Watching any horror film during a worldwide pandemic can be complicated, especially a film involving an inescapable disease. The horror of Relic isn’t exactly a contagious virus, just like it isn’t exactly a haunted house or a demonic possession. Director Natalie Erika James implements elements of all three horror subjects to tell a relatable story that families have always experienced. Similar to other modern horror successes such as Babadook and Hereditary, the allegories are just as interesting as the scares.
The haunting grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin) takes her time before revealing herself in the film, but her presence looms large over her dilapidated house in Creswick, Australia. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) are called in from Melbourne after Edna was reported missing. They arrive at a house that has been neglected for some time. Mold has overtaken the building and clothing is scattered everywhere.
Kay and Sam also discover dozens of sticky notes throughout the home. Most of them are simple reminders, such as the one in the bathroom that just says “Flush”. The more ominous notes suggest that there might be something else living inside the house, like the one that simply says “Don’t follow it.”
After three days of searching, Edna reappears one morning acting like everything is normal. She’s covered in bruises and can’t remember why she left the house. A local medic recommends that the newly widowed Edna not be left alone for some time, and Sam and Kay are left to figure out how to help their matriarch in the long term.
James and co-writer Christian White examine how family dynamics shift as time goes by, and how an elder’s lifestyle and mindset can change once their partner passes away. Edna becomes lost in her own home, terrified to even look under the bed at night. There is clear tension between Sam and Kay even before Edna’s disappearance, but their relationship becomes even more strained when they find her. Sam assumes that Kay will move her mother to Melbourne to live with her. Kay is almost repulsed by taking on that responsibility, so instead she goes looking for an adequate nursing home.
Emily Mortimer’s troubled expressions fill in the blanks that are left between the sparse dialogue. Kay has unpleasant memories of Edna’s home, and every night she has nightmares of a corpse festering in a family cabin in the woods. Like most haunted house flicks, Kay and Sam take turns getting scared once the sun goes down. The house isn’t only decaying but seems to be transforming from the inside.
The noises, the mold, and the forbidding silhouettes are all manifestations of Edna’s dementia. As Edna herself succumbs to her condition, James leans more into impressive body horror effects. The most interesting feature of Relic is how Kay and the loving Sam adapt to these manifestations.
Robyn Nevin heartbreakingly portrays a grandmother who essentially becomes a different person, forgetting her family. In terms of a family drama the film works on every level. Time is dedicated to establish and reinforce Edna’s bonds with her daughter and granddaughter. Kay and Sam are very relatable as normal people trying to balance familial responsibility with their personal lives, caring for a person they barely recognize anymore.
James creates a thick atmosphere and a bleak color palette for her slow burn horror effects. The gothic aesthetic plays an active part in the story. The environment is festering and slowly decaying.
The danger however always feels tempered, just out of arm’s reach. Haunted house flicks are normally more interesting when the sun goes down, but the family drama during the day quickly becomes more engaging than the mild scares at night. Small, sudden movements and eye shifts are effective warm up scares, but they lead to a third act that is generally underwhelming. What has happened to Edna has already happened, and the shadowy figure never feels like an actual threat to Kay or Sam. Even with an 89 minute runtime the film lingers a little too long.
The life and death stakes of normal horror films might not be as present in Relic, but there are stakes in how Kay and Sam respond to Edna’s condition. Similar to a Guillermo Del Toro film, the conclusion is heartfelt and poetic. The climatic effects work is fantastically gothic. Relic is a touching, atmospheric horror representation of how a family changes when a member is diagnosed with dementia. There is never a bad time to reflect on family, especially during a pandemic.