Moviegoer: Relic

Like mother, like daughter takes on a tragic meaning in stirring film 

By Diana Beechener 

When Kay (Emily Mortimer: Mary) gets a call that her mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin: Doctor Doctor) is missing, she’s consumed by guilt. She suspected that her mother’s forgetfulness was getting worse, but she allowed herself to dismiss it rather than confront the growing problem. Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote: Strange Angel) journey to their family estate hoping the whole thing is a misunderstanding.  

When they arrive, they find the home is nearly unrecognizable. Black mold crawls up the walls and lurks in the closets, strange new locks are installed on the doors, and rooms are filled with filthy clutter and rotting food. It’s worse than Kay imagined, and she’s ashamed she didn’t realize her mother had deteriorated so greatly.  

When Edna returns home, filthy and unsure of where she was, Kay and Sam are horrified. Kay ponders putting Edna in a care facility. Sam finds the idea of strangers looking after her grandmother monstrous, and volunteers to move in and look after Edna herself. It’s a touching gesture, but as Edna’s erratic behavior continues, both Kay and Sam begin to wonder if something else is plaguing their loved one.  

Is there a more sinister explanation for what’s happening to Edna or are both Sam and Kay just desperate to deny reality? 

Tense, stunning and incredibly moving, Relic is a master allegory for the horrible, unavoidable things we inherit from our loved ones. Do we cherish the relics our family leaves us or do we pretend they don’t exist until we’re forced to deal with them? Co-writer/director Natalie Erika James offers a stunning feature debut with this atmospheric horror movie.  

James’ film doesn’t have a traditional monster—it’s much scarier than some guy in a hockey mask. If you’re hoping for a knife-wielding maniac or demon, Relic will likely disappoint. The villain of James’ film is mental decay, and the horror derived is from watching the person you love slowly rot away. As such, this is a horror film that doesn’t employ the hackneyed tricks of the genre. Relic doesn’t have any jump scares or loud music cues. James instead slowly builds the tension between the three women at the center of the film. The creeping sense of dread fills every room as the women wander the halls.  

The house is a metaphor for Edna’s decaying mental state. Black mold creeps up the walls, staining both the woman and the drywall. Edna tells Kay that she stays in the house because it holds all her memories. But the house is falling apart, walls peeling and random piles of family photos and memories covered by years of dust. Edna is lost in the walls of her own home, muttering to herself as she tries to find her way.  

The stress of the situation is brilliantly executed as well. The sound design is filled with odd rumbling noises and high-pitched squeals. The house seems alive, creaking as it closes in around the women. The black mold that stains the house begins creeping onto Edna’s body as well, changing her body and making her into something Kay and Sam don’t recognize. It’s a beautiful, devastating metaphor for loving a person who is deteriorating mentally. 

At the heart of the film is the relationship between the generations. As the matriarch, Nevin gives a heartbreaking performance. Edna is a vibrant, funny woman at times, but as night falls, she becomes a muttering, still creature that haunts the halls. Though she tries to display a brave front for her daughter and granddaughter, she’s clearly terrified of whatever is happening to her.  

As Edna’s guilt-ridden daughter, Mortimer shines. Kay had a complicated relationship with her mother and she’s spent years trying to avoid acknowledging the changes in Edna. But now she fears that she’s done real harm to her mother. Her increasing stress and helplessness drive the film.  

Moving, creepy and ultimately a brilliant parable, Relic is a wonderful debut film from a fascinating new filmmaker. Though not scary in the classical sense, there is some palpable terror at the root of James’ movie. Sometimes the scariest thing to face is the harsh reality of life.  

Relic is available for rental via Amazon Prime for $7.  

Excellent Horror * R * 89 mins.