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There have been many comparisons made between new Aussie horror Relic and Ari Aster’s modern classic Hereditary. It’s easy to see why. Both films are about a darkness that looms over multiple generations of a family. The two feature elements of the supernatural while also at times resembling domestic dramas. They both use the horror genre to make a universal point. Hereditary is about how tough it is for families to escape the baggage and lingering trauma of their ancestors. Relic, on the other hand, is about the terror of watching an elderly loved one disintegrate before your eyes. It’s about feeling powerless to stop the natural process and also being aware you may suffer a similar fate.
Yet, the two films are different in many ways. Hereditary as it nears its climax devolves into a standard cult horror flick, devoting less time to the real-life drama at its core. While Relic may lack Aster’s debut’s visceral filmmaking and black comedy, its supernatural terror and story about aging feel more unified. In fact, Relic has a greater deal in common with the J-horror’s of Hideo Nakata like Ringu and Dark Water. Like these, it’s a film where the subtext is as important as the text and never forgets that its characters are real human beings. Relic may not be an entirely accurate depiction of dementia but it captures how scary it must be. It doesn’t wrap up all its plot threads neatly like many mainstream horrors tend to because reality isn’t like that. As such, its tale haunts in a more profound way.
The feature length debut of Japanese-Australian co-writer and director Natalie Erika James, Relic begins with Kay (Emily Mortimer) discovering that her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), who was living alone, has vanished. Visiting her decaying and moulding country home, Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcoate) find clues of Edna’s increasing dementia. Within days, Edna returns as mysteriously as she disappeared. Unable or unwilling to say where she was, Kay and Sam clash over how to deal with their ailing relative. However, as Edna’s behavior turns increasingly volatile, both begin to sense that an insidious presence might be taking control of her.
Right from the outset, James finds menace in Edna’s mental decline. There’s the haunting image of a bath she left overflowing, the water slowly spilling down the stairs of her house. There is the big bruise on Edna’s chest once she returns after going missing. There’s her increasingly odd behaviour, as well as her forgetfulness and the cruelty it brings out in her out of frustration. The part where Edna gives Sam a family heirloom and then later accuses her of stealing it, winding up hurting her to get it back, is genuinely unsettling but it’s scary in a profoundly human way.
Usually with horrors of this kind, there is a moment where the film stops being about these relatable fears, as it establishes exactly what kind of evil entity the characters need to vanquish. While Relic does eventually journey into the fantastical, it avoids these tropes. As Kay and Sam wind up trapped in the walls of Edna’s home, the secret labyrinthine corridors shrinking around them, it feels less like a fun scare and more an expressionistic depiction of Edna’s mental state. As Edna begins to undergo a physical metamorphosis, it’s ultimately less a monstrous one than a metaphor for how our bodies change as we grow older. There is no villainous King Paimon or Bagul here to defeat. The horror is the inevitable every human faces, just artfully depicted by James to a horrific heightened degree.
Mileage may vary on Relic for fans of more traditional horror films. That said, it’s hard to imagine people not becoming invested in the three main characters and the actors’ performances. Nevin as the ailing matriarch manages to convey glimmers of her past warmer self, while fully committing to her character’s later almost feral mania. Mortimer is pitch-perfect as her weary, anxious daughter, torn between the burden of looking after Edna and her love for her. Meanwhile, Heathcoate is excellent as the youngest in the family facing these issues for the first time. As such, she is a happier, brighter presence, injecting a jolt of life into a gloomy movie.
It’s also difficult to picture people not being impacted by Relic‘s stunningly beautiful final moments. Again James subverts expectations, neglecting a big climactic ending or a cheap pre-credits stinger for something more intimate and introspective. Without spoiling, the last scene is a perfect bow on the film’s domestic drama, while reaffirming that the human horrors the movie is dealing with cannot be simply warded off with an incantation.
When it feels like every type of horror has been done, something like Relic is a breath of fresh air. It’s a film that strips the haunted house story to its barest essentials – characters you care about, a setting representing their struggles and a parable to be learned – while also being unafraid to break from the mould in other key ways. The result is one of the stongest horrors of the year.