Jones-Evans captures Edna’s dementia as dark stains spreading like vines along the walls, the labyrinth probably a symbol of her mind’s downward spiral as she loses her grip on reality. Charlie Sarroff’s cinematography is compelling as shadow work can be – all made better by steady but unique shots that capture the grim reality of each generation of Edna’s family exhibiting signs of her current turmoil. What starts off as a psychological thriller soon turns into a sad tale of loneliness and the indescribable bond that ties a child to their mother. And all of this for a feature debut surely makes James a gem to watch out for.
‘Relic’ will be available digitally or rent and on-demand from July 10.