Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Movie Review: Relic

Relic *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Natalie Erika James.
Written by: Natalie Erika James and Christian White.
Starring: Emily Mortimer (Kay), Robyn Nevin (Edna), Bella Heathcote (Sam), Jeremy Stanford (Alex), Chris Burton (Jamie), Christina O’Neill (Grace), Catherine Glavicic (Doctor Stanley), Steve Rodgers (Constable Mike Adler).

The best horror movies often walk a fine, subtle line between the terror they are showing on screen, and what the terror is really about. Think Rosemary’s Baby – a Satanic horror movie yes, but really about the terror of being pregnant. Or Hereditary, another Satanic horror movie, but one about buried secrets and undealt with trauma in a family. Or The Babadook, where the terror of being a parent manifests itself as a demon. Relic, the debut film by Natalie Erika James, tries to do something similar – but with old age and dementia. It’s a brilliant idea, and Relic is a very good horror movie – but perhaps one that leans a little too heavy on the real world terror – so much so that you may end up thinking it didn’t need the haunted house aspect of the film at all. It is, though, an immensely promising debut for James – who is certainly a filmmaker to watch.

 The film is basically three women in a house. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) have come to Kay’s mother house because Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen in a few days – so they come to help find her. It isn’t too long before Enda shows up – but she was already on the downward slope towards dementia before she went missing – and things have simply got worse since then. Not only that but her large, messy house seems like it may be haunted. The three women bounce off each other – a collection of things left unsaid, and heightened emotions as the dementia – and whatever is haunting the house – ratchet up the tension.

Relic is a film about this family who cannot communicate with each other, following that same pattern throughout the film. When Edna does arrive – with no explanation of where she’s been, everyone is content to just pass it off as a senile episode – an old, doddering woman who wandered off, but is back now. Kay wasn’t close to Edna in the first place – it had been weeks since they talked (and you almost get the sense that Kay is who lying about that – that it may have been longer). Edna is the one first notices that things aren’t right with the house – but she is dismissed. A disturbing incident with the neighbor is written off as more proof that Edna has lost it. No one takes her seriously. But she’s right.

There is also a sense that Kay and Sam are at the start of repeating the pattern that Edna and Kay have been in for years. Sam has dropped out of school – and shows no signs of going back. “Are you going to work at a bar the rest of your life?” Kay wants to know, and Sam doesn’t see much wrong with that. Sam isn’t any more open to seeing Edna as anything other than a senile old woman either. Until, of course, it may be too late.

You can sense the references that inspired James’ film throughout – Polanski’s Repulsion certainly, and other haunted house movies. This is a slow burn of a horror film – perhaps a little too slow at times because the ending – more full of action feels like perhaps its piling too much on at one point. Still, James shows a real gift for directing horror – for the sense of mode, atmosphere, and pace. And Relic is one of the most promising debut films of the year.

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